A Clear Vision

This is the advice Tamara Ingram, global CEO of J. Walter Thompson offers young women in advertising today:

  1. Have a vision for yourself.
  2. Tell someone, because by telling someone you make it real.
  3. Take people with you. You can’t be a leader if you haven’t got people following you.
  4. Leave people feeling a little bit better after you’ve met them than before.
  5. Put the work and the job before yourself. It sounds old fashioned, but play the ball and not the man. That means you are focusing on the work and the client and the consumer and the brand, and not yourself.

Everything else is easy, she says.

The global CEO of J. Walter Thompson, who was in Dubai recently for a global meeting, followed these rules herself when she first started out in the industry at Saatchi & Saatchi in London in the 1980s. She was later to become that agency’s CEO in 1995, at a time when there was much less drive than today towards gender equality in the advertising industry.

“Was I held back [by being a woman]? Yes. Did I find it tough? No,” she says. “I’ve always been very clear at different stages about what I wanted to do. I always say to people that if you have a very clear vision about what you want to do, even if things hold you back they don’t get in your emotional and mental way. I was clear I wanted to be a CEO of a local office, which I was. Nothing got in my way.”

However, she adds: “I didn’t get it first time around, and it is fair to say that the person who told me that – I’m not going to go into it – said it wasn’t helped that I was a woman.”

However, the industry is changing, and it is a recognised challenge, and a mission of many, to get as many women as men into positions of equal power within agencies.

Ingram has a basic rule. “I’m very simple,” she says. “Wherever we live, we need to represent the community at all levels.”

She moved into the top job at JWT in March 2016, taking over from Gustavo Martinez a week after the agency’s chief communications officer Erin Johnson accused him of racism and sexism. Prior to that, Ingram had been heading WPP’s client teams, the cross-agency ‘horizontal’ groups that service the world’s biggest advertising holding company’s biggest multinational clients.

Ingram admits there still aren’t enough women in senior roles within agencies.

“I go back to my simple premise in life: until it’s 50:50 it’s never enough,” she says. “We are working very hard to make change,  but it isn’t easy.” The process is taking longer than she would like, with time the most frustrating factor.

“We are very good at recruiting and bringing women in, and we have been particularly good in this area of enabling women to do well in terms of leadership, especially here [in the MENA region],” she says. “It’s just a case of getting the numbers, and that takes time. I thought it would be faster to get to the answer, and I’ve realised it’s a bit harder.”

It is tough to change existing jobs and the profile of an agency, Ingram admits. But J. Walter Thompson has a diversity and inclusion council, and uses anonymous recruiting techniques so those assessing candidates don’t know details such as the applicants’ race or gender. And the diversity drive runs evendeeper than this.

“People mistake diversity for men and women, but we need divergent thinking,” she says. “People from different backgrounds, people from different spirits, people from different jobs, not always everyone from universities.”

JWT has a Jump Start programme, which opens up internships to students from any background. It is already running in Beirut, Dubai, Hong Kong, London, Melbourne, New York, Sao Paulo and Sydney, and will be expanding further.

“It is about enabling not just women, but people who come from different industries to intern with us,” says Ingram. “They could be musicians, architects, product designers or whatever, and they can see whether they like being in advertising.”

It’s been an effective tool for recruiting, she says.

The agency also has the Helen Landsdowne Resor scholarship. Named after the industry’s first female creative, who joined JWT in 1908, the scholarship supports young female creatives in the final year of their degree course. It provides tuition fees, a paid internship, mentorship and consideration for full-time work.

Since the scholarship was introduced to mark JWT’s 150th anniversary in 2014, two women from the region have won, both students of the American University of Sharjah. In 2015, Rawan Obeid, a student of multimedia design, won it, and in 2016 it was awarded to Tasneem Karamallah, majoring in art direction.

JWT also has an internal leadership programme for women, which aims both to teach skills and to instil confidence in potential female managers.

A delegation from the Middle East went to Ingram’s sessions in Europe last year, and she says: “The quality and commitment of the women in the region is absolutely fantastic. They came and they made a huge impact on the culture. We had Western European and Middle East women, and the strength of character of our team from Beirut, Saudi and the UAE shone through.”

In comparison to the women from Europe, she describes the delegation from MENA as “more confident, more engaged in the industry, and more committed”. She adds: “There was a positive energy. I haven’t quite understood why, but I think it comes out of being much more youthful. Despite the geopolitical issues there is a sense of growth, a sense of can-do that affected all of us deeply.”

She suggests two further reasons: the regional leadership of Roy Haddad, director of WPP MENA and chairman of JWT MEA; and “the nature of the resilience” within the region. “This has meant there is commitment and feistiness and a depth of learning, as well as a commitment to go for it,” she says.

The longest-serving employee of J. Walter Thompson is a woman. Ginny Bahr, who has worked in several departments and now sits in the expenses section of the New York office, has worked with the agency since 1951 – even before the Mad Men era.

“That’s the marvellous thing about companies, that I can never get over,” says Ingram. “One should never forget that these wonderful companies that we work for produce employment, give life, and create great jobs. When you see someone who has been in a company for more than 60 years, you think it’s a great privilege to be the global CEO of that company.”

The question, then is: what makes people stick with a company?

“The only reason people stay is if you have a great culture, you produce extraordinary work and you enable everyone to flourish,” says Ingram. “Anyone and everyone needs to be heard.”

People are at work because they have a point of view, she adds. “If they do not have a point of view – whatever the job, wherever they come from, whatever they do – they shouldn’t be part of the job. We expect people to partake, to have a point of view and to create the future.”

This is a shift from when Ingram started working at Saatchi & Saatchi in the 1980s. “My first job was to put pads on the table, and a nice pencil pointing the right way and to serve coffee and tea,” she says.

“Now everyone has a chance of a point of view, and I think that’s great. Actually, digitisation has really enabled people of every level to come in and have a point of view and change the work they do for the better, which I think is great.”

J. Walter Thompson’s CEO has advice on how to enable and encourage that contribution:

  1. Identify work that people feel responsible and empowered to deliver, and that can make a difference. That isn’t always easy, but that is the task of someone who is leading a team: to make sure people on their team have a role.
  2. New technology means it is surprising how fast people contribute in analytics, in social listening, in ideas, in presentation skills.
  3. Most people feel they have something to say if you enable that voice to be heard. Try to start a meeting by asking the most junior person what they feel. It’s not easy, around experienced people, to speak up, so you have to create a safe environment where people can, and learn to listen well.


“We are in the inspiration job, we are trying to get people to change behaviours,” says Ingram. “If you are in that inspiration job you’d better in turn also be inspirational.”