“I’ve made a habit of chasing the impossible problem." Elle McCarthy, Vice President of Brand at Electronic Arts, is laying out the guiding force of her marketing career. McCarthy, who was talking as part of the Game Changers interview series in partnership with global talent consultancy for the creative industries, The Blueprint, is a powerful example of the talent and clear-thinking which can be unlocked when companies hire on potential.
McCarthy, an IPA Women of Tomorrow winner delivered a landmark talk on gendered linguistics at the 3% conference in 2018, has a strong track record forged on the agency side. In an industry in which even the most senior women often believe that self-editing is a necessary sacrifice at the altar of career progression, she has notably built her brand on speaking her mind.
After a stint as Strategy Partner at BBH London she moved to the US to take up the role of EVP planning at BBDO New York, before shifting client side to Electronic Arts.
She is refreshingly honest about the journey that brought her to her current position, explaining: “I think it's important to acknowledge that right at the beginning of my career I didn't really feel like I was making choices. I describe that period as a series of happy accidents.”
Yet, she is equally clear that as a woman entering the industry over a decade ago, she also faced a lot of unhappy circumstances. As she explains: “I’ve left jobs with nowhere to go because I was being asked to pick up the phones, because I was a woman despite being hired as a strategist. I’ve left jobs because I’ve been sexually harassed by the CEO. So often I have felt like I haven't really been making the choice and I think that it's important to acknowledge that as someone in a position of leadership now.”
Her message to the next generation is a nuanced one, as in the wake of a global pandemic the notion that any woman facing bias, discrimination or harassment can simply leave is an intrinsically privileged position to be in. Yet, her message remains fundamentally one of hope, as she adds: “For those people out there who don't feel like choice is available to them, which is obviously much worse for people of colour, particularly women of colour. You can overcome those circumstances and get to a place where you are making more choices and more decisions.”
"I’ve left jobs with nowhere to go because I was being asked to pick up the phones, because I was a woman despite being hired as a strategist. I’ve left jobs because I’ve been sexually harassed by the CEO."
Having to find the ability to overcome these challenging circumstances; career-blockers and outright discrimination and harassment should not be barriers that any person in the industry ever has to face. Yet, nonetheless McCarthy not only overcame these circumstances; but they also lit a fire under her own outlook and activism.
She says that she built her career on chasing big problems. An impossible pursuit, supported by the faith of the people she worked with and for.
“I have made a habit of chasing the impossible problems, looking for people who will hire me for my ideas and my potential. Rather than necessarily for my experience,” she explains. It's this personal investment which powered her career forward. She shares how Crystal Rix, who is now global chief marketing officer at BBDO New York, backed and hired McCarthy despite being told she was ‘an unproven entity.’
It was a faith which paid off; with Ford Motor Company moving from WPP to Omnicom after 75 years. A ‘wild ride’ of a pitch which McCarthy had immediately put her hand up to work on.
Being drawn to impossible problems is also what led McCarthy to Electronic Arts, alongside a desire to work client side. Her career journey has brought her to a place in which she is comfortable in not knowing all the answers.
“In all of these things I have learnt that what I can uniquely bring is that I can sit in the discomfort of my imposter syndrome,” she explains. “ I have been called an unproven entity. I have been called risky. I’ve had people that find me threatening, publicly call me a fraud in businesses,”
“I am willing to say that I am making this up as I go along and I don't trust anyone who won't admit that,” she adds. “I don’t trust people who say I have the solution, this is my proprietary model because honestly marketing is moving way too fast for anyone to really not think we are not making it up as we go along.”
A speed of change which means she not only owns her own imposter syndrome, but encourages her team to do the same.
"I don’t trust people who say 'I have the solution, this is my proprietary model' because honestly marketing is moving way too fast for anyone to really not think we are not making it up as we go along."
The positive impact of this collective and the 3% movement was also important for McCarthy when she was struggling with the industry’s response, or lack thereof, to sexual harassment.
"I felt very angry and disappointed by the advertising Times Up movement. I felt very let down by some of the senior women in our industry in the way they showed up in that moment. It kind of perpetuated white feminism. There was a lot of narrative [which focused] around 'I didn't experience this', 'I don't see this', or 'this didn't happen on my watch',” she explains.
McCarthy is clear on the harsh, yet all too often unspoken reality for many leaders across the industry; that namely “we don't know what happened on our watch”. Notably, the reason why she has chosen to speak openly is rooted in her own desire to ensure people feel able to tell her what's happening on her watch.
According to McCarthy there was a real lack of understanding of the ways in which what she terms 'second rate white feminism' can play into patriarchal systems. She explains: “A lot of white women have had a lot of success by assimilating into the male patriarchy, therefore that's going to be really problematic for other women, women of colour, trans women. Anyone who is more oppressed.” In essence this whole ‘fake it to you make it’ ‘lean in’ brand of white feminism is intensely problematic.
"I felt very angry and disappointed by the advertising Times Up movement. I felt very let down by some of the senior women in our industry in the way they showed up in that moment."
McCarthy brings both practical and personal understanding to how to create the best conditions for diverse talent to thrive. From dialling down the hierarchy to leveraging people’s side hustles she is full of practical advice to leaders.
At the heart of this advice is a drive to create working environments where people can really be themselves. She explains: “I’ve gone to work for people who are willing to hire the whole of me. I am very vocal about a lot of things that people feel are difficult, but I want to create a space where people can bring their whole selves to work,” she explains.
In practice this means leaning into people’s activism and creating a culture of trust from the very start. To this end she has developed a unique, simple interview process where she takes potential talent on a journey of where the team has been as well as asking them what they think the job is and where they would start. An approach which enables her to see if they are comfortable with ambiguity.
“We’ve made it very cool for people to say that they like change,” she adds, noting the irony that this very conversation is happening as part of the ‘Game Changers’ series. “But the reality is lots of people don't like change”. McCarthy believes good businesses need both types of people - the change-makers comfortable with ambiguity alongside the ‘steadying people’ who can deliver against very long, slow and deliberate strategies.
"I don't think they necessarily want our yellow pencils and our Cannes Lions and our systematic oppression."
Long, slow and perhaps ineffective policies are not top of her agenda when it comes to delivering inclusivity at scale to the creative industries. Pointing to the ‘shocking’ decision to pause gender pay gap reporting in the UK in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis which was disproportionately impacting women, she believes pay gap reporting - for gender and ethnicity is vital. She notes that there needs to be a financial mandate for businesses to become more inclusive.
The industry must also adapt at speed to the innovation of the next generation of creators, redefining creativity with a swipe of their thumb. As she explains: “We as the creative industries need to understand how under threat we are. I think the next generation is going to go to another space to redefine what the creative industry looks like.”
She continues: “I don't think they necessarily want our yellow pencils and our Cannes Lions and our systematic oppression. So if you think about who are the creatives of tomorrow they are your 13 year old daughter who already has a savings account with £100,000 in it because she is killing it on Roblox. If she was to hear my story she would say OK cool I'm going to be a Tick Tocker I don’t need you.”
It's a state of play which she believes means the creative industries need to think more critically about the market context within which they are operating. As she explains: “The responsibility [for the industry] is about creating the space and paving the way for this generation to disrupt the industry.” A path, which is being paved by the honesty and straight-talking of leaders like McCarthy who are systematically dismantling the barriers and bias between the next generation of creative talent and the diverse and inclusive industry needed to attract, promote and retain them.