Q&A: SheSays Cofounder Alessandra Lariu on Bringing More Women into the Ad World

September 27, 2017

By Conor Risch

© Lem Lattimer

Panelists at a SheSays event. “I think the events are very special,” says co-founder Alessandra Lariu. Most conferences are “all about the big keynote speakers,” says Lariu, but SheSays events, which are all free, are aimed towards early and mid-career women.

Photographers serve a number of industries with their work, which makes diversity in the photo industry dependent on diversity in other businesses, such as advertising. If women and minorities are passed over for leadership roles at ad agencies, and if top creatives don’t hire women or minority photographers at the same rate they hire white males, then women and minorities will continue to face a more difficult path to building their commercial photography careers.

SheSays, a global network for women in the creative industry—freelance photographers included—is one of the organizations pushing for gender diversity in the creative industry. Founded in 2007 by Alessandra Lariu and Laura Jordan Bambach, SheSays holds talks, conferences and networking events, and connects women creatives with mentors. In the decade since it was founded, SheSays has grown to include an estimated 40,000 members in 14 countries and 40 cities around the world. SheSays has created more than 500 events, and has found mentors for hundreds of women.

PDN recently spoke with Lariu, who was a group creative director at McCann prior to starting her own consultancy, and who also serves on the leadership committee of the Art Directors Club’s Let’s Make the Industry 50/50 Initiative, which maintains a directory of leading women in the creative industry, giving the lie to anyone who claims that they can’t find female talent to hire. We asked Lariu about gender diversity in the advertising industry; about what has improved since SheSays was founded and what still needs to be done; and about how women photographers can get involved with this award-winning group.

© Lem Lattimer

Alessandra Lariu. © Lem Lattimer

Alessandra Lariu
Creative Director and Co-Founder

PDN: What about being a woman in the creative industry has changed in the decade since you and Laura founded SheSays?
Alessandra Lariu: When Laura and I started in 2007, there were very few women on boards of directors of companies, in senior positions at companies, judging creative awards or speaking at creative conferences. And this is the reason Laura and I met—we met at a conference where we were the only women on the jury. Now there are more women in positions of leadership and also speaking at conferences and judging awards, but there should be more. Way more. We’re not close the 50/50 ratio yet.

PDN: As women have gained positions of leadership and more conversations about gender diversity have happened in the advertising industry, has the mission of SheSays changed?
AL: No, absolutely not. The founding principles still stand. When we founded SheSays, we wanted to do something that didn’t exist. All women’s initiatives at the time were for senior women who had to pay a lot of money [to participate] and they didn’t have a say. So we wanted to be the opposite of that. Everything that we do is absolutely free, so there are no barriers to entry, not even financial barriers to entry. And all the events that we put together are things that the members suggest, so there is no committee deciding what SheSays is going to do. The members decide and shape what SheSays is going to do.

PDN: Which SheSays programs and initiatives have been the most effective?
AL: I think the events are very special because we give a voice
to women who otherwise wouldn’t have had a voice. When you think about women’s conferences, they’re all about the big keynote speakers, right? Whereas we think that the power of our collective intelligence is more interesting than our individual intelligence. Promoting [early and mid-career] women, rather than focusing on senior women—not to say that we haven’t done that—but I think promoting women who never had a voice before is very effective. Ours were probably the first-ever events that many women who are senior right now spoke at. And then in terms of the mentorship—I see this every day, and it makes me happy when someone who was an intern when we started mentoring
them is now a creative director.

PDN: How do women photographers get involved with SheSays?
AL: You can just sign up to be a member. It’s free. Any of the 40 cities where we have a presence, you can sign up, ask to be a speaker, suggest topics. [You can] start a SheSays [group] in your city. All of those things. Support the cause. There is a huge freelancer group inside SheSays, because SheSays is a great group for networking, and a lot of people get jobs when they come to the events and meet other people. So we have a huge pool [of freelancers], especially in New York, that are SheSays members.

PDN: What needs to happen to continue improving gender diversity in the creative industry?
AL: When it comes to leadership positions [within the industry] it’s a SheSays mission and a personal mission: There need to be more perspectives on the table, there need to be different ways of looking at things, there need to be different ways of leading, there need to be different ways of creating, there need to be different ways of [looking] at narrative and…expressing ourselves. It’s all been very one-sided so far. So there need to be more perspectives, especially in leadership positions. That is a big thing that needs to change.

© Bronac McNeill

From left, Charney Magri of RISE, SheSays co-founder Laura Jordan Bambach, Voice of a Woman founder Maureen Bryan and Lizi Hamer of Octagon, at VOWSS, the film festival presented by SheSays and Voice of a Woman to honor women directors at Cannes. The goal was “showcasing the great work that [women] are doing,” says Lariu. © Bronac McNeill

PDN: A handful of major clients—including General Mills, Verizon and HP—recently told their agencies that they need to improve gender and racial diversity among their employees, or the clients will take their business elsewhere. If more clients do this, do you think it will make a big difference?
AL: Client demand will help. But also, there needs to be a systemic change inside agencies. Client demands can only go so far if the agency leadership team is not really behind this. What happens inside most agencies is not diversity, it’s tokenism, [where agencies say] “We’re going to hire this one person, box checked,” and nothing else changes. This is wrong. The whole agency needs to be behind diversity.

And going beyond hires, we need the right work conditions for diverse hires. In the case of women, another initiative that we help with [is] the Parental Pledge. Women sometimes don’t go back to work after maternity leave because it’s a disaster out there for new parents. Parents get very little time to stay with their newborns when actually it’s been proven by Harvard University that the first year of these kids’ lives influences the overall GDP of a country. We need deep, systemic changes to the way we hire and the way we work. It’s not just one box checked. Are you giving [women], and all your other employees by the way, conditions for them to flourish in their work?

We are all responsible for this. Not just clients. It’s all of us, it’s organizations like SheSays, it’s also the press. There should be no excuse for people saying, “I don’t know any [women].” It’s all of us rallying to say here are the [outstanding women you can hire].

PDN: In your experience, do women in the advertising industry want to hire and help other women?
AL: Most of the ones I know do. I have heard positive stories of women being more than a mentor but real sponsors for other women. These [stories] exist more than the negative stories which sometimes you hear, which is women going against women. I have experienced the optimistic and positive way of doing it rather than the negative.

PDN: This year, SheSays partnered with Voice of a Woman to launch a film festival honoring women at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity. What led to the creation of Voice of a Woman Film Festival?
AL: It’s essential [to have events such as this]. My cofounder Laura put this very well: The conversation that’s happening at Cannes is about women’s issues, but there is nothing actually showcasing the great work that they are doing, and we wanted to do that. We wanted to say look at all these women and look at their work, rather than just talking about women’s issues.

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