Ayesha Walawalkar
Aug 8, 2022

Football, feminism, and 50+

Sarina Weigman has plenty to teach the advertising industry, not least the self-destructive dangers of ageism.

Football, feminism, and 50+

Sarina Weigman has been an object of fascination for sports journalists lately. The manager of the England women’s football team took on the job in September 2021 and in 10 months took an essentially unchanged team from serial semi-final losers to European champions.

The Lionesses have played 20 games under Weigman and have not yet lost one. With minimal drama she quietly set about transforming good players into a great team, starting the same 11 in every match of the Euros tournament and taking them further than any English football team since 1966.

While many continue to carp about lower standards of play in the women’s game, this, by any standard, is exceptional management and coaching.

Weigman’s management style is described as being very different to that of Phil Neville, her better known, ex-England and Man Utd predecessor.

She is not given to inspirational quotes. She does not favour a parent-child relationship with her players. ‘Big dog’, for Weigman, means a German Shepherd.

Instead, her players talk in adoring terms about a manager who is calm and straightforward; who is brutal when necessary but is never personal; who knows exactly what she’s doing – but works hardest at instilling in them the confidence that they are smart enough to work problems out for themselves on the field.

Why is any of this remotely relevant to the business we work in?

Weigman is a 52-year-old mother of two who has demonstrated brilliantly that autocratic, stereotypically masculine styles of leadership do not always deliver winning results.

As communication professionals we probably feel we already know all of this: but how many Sarina Weigmans are leading agencies today? How many 52-year-old mums are in the business at all?

Nicky Bullard, MullenLowe’s chief creative officer, is a 52-year-old mother of two who has, like Weigman, transformed more than one group of serial semi-finalists into consistent winners.

Like Weigman, she has a personal style that’s direct but warm and empowering. She believes in making others believe in themselves, and she’s very good at it.

She is the polar opposite of the destructive ‘Big Dog,’ stereotypical CD of old.

At Cannes this year Nicky stood up to do her talk in the Palais wearing a big ugly sticker with a ‘Best Before’ date on it.

The date was that of her 50th birthday, and she asked the questions: how many people in our industry are aged over 50? And of those, how many are prepared to admit it?

Her talk was about ageism in an industry where talented people at the peak of their powers suddenly find themselves regarded as outdated, irrelevant and unnecessary.

This, as she pointed out, not only limits our ability to connect with the half of the UK adult population that is aged over 50, but it means that core craft skills are not being passed on in a business where (particularly among creatives) the apprenticeship model is still the primary means by which we all learn.

What she didn’t say (perhaps because it seemed self-evident) is that the problems are most acute amongst women who face the double whammy of career path interruption when they become mothers, and then age discrimination at a significantly earlier point than men.

Given the hurdles, the surprise really is that we have any 50+ mums in the business at all.

And yet what we lose when mid-life women drop out of our industry is not just diversity of gender, thought, talent and experience, it is access to different leadership and communication styles that can make for happier, more confident and ultimately more successful teams and agencies.

Helen James, one of the founders of Creative Equals, recently wrote that while some of the most tangible barriers to women’s equal participation in the workplace are slowly being removed (via the introduction for example, of flexible working policies), it is intangible barriers such as workplace culture that are stubbornly resistant to change.

She suggests that it is the pressure on women in more senior roles to behave and communicate in a style that does not come naturally to them that eventually wears down the desire to keep working in marketing and creative agencies.

But if the examples of Sarina Weigman and Nicky Bullard are anything to go by, it is essential not only that we get better at keeping our female leaders, but that we encourage them to keep on leading their way.

Because none of us wants to wait another 56 years for a team to bring it home.


Ayesha Walawalkar is chief strategy officer at MullenLowe Group

Campaign UK

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