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Interview to Susan Westre

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Jul
14,
2011
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As you know, Cannes Lions 2011 was held recently and the best female creative director have met in this festival. Kat Gordon has been there and she was able to talk with Susan Westre, Creative Director at Ogilvy.

Kat Gordon is Creative Director at Maternal Instinct, a California agency that specializes in marketing to moms. As founder of the upcoming 3% Conference in San Francisco, Kat’s mission is to highlight the business value of having more than 3% female representation at the Creative Director level.

The complete interview is here:

About Susan Westre
Westre is a Worldwide Creative Director at Ogilvy, working from both their New York and Paris offices. She is one of the creative forces behind IBM’ s Smarter Planet campaign and many other award-winning technology campaigns over the years. Her agency won 60 Lions, the second-most wins by any agency present.

How was Cannes?
Great. The highlight for me was hearing Patti Smith talk. I have been a fan of hers for years and am glad to see her back out in the public eye after a long hiatus. If you haven’ t read her book Just Kids, I highly recommend it. She knew everyone: Allen Ginsberg, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Mapplethorpe, Janis Joplin, and so many people important to music and art. She really was the first woman I can remember who lived her life the way she chose with no apologies. That was truly unusual in the day when she burst onto the scene.

How you came to your current role at Ogilvy Paris?
I was working in the Los Angeles office of BBDO on Apple, and was transferred to the Paris office of BBDO to run Apple Europe. A year later I transitioned to the IBM business at Ogilvy, heading up the EMEA division. That was 15 years ago.

Did you speak French?
No. In fact, almost all our business is conducted in English so my French still isn’ t great. I have a very international team, with creatives from France, Italy, Sweden, Ireland and the UK.

Do you see many women in senior roles in advertising in France?
Not really. Ogilvy Paris is one of the exceptions, but generally, women aren’ t as respected or encouraged as men here. I would say 90% of the Creative Directors here are men. In a way, I sidestepped this issue by being transferred here already in a senior role.

What about motherhood? How does that impact career movement here?
France is very pro-children. They offer generous maternity leave that begins six weeks before your due date and which gets even more generous with each subsequent child. At one point in my department, I had four art directors out on maternity leave at the same time, including one who was on bed rest beginning at eight weeks since she was pregnant with triplets. It makes it very hard on a manager to hire, not knowing if a large portion of her department will be there or – if they are on leave – when, or if, they will come back.
When my daughters were born, I was back after two weeks, because my job demands were high and my husband was available to be a stay-at-home parent. So I never took advantage of the maternity leave policy in France.

That’s interesting. In the U.S., families complain about the lack of maternity support for families. Yet it sounds like being so pro-family – in combination with less upward movement for women –might make women bow out of the advertising world for extended periods, or perhaps for good.
Yes, I’ ve seen many women kind of disappear from the advertising world after the birth of their children.

Are you sometimes the only woman in the room during meetings or presentations?
Sometimes. More than that, I’ m aware that I’ m usually the oldest person – by 10 to 15 years – in the room. There was an agency person here in France who publicly declared he would not hire creatives over 40. You could never say that in the U.S. You might think it, but no one would offer that as a public quote. I don’ t see my age as a drawback. I bring a level of life experience to the business that someone far younger just doesn’ t possess yet.

And the women we just spoke about, who take years off when their children are small, are
likely over the age of 40 when they would want to return to work. So if ageism is a reality in France, that becomes another barrier for women?
Yes. Again, I was lucky to arrive in France already in a senior role and to have the support of my husband at home so I could continue that level of responsibility, even after I became a mother.

How do you manage the juggle of working motherhood?
My husband has always been a stay-at-home Dad, raising our two girls. That allows me to focus on my work in a way I couldn’ t if he were working, too. We refer to my job at home as “ The Big Job” and we all benefit in different ways from it. For me, I love the travel. The girls know that my job enables their private schooling and our home in Paris and country home in Normandy where we spend weekends. It works for us. When I think about other women I know who have achieved great success in advertising or other creative fields, many of them aren’ t married or don’ t have children. I feel lucky to have a fulfilling career
and to be a mother.

What is the hardest thing about working in advertising?
The inability to plan your life. You can know well in advance about an important event like a family wedding and you can communicate that to your agency. Yet somehow it inevitably seems that you will be needed in a very urgent way when that event approaches. I have had to miss many important events or change my plans more times than I care to remember over the years. My friends know that a dinner date is always tentative until the day of.

What’ s crazy is that if you look at another industry – like that of a doctor – they have far more control. They have scheduled surgeries and set hours when they are on call. People who are saving lives have more control over their schedules than people who are creating advertising. We aren’ t saving lives, yet we’ re giving up control of our own lives in service to the business.

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