Caring is the word that first comes to mind when reflecting on my meeting with Laurie Young, CEO of Ogilvy & Mather. She has a strong handshake and a big smile. Not pretentious, rather a combination of thoughtful and spirited.
We met to discuss the #MeToo campaign in Canada and the role women leaders must take to bring about social change.
Young’s office is orderly and functional. In jeans and a blouse, she is relaxed and open. She told me about her family – two kids, aged 24 and 28, and her husband of 30 years (a rarity in the media industry). She describes him as “amazing” and explains that his hero status comes from his consistent and unwavering support through all the ups and downs in her career – “the cancelled vacations and 2 am talks.”
Laurie graduated with an Arts degree and was immediately attracted to a job in advertising, where she found the commercial and creative successes appealing. “I could use my creative side but it also fed my competitive side. And I was constantly meeting interesting people.” The advertising industry is all about building relationships and it is obvious that she enjoys getting to know people, but this isn’t what drives her. “Others would say I am driven by success, and I am competitive, so I’d have to say they are right.”
I asked Young about the gender balance in the advertising industry. She explained that the industry still has men dominating board positions, but she’s hopeful it will change as more women gain leadership roles. Laurie spoke about a week-long conference Ogilvy held in Saville – their “creative cadre” – a meeting for their top offices from around the world to share their current campaigns. Each office presented their campaigns on stage and when it was Young’s turn to present, she decided to go off script… and focus on the fact that it was International Women’s Day. Her speech began “What has struck me today is the number of campaigns about domestic violence, sexual harassment and gender equality that have been presented from around the world, but especially from India, South Africa and Indonesia. On the eve of International Women’s Day, we should not only celebrate great work, but we should strive to ensure that these campaigns make it to market and that they change attitudes and behaviours, so that fewer of these are needed in the future.” The room was silent for a few very long seconds, but then one woman, followed by another began to clap and then the entire room suddenly broke out in applause.
Young isn’t afraid to lead on tough issues like sexual harassment and gender equality. She acknowledged that her industry still has a long way to go when it comes to gender equality and admits her desire to break down the barriers. As CEO of Ogilvy she hosts networking events for her women clients that are specifically designed to help them develop leadership skills.
We talked about how society still expects women to dismiss sexual harassment and assault, how women are still blamed if they speak out about it. I asked Laurie to tell me about some of her #MeToo experiences. She remembered a time she was sitting in a boardroom full of her colleagues (mostly men). She had just landed a big client and was excited to share the news with them until one man joked that her male client signed on because he “wanted” her. Laurie remembered her raw anger and the snickering from all of her colleagues.
When I asked her if she had ever been groped, Young remembered a time years ago when she was 16 and backpacking. She was travelling by bus and had picked out a window seat. As she settled in a hand from behind her slipped in between the window and her body, grabbing her breast. She remembered her anger, jumping up and yelling at the man while people tried to calm her down. She remembered that the colour of the seats on the bus were blue. Our conversation touched on emotional moments and how they seem to embed themselves into your memory. To what extent do these embedded memories of harassment or assault cause women to lose confidence, hesitate, or pull back from experiencing the world fully? Young didn’t view her sexual assault as a #MeToo moment because she didn’t hide the experience, rather she had the courage to turn on the man and expose his actions. And that is what the #MeToo movement is about – women finding courage to expose men who behave badly.
Laurie Young has the courage to face adversity with confidence and grace. And whatever her next challenge might be, I know she will rise to it with a twinkle in her eye.