When media first reported Catherine Harris' appointment as the managing director of TBWA Auckland, the response was swift.
"Don't do it!" screamed comment after comment on trade magazine blogs, delivering a less-than-subtle warning that the role might involve a few more uncomfortable moments.
These warnings also extended to conversations she had with industry friends, with most suggesting that TBWA was an advertising agency on the way down.
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Harris didn't listen, instead trusting her gut and taking the risk on what would be the biggest job of her career so far.
"I knew it was going to be challenging, but I didn't know the true status of the agency in New Zealand, which, looking back, I think was helpful," Harris tells the Herald, holding back a nervous laugh.
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Earlier this month, just shy of three years after taking on the role, Harris has been elevated to chief executive officer of the agency – making her the only woman in New Zealand at a major network ad agency to hold that title.
Looking back her decision to first join the fray, Harris admits she was a bit concerned about picking up the reins at the edge of the glass cliff – the term often used for executive roles given to women at businesses on the verge of a sharp drop.
"It is statistically true that women are more likely to get opportunities when a business is in dire shape and there are complications around that," she says.
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"Having said that, where any leader has made a big jump quickly, it's been because they've been willing to take a risk where others wouldn't. This could mean they've taken a role someone else wasn't prepared to take, they've accepted a pay cut someone else wasn't prepared to accept, or they've taken on business that someone else wouldn't take."
Harris' advice for anyone out there faced with a similarly tough choice when it comes to accepting a difficult gig is to "run with it".
"Yes, it's going to be hard, but look at it as an opportunity to double down with a degree of freedom."
Since she took over at TBWA, an air of stability has returned to the agency – and the global overlords seem to have noticed, investing in the company and giving Harris a relatively decent leash to hire talent she identified as a good fit for the business.
Her first big coup was nabbing respected operator Shane Bradnick to lead the creative team and she has since followed that up by hiring executive creative director Guy Roberts.
Her aim in making these big hires, she says, is to get the Auckland office back to being respected as the edgy shop known around town as "the disruption agency".
It's a strategy that seems to be working, with the agency winning the 2degrees account at the end of last year and recently delivering a delightfully quirky ad campaign for ANZ featuring a ram called Mr Humfreez.
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Harris says this is only the start and that there will be more to announce in the coming months, as projects steadily developed behind the scenes start coming to fruition.
'It shouldn't matter'
Advertising is already a notoriously competitive and cynical industry, but Harris faces the added pressure of sticking it out as the solitary female among the band of brothers.
And though the industry may have come a long way since the Don Drapers of the world watered down their whiskey with a splash of sexism, Harris says that she still feels an added sense of responsibility as an executive in the creative industry.
"It shouldn't matter, but of course it does," she says.
"If you're representing possibilities for people who haven't seen possibilities in a long time then that does add a greater weight."
While there are women in leadership roles at independent media agencies, the last boss at one of the major creative agencies was Nicky Bell, who left Saatchi & Saatchi NZ in 2016 to take on a role in Los Angeles.
"The representation just isn't there at the big comms agencies," says Harris. "That's particularly important because what we make influences how people think about and see the world. And if we don't have a broad enough group of people at the table truly making decisions, not just participating at an account manager level, then that's problematic."
Harris pauses here and then proceeds to point to the personal limitations of her perspective.
"I'm one lens on diversity, and it's a lens that's gender related. That's not enough. We need to think more broadly than that," she says.
She says that for cultural and gender diversity to really find its place at the ad agency executive table, it's going to take an enormous amount of self-reflection from those now in charge. This will involve becoming aware of biases, however, subtle they might be, and doing whatever's required to ensure that determines how agencies evolve in the coming years.
She argues that this kind of self-reflection won't only benefit minorities and women, but could also help men to cope with the challenges that come with leadership.
"Men in leadership positions feel an enormous amount of pressure too. It's just not talked about. I think we'd be in a healthier position for both men and women if we spoke about how hard leadership can be and the toll that can take on people. If we were more open about that in general, that would make for a much more constructive conversation.
"And that's a conversation we need to have."