"I don't want to have any regrets," says advertising executive Louise Bond when asked why she's decided to take a step back after leading one of the nation's biggest media agencies, PHD, for the last two decades.

No stranger to the legendary hours that typify advertising, Bond decided that it was time to shift attention to herself and, more importantly, to her family as she ended her tenure in the industry at the end of last year.

"When we set up PHD [1999], I was pregnant with my first son and he's now 19," she says.

"I can see now that he's not far from leaving home, and I'd like to spend time with him before he leaves home."

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Of course, this was not the only reason she left. After 20 years in the same industry at the same agency, she felt the time was right, not only for her but also for the business.

"I think businesses need a change of leadership," she says, reflecting on how living within the walls of a single business for too long could potentially lead to an executive losing perspective of how much the world was actually changing.

In departing, Bond will be handing over the PHD reins to long-time lieutenant Nicky Grafton, whose current role of acting CEO will likely transition to a permanent position in the coming months.

This comes as a fitting reward for the 15 years of loyalty Grafton has given to the agency.

Subtle sexism

In an industry that has long faced criticism for its treatment of women, Bond has always stood out as a reminder that a woman is more than capable of building a successful agency from the ground up.

But that doesn't mean it was easy.

Pay parity, equal access to opportunities and workplace conduct are just some of the issues that have sparked fierce debate in the industry over the years.

While Bond acknowledges the industry has come a long way since the days when a qualified woman could casually be overlooked for a job, she says there's a more subtle form of sexism playing out across the business community.

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"Things have changed," she says.

"I do wonder in our industry whether what we perhaps struggle with is balancing the realities of the industry with being a working mother."

Bond argues that women should be given the flexibilty to pursue the dual of roles of successful business exec and mother. Photo/Getty Images.
Bond argues that women should be given the flexibilty to pursue the dual of roles of successful business exec and mother. Photo/Getty Images.

She says this comes down to the unwritten expectations, which dictate the difference between a good and bad worker. If workers are taught from their internship days that the most committed staff work long hours, often into the middle of the night, then this creates a culture in which staff become hesitant to leave for fear of being perceived as a clockwatcher.

Bond argues that the knock-on effect of this might be that capable women, who might want to become mothers at some stage, might forgo roles because they understand the expectations that come with those positions.

"I wonder whether that's the tipping point where we're losing our talented female leaders, who aren't putting themselves forward for those more senior roles," Bond says.

"I don't think it's a conscious choice that the industry has demanded on women."

Bond says she believes the advent of flexible working conditions as well as the growing tendency of fathers to take on the primary caregiver role suggest that this too will change over time, but she advises business owners to always remain cognisant of the culture of expectations that they create within their businesses.

'Boozy days'

Alongside the slow swirl of smoke from a suitably phallic cigarette, the whiskey glass has long been an image representative of the advertising industry – and for good reason. Ad folk like to drink.

"I grew up in the early days of advertising, where it was relatively boozy – and yes, I made a few mistakes along the way," Bond recalls.

"But when you get to very senior roles, you have to manage life very well.

"I always remember a coach from many years ago going 'You have to be able to lead yourself before you lead others.' And that's a lot about how you manage drink, yourself and a lot of other things."

Drinking has long been a trope in the advertising industry. Photo/File.
Drinking has long been a trope in the advertising industry. Photo/File.

In the highly creative industry filled with colourful characters who make careers of challenging the status quo, there isn't likely to be much patience for executives who try to police appropriate behaviour.

However, Bond sees a level of self-regulation playing out across advertising.

"There's a generation coming through who still like to party and have a good time, but they recognise the value of wellbeing and health," she says.

A long-time yoga aficionado, Bond was something of an early adopter when it came to mental wellbeing, having introduced a mindfulness programme at her agency a number of years ago.

She says that things that were once perceived as "alternative" have more recently shifted into the mainstream and are now readily adopted even in the most corporate environments.

But this doesn't mean that businesses get to sit back and do nothing when it comes to problem drinking.

"Organisations need to take responsibility," she says.

"We need to be careful as leaders of businesses to not promote a drinking culture. We need to be really good at recognising those who struggle with alcohol and ensuring that we're not putting them at risk in the workplace."

Money problems

Asked to look forward at what she sees as the big issues the industry will have to solve in the coming years, Bond doesn't hesitate before saying "remuneration models".

She says that agencies, particularly those who work with big multi-national clients, often find themselves signing deals that they can't service appropriately.

Remuneration models are often developed abroad, which means they're not suitable for smaller country like New Zealand that lacks sufficient scale to make it work.

"There was a case of a client pitch recently where a client put the holding companies in four different rooms and went from room to room and just went for the lowest price," she says.

"It hurts our industry."

She says it leaves agencies with little choice but to undercharge for their services, which means they often don't have enough money coming in for the agency to effectively do its job.

"You end up in an environment where you can't service the client to the level that they want to, then they get pissed off with you and that's not fair for anyone on the ground," she says.

"It's a real tough one because there's no easy answer at a local level."

Board of bros

In exiting the industry, Bond has also relinquished her seat as the president of the advertising industry body the Communications Council (previously known as CAANZ). She was not only the first woman but also the first media agency boss to hold this position in the history of the organisation.

Bond's departure and the appointment of Starcom boss Alistair Jamison as her successor leaves the Comms Council board - which is meant to be representative of the industry – with only one woman, Lassoo CEO Bridgette Smith.

"Clearly this isn't good enough and we're working to fix this in the short term," says Comms Council chief executive Paul Head.

"However, we are a representative body whose board is made up of members and the longer-term fix is greater diversity of leadership across our members."

The point here is that the tokenism that comes with putting a woman on the board for the sake of better PR is going to do little to ameliorate the broader issues across the industry.

If anything, the Comms Council board serves as a magnified reflection of what leadership looks like at the most influential agencies in the country. Slapping some lip gloss on the mirror isn't going to change the reality of what's standing behind it.

Bond's departure leaves the Comms Council with only one woman on the board. Photo/Getty Images.
Bond's departure leaves the Comms Council with only one woman on the board. Photo/Getty Images.

Real change has to come from within – and, in the time Bond was in charge of the Comms Council, we were given a glimpse of how that change can be led from the top.

Under her watch, the Comms Council conducted research into diversity in the industry, established an 'Inclusiveness and Diversity' group and also called on all member agencies to incorporate diversity policies by the end of the year.

While Bond may leave the Comms Council one woman poorer, the foundations laid during her tenure leave the potential to improve the opportunities of many more.