Partner-level Parity: One Agency That Gets It—and What It’s Getting in Return
A native of Bakersfield, California, Ben Calvert Mason won an undergrad scholarship to study classical voice—only to switch majors upon learning how hard it is to perform Schubert while chewing tobacco. Molded into semi-respectability by the English department, he embarked on a career in advertising. As an agency and in-house creative, he’s served industries as diverse as gaming, life sciences, F&B, and associations—while living in places as diverse as Portland, San Diego, Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee. He is currently Content Director at EPIC Creative. His fiction has recently appeared in New Reader Magazine and Your Impossible Voice, and his baseball team, the Mules, finished the 2019 season 2 – 14.
When Derek Robson joined GS&P, there were eight male partners. That’s not exactly news. Nor is the fact that it would take a decade for women to gain equal footing at the highest level of the agency. What is noteworthy, however, is the degree to which Robson and the company recognized the importance of what was happening—and how thoroughly they documented it.
But let’s start at the beginning: 2006.
Robson’s early years at GS&P were rosy. The agency won massive new business. Took home prestigious awards. Hired loads of people. Opened new offices in Detroit and New York.
“And then... we closed offices in Detroit and New York,” Robson said.
Just like that, momentum shifted. Clients started dropping like flies. Partners soon followed. The octet dwindled to a quartet.
“It was like the Hunger Games,” said Robson, “except with middle-aged white men.”
One could argue that sounds a lot like business as usual, but you get the point.
In any case, the agency continued to stutter along. Financially, said Robson, this period was “unbelievably, gut wrenchingly godawful.”
GS&P 2012 – 2016:
Revenue: - 46%
Profitability: - 60%
There was a rare bright spot in what Robson not-so-affectionately called “The Shitty Years”, GS&P named its first ever female partner: Margaret Johnson.
Still, the agency’s financial performance continued to decline, and turnover spiked accordingly.
GS&P 2012 – 2015
Turnover in agency staff: 35%
To make matters worse, “During this time, we sucked at new business,” said Robson. “We decided in our infinite wisdom to pitch for everything that moved—and I literally mean everything that moved…but we just couldn’t seem to win anything.”
GS&P’s relationships with the clients they already had were faring only marginally better.
GS&P 2012 – 2015 Client to Agency Survey Results
Total agency rating: -10%
Surprisingly, though, agency morale was up.
GS&P 2012 – 2015 Agency Morale
Satisfied with their jobs: +24%
Pride in our work: +41%
For this, Robson credited the talented and loyal people who ran the major disciplines, and the fact that “we still had great people at all levels.” Not surprisingly, then, GS&P continued to win awards. They just couldn’t win new business.
“We knew we needed to bring fresh new perspectives and a new dynamic to the partner group,” said Robson. What’s more, they knew these perspectives had to come from within. From people who were representative of the agency’s makeup and who understood what was happening on the front lines. “Because,” Robson said, “Sure as hell, the four white men didn’t.”
Their long-term approach to managing people paid off at just the right moment. For years, GS&P had been grooming leaders at the level just below partner, taking great care to keep them engaged and connected. “We knew that they represented our future,” said Robson, “and so we wanted to ensure we’d done everything we could to be flexible to their needs.” Case in point: all the people selected to join the partner group in 2016 had become parents while at GS&P, and they’d all been on maternity/paternity leave.
Those people, incidentally, were three women and one man. The gender ratio of the partner group was now 1:1.
“The dynamic in the room when we went to 50/50,” said Robson, “was so different—like so unbelievably different. People were respectful of each other. Problems would be attacked from different perspectives. We were more rigorous. We were less impulsive. There was less groupthink. We’d talk things through and then we’d make decisions. I’ve got to tell you, the energy was pretty electric, and it began to feel fun again.”
And how did things feel in the trenches? According to an employee survey conducted during the partner-group transition, men felt less empowered, and women felt more empowered.
Empowerment: During GS&P Partner-Group Change
A year later, however, both groups felt more empowered—and felt their empowerment to the same degree.
Empowerment: After GS&P Partner-Group Change
“The impact of a balanced leadership on the business,” said Robson, “was transformative.”
For example, GS&P began promoting more women than men.
GS&P Female Department Heads
And they started winning new business—which is no doubt reflected in historically low turnover rates.
GS&P Average Agency-Staff Turnover
2012 – 2015: 35%
2016 – 2019: 18%
Not to mention a dramatic reversal of their financial fortunes.
GS&P 2016 – 2019
Revenue: + 40%
Profitability: + 86%
“So,” asked Robson, “what can we learn from all this?”
He broke it down to four points.
- Diversity and representation in all teams, at all levels, is crucial.
- Give opportunities to, and create flexible work environments for, the next generation
- Concentrate on the basics. Treat people well and with respect.
- If it’s important, measure it—and hold yourself accountable.
During his talk the previous day, Wade Davis had asked the men in the audience what they were willing to sacrifice in the interest of making exactly the type of change Robson described.
Perhaps in response, Robson himself said he’d sacrificed power and money, adding “I wish I’d done it five years earlier.” He concluded with a call to action: “Men, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Just go do it.”
With that, he walked briskly off-stage, passing up the opportunity to linger for a moment and soak in the applause. It makes sense. 2019 may mark the end of the case study, but since GS&P's new model is only three years old, the story has just begun. There's much left to do.