As part of our coverage of International Women's Day 2023, Campaign Asia-Pacific is exploring the experiences and journeys of female marketing communications agency start-up entrepreneurs.
These women are breaking barriers in a historically male-dominated industry and advancing gender equality. However, they face unique challenges like the funding gap, gender bias, and societal expectations.
We wanted to hear their stories and insights on navigating these obstacles and what initiatives they have implemented to empower women in the workplace. In addition, we wanted to explore marketing and communications' role in promoting gender equality and breaking down stereotypes.
Here are their stories.
Roshni Mahtani, founder and group CEO of Tickled Media
Roshni Mahtani is the founder and group CEO of Tickled Media, a Southeast Asian-focused media and technology company. The company specialises exclusively in the millennial women market and focuses on market research and insights through research, content creation and Media. It runs women-centric websites such as TheAsianparent.com.
Mahtani explains that she was inspired to start her company after she realised there was a lack of online parenting content related to the Asian context. She feels strongly about the disproportionate burden of parenting responsibilities on mothers in Asia and the lack of female role models in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“When I started TheAsianparent, I had to personally take on all facets of the business—fundraising, content creation, building our website, HR & admin tasks, marketing, events, and sales. And being a young Asian female was already a rough start for me. I attended meetings with 40-something male business owners who couldn’t look me in the eye and would instead direct their questions to junior male employees,” explains Mathani.
“I was both offended and disheartened. I even had to adjust my approach and meet them on their turf, literally—like take them out for drinks, their choice of venue, no matter how seedy the place was. I had to be “one of the boys” to close a deal. In those early years, it was really challenging to sell TheAsianparent, convincing marketers, brands, and investors why they should invest in mothers. Still, eventually, the performance of our platform became enough to speak for itself, and I no longer needed to adjust my image to be taken seriously.”
She also had to adjust her approach to be "one of the boys" to close deals as she says there is a funding gap for women-led start-ups and that female entrepreneurs are asked different questions than male entrepreneurs when pitching.
For example, she says women are asked more questions about potential losses, retention, and risk mitigation, while men are asked more about potential gains, acquisition, and growth. Regarding strategy, women are asked about execution, while men are asked about their vision.
“When I present my business, I discuss my vision and growth projections, the size of the market I want to target and not the share, how I plan to monetise and not how long it’ll take to break even. I focus on my role as an entrepreneur and remove any biases that being a woman, wife, or mother is a handicap to the business,” explains Mahtani
For other women looking to start their own media startups and overcome gender barriers in the industry, Mathani says it’s going to be tough.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat this. You’re not going to sleep, you’re going to face many obstacles, many rejections. But persevere. Believe in yourself and your company; you provide a solid solution to a valid problem. Find supporters who understand your plight and will champion you and the community you’re helping,” she explains.
Pat Law, founder of Goodstuph
As the founder of Singapore-based marketing communications agency Goodstuph, Pat Law is no stranger to the challenges and obstacles faced by women in the industry.
When asked about her experiences of gender bias or discrimination in the field, Law reflects on the objectification of women in car and beer commercials and the more subtle but pervasive biases that still exist today.
“I was at a business dinner where this Asian man in his mid-50s gave my female business partner the snub and spoke almost exclusivity to my male business partner,” says Law.
“The latter gracefully pulled my female business partner back into the conversation because he is progressive like that, but that is true for many women. I have to say, though, for every chauvinistic man raised to be worshipped by his mother, sisters, and wife, there is a decent one like my business partner.”
To address gender inequalities, Law has implemented several initiatives at Goodstuph, including highly flexible working hours for all employees regardless of gender.
She also notes that as a company, it is more important to support and empower everyone regardless of gender. With 50% female management and over 70% female employees, Goodstuph is leading the way regarding gender diversity in the workplace.
“We have highly flexible working hours for mothers, and anyone, regardless of gender, when it comes to family matters. It’s still discrimination if our initiatives are specific to a gender, right? Why can’t a father be the one who needs time off on Wednesdays to pick up his kid from daycare?” Law says.
When asked how she stays ahead of the competition and stands out as a female-led marketing communications agency, Law simply states that she focuses on the work, not the gender. She notes that no client with half a brain would award an agency based on physical attributes.
Law appreciates the increase in female leadership in the marketing communications industry but notes that there is still work to be done to narrow the gender pay gap, especially for senior executives.
When asked for advice for other women looking to start their marketing communications agency and overcome gender barriers in the industry, Law encourages women to "be the woman a man cannot be" and make no apologies for it.
“Like the second coming of rainbow washing and skinny jeans, I’m bracing myself for a month's worth of femadvertising on LinkedIn. We can all do our part in the messaging we put out there as marketers,” Law explains.
“Do we need a scantily-clad woman selling a car at a showroom? Do we need men admiring a woman walking down a flight of stairs to sell shampoo? Must it always be a tired mother by the washing machine? I know many men who share the load too.”
Kimberley Olsen, co-founder of Yatta Workshop
Tapping on her 16 years of experience in the marketing and advertising industry with the likes of Mirum and Vocanic led Kimberley Olsen to see untapped potential and limitations in service offerings and practices related to work ethics and culture.
She knew that starting her own business, the social media-led creative agency Yatta Workshop would allow her to have the final say in clients and create a positive environment for her team.
“When I started Yatta, I chose not to take the investor route, despite having a few offers. I wanted us to be self-sufficient, so timing and planning were essential,” explains Olsen.
“I had a network of clients and contacts with whom I had built solid relationships over the years who were more than happy to support my venture because they knew the type of person I was and believed in me.”
While Olsen had never experienced direct gender discrimination during client pitches or with investors, she did encounter a situation where a client refused to address or acknowledge her because of cultural beliefs.
Olsen calmly reminded the client that they were in Singapore and could leave if he was uncomfortable, which resulted in the project being awarded to her team.
“I had a client of a certain nationality who refused to address or acknowledge me because women do not hold upper management levels in their culture. He would, therefore, only speak to his assistant, who would relay the message without looking at me directly,” says Olsen.
“I politely asked him why he couldn’t speak to me directly (which shocked everyone in the room), to which his assistant explained that he expected a man to represent the company as they do not typically deal with women at this level.”
When asked about balancing the responsibilities of running a business with traditional expectations placed on women, Olsen emphasises that she did not classify these expectations as traditional and instead focused on what matters to her. She makes time for her family, hobbies, and self-care to decompress and recalibrate.
“As a working mother with a 6-year-old kid, I make sure that I am present for the little things that matter - I drop him off and pick him up from school every day and put him to bed every night and spend as much time with him as I can in the evenings and on the weekend,” says Olsen.
“As a daughter, I see, if not, speak to my folks daily. I am blessed with a tight-knit family who has always supported my career and passions, which keeps me motivated.
Marina Mathews, founder and managing director of MM Communications
Aiming to offer the quality of large network agencies with a more personalised approach to client partnerships, Marina Mathews started her agency MM Communications in Singapore in 2020 after stints with W Asia, MSLgroup and Fulford.
Mathews recalls an incident where gender bias impacted a pitch to an aviation company. During the pitch, she was asked about her maternity leave and how her business would be handled in her absence.
Although these questions are openly asked in some regions, Mathews notes they would be deemed discriminatory in other markets such as Australia or the UK. The pitch was ultimately lost to another agency.
“We were one of four agencies pitching to an aviation company that seemed very impressed with our presentation, which we would spend weeks working on,” explains Mathews.
“As we were about halfway through the meeting, one of the c-suite executives joined in and started asking me a ton of questions about what would happen when I went on maternity leave, how long I was going to be away for, who would handle the business while I was away etc.”
This incident prompted Mathews to implement a flexible workplace environment in her company where the needs of her team are prioritised.
The ‘no-questions-asked’ policy has worked well over the years, allowing team members to take time off when needed without explanation. Mathews believes creating a safe space for employees is essential to promote an environment of excellence versus exhaustion.
However, Mathews notes there is still a long way to go regarding gender equality in the marketing communications industry. She says companies must take responsibility for promoting an environment that values and supports their female employees.
Until this is achieved, Mathews warns the industry will continue to lose talented female entrepreneurs and leaders, ultimately harming the industry.
“The industry is improving slowly, but the pay gap still exists. I have seen many male peers on higher salaries than their female counterparts. It is shocking to think we’re in 2023 and still have not gotten that right,” explains Mathews.
“We need to walk the talk. How often are we sprouting advice to our clients and even promoting their good work, yet internally, we haven’t got our act together?”
Uma Rudd Chia and Kylee Vowles, co-founders of Kvur
Female entrepreneurs Uma Rudd Chia and Kylee Vowles, co-founders of Kvur, are determined to shake up the marketing communications industry with diverse ideas that speak to a broader range of audiences.
According to Chia, the industry has been dominated by old-school and white male perspectives, leading to a lack of diversity in the ideas. As a result, their agency brings diverse ideas from various cultures to the table, enriching the industry.
“It is ironic that most target audience or ‘purchase’ decision-makers are women, especially for beauty, fashion, lifestyle, and FMCG products. Advertising for a long time has targeted a specific type of men when the target audience is diverse people – mainly women. We need diverse ideas that speak specifically to them to target them,” says Chia.
“We started our agency to bring diverse ideas from diverse cultures – which means the advertising world and ideas we bring to the table are more affluent and fuller. Both Kylee and I have teenage daughters (I also have a teenage son). We want to create a world where as an industry, advertising has a positive influence on them – on the next generation.”
Despite the progress made in recent years, gender bias and discrimination persist in the marketing communications industry. And it is not all the men’s fault.
Vowles says she has faced challenges from female leadership in her career, leading her to feel that as a woman, she had to work harder and attract higher scrutiny than her male counterparts.
“My former CEO at McCann Australia (who was male) was my mentor and a great advocate and helped me transfer into the region. I have experienced many challenges from female leadership over my career – unfortunately, women don’t often advocate and support other women,” says Vowles.
“Kvur wants to change this – we want to develop women’s careers in the industry. As a woman, you have to work harder and attract a high level of scrutiny of your work compared to your male counterparts, and your career ambitions are often seen as a threat versus being embraced and developed.”
To stay ahead of the competition and stand out as a female-led marketing communications agency, Kvur focuses on three key areas. Firstly, the agency values diversity in all forms, including gender, culture, thinking, and upbringing. This ensures that every idea they bring is unique and speaks to a broader range of audiences.
Secondly, they always bring clients ideas with a lens of new technology and innovation, wrapped in passion and authenticity, to keep things exciting and fresh. Lastly, they collaborate with clients and keep the relationship fun and exciting, aiming to embody a true partnership rather than a supplier-client dynamic.
“Marketing and communications should play an active role in promoting gender quality and breaking down gender stereotypes from the way brands are promoted, the dialogue that they have with audiences, the way that campaigns are developed and the talent that’s featured, all the way through the process of how we produce the work – it should be diverse, inclusive and foster equality. We shouldn’t leave it to the HR departments,” says Vowles.
Laura Cooke, managing director of Explore Communications
Explore Communications, a female-led marketing communications agency is breaking barriers in the industry by empowering women and promoting gender equality.
Managing director Laura Cooke says she balances running a business with traditional societal expectations placed on women and the initiatives she has implemented to support and empower women in the workplace.
"Running your own business is manic, but it also gives you an element of control. I can work with clients I feel passionately about while managing my time. Vital when you have a young family!” explains Cooke, who last held the role of APAC growth director at Dentsu.
In honor of International Women's Day, Cooke worked with Rachael De Foe of Redefy to create the #AfterIWD database, which showcases women and non-binary individuals across various industries even after the day has passed.
"Many of our fellow PR professionals nominated spokespeople to join the list, while journalists have been using the list to contact speakers for quotes, insights, and interviews," says Cooke.
Cooke also works with female leaders to promote what they do and build their profiles. She says these successful women, especially as most of them have started their businesses too, have inspired her. She can share that passion with journalists to inspire them to learn more about these businesses.
To stay ahead of the competition, Cooke focuses on building strong connections with her clients and handpicking exceptional freelancers to partner with.
She explains her agency is set up as a collective, which benefits clients as she has complete focus as a senior manager of their account and the ability to tap into my partner list of high-level freelancers who are experts in their fields. She claims this is all done at a lower cost with more flexibility than larger agencies.
When asked about the marketing communications industry's progress in gender equality, Cooke stated that Covid had had a positive impact, particularly for working mothers.
"There is less focus for many companies on set hours, but more a shift to an objectives-based mindset. This helps a working mother succeed at work and be there for the important parts of home life,” says Cooke.
Jing Hsu, founder of Arkchetype Productions
Jing Hsu, the founder of Arkchetype Productions, reveals that she did not intend to blaze trails when she started the company but merely wanted to create good work on her terms.
She has spent the last 11 years producing content for broadcast television commercials, social media, corporate communications, events and marketing.
While she acknowledged that bias and stereotypes exist in the industry, she feels blessed to be based in Singapore, a relatively forward-looking and progressive society. She noted that the playing field is slowly but surely being levelled out.
“In Singapore, it is probably a little more of stereotypes that exist all around on what females are like and capable of and what males are like and capable of. Also, if you are male, male privileges will be extended to you, sometimes even in the ‘bro-bro’ way,” says Hsu.
“The production industry can also traditionally be a little more of a boys club.. that said, the playing field is slowly but surely being levelled out, so there is progress!”
To support and empower women in the workplace, Hsu's company does not have a specific initiative. Instead, it focuses on supporting anyone with the skill set, know-how, and right attitude.
Interestingly, the in-house team is all women who can handle all aspects of the production process.
“Our in-house team is currently (coincidentally) made up of all ladies, and we can produce, direct, operate the camera, lights and sound, and work in post-production to edit or animate,” explains Hsu.
“Whatever role one may feel is more ‘suited’ for the boys or conventionally more of a role within the male domain, our girls can do too!”
Hsu advises aspiring female entrepreneurs in the marketing communications industry to focus on creating good work and not be discouraged by gender bias or stereotypes. She believes success will follow if you have the skill set and attitude.
“Be genderblind! Gender stereotypes or stereotypes should not come into play when working with people or prevent you from doing what you aspire to do,” says Hsu.
“That said - on a practical level, be aware of scenarios you may find yourself in that plays to your disadvantage because you are a woman - research, be prepared, and then problem-solve. Never let it get you down because the discerning can tell if you are worth your salt at the end of the way. You do you!”
Asiya Bakht, founder and CEO of Beets PR
Having dreamed of starting her business since age 23, Asiya Bakht finally took the plunge after being retrenched during the Covid-19 pandemic, using her expertise from her two-decade-long careers with Havas and BBH to start something new.
Despite the challenges, Bakht has no regrets and believes she has something unique to offer the industry.
Regarding gender bias and discrimination, Bakht says she has had experiences with exclusionary conversations and being ignored in meetings by men, as well as female bosses questioning her level of commitment due to having a family with young children.
She also shared an odd experience where an expat manager told her she needed to learn how to interact with her Asian colleagues, despite having lived and worked in Asia her entire life.
“I have witnessed all kinds of “isms” in the marcomms industry- racism, sexism and now ageism. Regarding gender bias, I think women are as guilty as men. When it comes to discrimination from men, the most common ones have been conversations and discussions that have seemed exclusionary,” Bakht explains.
“Being ignored in meeting rooms, not being a part of important stakeholder projects, simple things like not being invited for drinks and, of course, the proverbial boys club dynamics which is very much a reality.”
She adds: “The discrimination against women has had a different texture. Often female bosses question your level of commitment if you have a family with young children. A female CEO once told me that she prefers hiring men for senior management as they can put in longer work hours.”
Bakht noted that the situation is improving, with more leaders addressing these issues as part of the DEI mandate. This has compelled the industry to tackle it more authentically, with a greater awareness of how discrimination operates in the workplace.
“I have been a part of multiple unconscious bias workshops and similar training, which have been eye-opening. Whether it is blind hiring, maternity benefits, pay equity, leadership training and development, marcomms agencies are taking corrective action to ensure that workplaces are safer and more equal for female talent,” explains Bakht.
“I feel we have a long way to go regarding the future. I read a WEF study that says it will take over 200 years to close the gender pay gap, which will be a slow, gradual process. I like to look at the bright side and celebrate progress.”
Lynda Williams, founder, PR mentor & educator at Vim & Vigour
Lynda Williams is a publicist, PR mentor, coach and storyteller passionate about helping businesses effectively share their stories. For the past 10 years, she has run Vim & Vigour in Singapore, launching everything from luxury hotel brands to small niche businesses.
Williams recently launched a ‘Hack Your Own PR’ program, a nine-week media training programme designed for businesses looking to establish their brand, reach new audiences, build trust and credibility, and gain visibility in national media outlets without breaking the bank.
The programme offers a personalised and intimate online learning experience to teach participants how to DIY their PR effectively, gain direct access to media, and secure accurate results. They will also learn to communicate verbally with conviction and confidence and stomp out any imposter syndrome. Whilst open to all, the current demographic of the programme is 87% female.
“I’ve always believed in keeping focused on the job at hand, not getting distracted by what the competition is doing and letting the results speak for themselves. My PR agency grew from word of mouth, and we took the time to understand our clients in-depth, understood what they needed to achieve and tailored PR campaigns to answer that. A cookie-cutter, one-size fits all approach will never work,” explains Williams.
“Gender aside, this goes for everyone - do your research before any meeting, which includes the background of the individuals you are meeting and the company, so you are fully prepared to get involved in meaningful discussions and can put all communications and business ideas into action there and then. Ensure you communicate calmly, positively and confidently — always speak to the facts and your expertise, and let your professional counsel shine.”