Storytelling has long been the creative industry’s greatest asset. For woven into the stories of the industry is the unique opportunity to influence not just paths to purchase, but redefine what is possible. By offering consumers the opportunity to view the world through a lens other than their own authentic storytelling can elevate, resonate and represent the joy of broadened horizons.
Yet ironically when it comes to the experiences of motherhood in the creative industries itself that lens is punishingly narrow, weighed down by stereotypes and lazy cliches. Whether it’s ‘lean in’ or ‘having it all’ the pendulum swing between defining mothers by what society perceives they cannot do, or simply elevating the unobtainable, the narrative is suffocating.
When so many of the acts of motherhood are entirely wordless it is perhaps no surprise that the stories of game changing mothers succeeding on their own terms in the creative industries can be hard to find. In an industry built upon the multifaceted textures and depth of storytelling; mothers are still depicted in one dimension.
Yet, Jessica Tamsedge, Chief Client Officer at McCann Europe and UK, defies this convention in her stride, explaining that “Change brings new confidence”. Challenging the accepted narrative that maternity leave is the death knell for a burgeoning creative career, Tamsedge shares that motherhood was and remains her superpower. “I believe motherhood and parenthood and any different lived experience is a massive superpower,” she says.
Tamsedge was speaking as part of the Game Changers interview series in partnership with global talent consultancy for the creative industries, The Blueprint. In a thought-provoking and uplifting conversation with The Blueprint’s Managing Partner Geraldine Gaillemin, she beautifully burst the myth that motherhood is a creative fullstop.
I believe motherhood and parenthood and any different lived experience is a massive superpower.
Pointing to the erosion of confidence that many women feel in the wake of maternity leave, Tamsedge explained: “A lot of women feel quite nervous at that point in life.”
Yet, Tamsedge’s experience was entirely different and she spoke eloquently about how motherhood expanded her horizons. Far from motherhood automatically being an experience which shrunk her confidence or commitment to her career it was instead a period of growth and self belief.
Notably, in an industry ecosystem which is all too quick to see motherhood as a problem to be solved, as opposed to a growth opportunity, this new energy was recognised and rewarded. She points to the enduring memory of her then CEO Leo Rayman, who was leading Grey London, telling her: "You just seem like you have more perspective on things” following her return from her first maternity leave. That perspective positively impacted her decision on everything from her view on pressure points day to day to casting teams.
During her second maternity leave she moved to McCann to become Managing Director. At a point in her career in which many women experience a lack of confidence or experience nervousness her experience defied that accepted narrative. As she explains: “I've always had a very healthy sense of wanting to make sure I feel entirely challenged, entirely excited and feeling and being surrounded by new voices.”
While she was ‘utterly terrified’ coming into the role, she shares: “For some reason I had the almost opposite symptom of maternity leave”. Pointing to the erosion of confidence she has seen with people she had worked with, she instead became, what she describes as a ‘strange person in a vacuum’ who believed that anything was possible. This ‘fearless stage’ ignited new conversations about her career, driven by an ethos of ‘why not?’ A narrative which is refreshingly different to the prevailing narrative of imposter syndrome.
Say yes to stuff that scares you a bit and spend time with people different to you.
Change is a state of being that has become the new normal in the wake of the Coronavirus crisis. This love of change is not just empty rhetoric; in January this year when most of us were still grappling with the challenge of working out how to wear clothes other than leggings and reconnect with colleagues in real life Tamsedge was promoted from the role of Managing Director of McCann London to the position of Chief Client Officer of McCann Europe and UK.
It is a role where she is responsible for driving growth for existing clients and clients of the future. While she is clear that her pathway to success wasn't a ‘strategic planned choreographed career pathway’ there is no questioning that her career has been driven by the simple, under-rated act of doing. As she explained: “I have always adopted the attitude that if you are having fun and you are learning then keep doing.”
Her advice is simple, yet nonetheless vital: “Say yes to stuff that scares you a bit and spend time with people different to you.” Notably she is equally clear that spending more, if not equal time working within brands has helped her keep her eyes up and her horizons broad and always thinking that the next thing in her career could take any shape.
“I’ve got a very clear idea and macro sense of where we should all be going,” she explains, adding: “As creative agency partners we are both the most powerful lever for our clients and the marketing departments we work with and also the most vulnerable, because it's quite easy to chop and cut and rethink and in house or take away some of the value from that.”
With this in mind Tamsedge operates with what she describes as a “healthy amount of anxiety” on her shoulders.
Describing her day to day leadership style as ‘quite consultative’ Tamsedge adds that she definitely doesn’t ‘have all the answers’. This outward-looking approach drove her towards her European role, which has exposed her to different leadership styles. “I will definitely defer to hearing more,” she adds.
Sharing that she felt her current role would be more difficult in many ways, it was clear that she has embraced the ambiguity and lack of single P&L which comes with a role outside a single agency brand. She added that in networks and holding companies there is the ‘privilege’ of being exposed to different marketing disciplines, alongside the cultural diversity of being in global groups.
Rather than pinpointing a specific moment or mentor that has powered her career, Tamsedge instead points to the power of ‘constant learning’ from ‘everyone’ she has worked with. Sharing her learnings from McCann she notes that ‘leadership is nothing but energy’. A state of play which means as a leader you need to remain focused on the environment that you are creating. Ensuring both that people can feel proud to have diverse views and constantly push forward.
Sharing the power of passion, she shares the key to a fulfilling creative career: “A healthy dose of curiosity so you can learn from whoever you are working with and properly fall in love with it.”
When it comes to the evolving discussion about how to forge a successful creative career as a mother she takes a nuanced approach; as opposed to the prevailing ‘all or nothing’ game in which arguably, we all lose out. She explains: “I've seen women try to do it all when they come back from maternity leave or just have kids and families and looked at that and gone; ‘It seems hard. Should it all feel possible?’ I've come to a state of realising you have to find compromise in everything,”
As a member of WACL (Women in Advertising and Communications London) and a supporter and mentor for NABS. Tamsedge believes that mentoring is vital to understanding what the next generation of talent really wants.
When it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, she is clear that playing the long game is crucial. She points to the example of Reckitt Benckiser as a brand who really understood the importance of purpose and the need to reorganise their brands around broader societal issues.
With this long game in mind Tamsedge is pursuing what she describes as ‘conscious partnerships’ rather than headlines. Sharing the fact that ultimately the agency is a service and partner to its clients' brands she is focused on driving and amplifying DE&I impact where there is already “intention and investment.”
In short this means identifying the single social impact or DE&I objective of a client and realigning the agency’s own supply chain around that goal. For example with L’Oreal, which is doing work around female empowerment, inclusion and harassment, McCann is looking at working with different production partners and exploring Ad Tech solutions which show up in more responsible media environments.
It is an approach which is refreshingly focused on outcomes, as opposed to one off headlines, or complex matrix structures and complicated frameworks with minimal impact. As Tamsedge notes: “We are at risk of trying to do all of it, too much all the time".
The irony being that this well-worn mantra of ‘having it all’ (or doing it all) is a stick predominantly used to beat working mothers for doing the job men have been doing without judgement since time began; attempting to work, while also having a life. As Tamsedge shows not only is it possible to write a new narrative; but far from being a creative full stop motherhood can be the fuel not just for doing things differently, but fully grasping the joy which comes with pursuing meaningful impact.