How Advertising Titan Bec Brideson is closing the gender feedback gap

Bec Brideson was one of only 3% of females in advertising to have risen to the title of Creative Director when, in 2004, she founded one of the first female-focused creative agencies globally, Venus Comms. We caught up with Bec to get the scoop on her latest book, Blind Spots.

A singular leader and visionary, Bec Brideson was one of only 3% of females in advertising to have risen to the title of Creative Director when, in 2004, she founded Australia’s first female-focused creative agency, Venus Comms.

Bec speaks frequently at conferences and events throughout the world including Cannes Lions, Ad:Tech, Mumbrella 360, Indie Summit, Marketing to Mums, The 3% Conference and Pause Fest to name a few.

She’s now sharing her methodologies in her latest book "Blind Spots: How to uncover and attract the fastest emerging economy" which was released in September 2017.

To celebrate the public launch of Howamigoing, we caught up with Bec to compare notes on how women can better navigate the blind spots within company feedback processes.

Julian: You’ve recently released a best-selling book called Blind Spots, which I absolutely loved and which resonated really deeply with the team at Howamigoing. Can you give us the 30 second synopsis and why EVERYONE in business needs to read it?

Bec: Business has a huge commercially uncomfortable and unprofitable blind spot – gender. Let’s be clear, I’m not talking about getting more women in leadership, or the gender pay gap. I’m talking about business waking up to the enormous opportunity that is female consumers. As women continue to rise globally in education, purchasing power, economic wealth and social influence; clever businesses are adapting to meet her needs. In order for any business to adapt, they must really listen to her needs, concerns, anxieties and wants and do more than "pinkwash" their offerings on International Women’s Day or create "Bic For Her." Consider the trio behind Thinx who turned a socially good passion into a multi-million-dollar business purely by identifying that there had been no new offerings beyond tampons and pads for over 70 years that could be more comfortable, and more fashion-savvy.

Bec during the launch of her book, "Blind Spots" in September 2017

Julian: Speaking of female-oriented businesses, in 2004 you founded Venus Comms, the first marketing agency in Australia (and one of the first globally) to focus solely on reaching women. How has your clientele evolved over the past 13 years? Who is receiving the message better than others?

Bec: When I first started my female focused marketing agency Venus Comms over 10 years ago, most of the clients I approached were not thinking about gender or even women. In fact, I remember one meeting in this enormous wood panelled boardroom, the client sat directly across from me down this long board table and told me that I was foolish to think that gender, or women, would ever be a factor in the sales and promotion of his product. How things have changed! I’ve certainly seen clients do unexpected pivots especially in the last few years. I’ve seen many shake off their pink-thinking of the past and start rethinking what gender can do commercially for them in the long term. Our clients have certainly shifted from the typical ‘female’ brands in fashion, retail, cosmetics and female hygiene to more neutral or masculine brands within FMCG, utilities, pharma, sports, automotive and financial. It really takes a smart leader to receive the message because they need to have an open mind, a disruptive mindset, and a strong provenance from which to build on this message. In Australia, there are some who are really connecting the dots and doing great work like Tim Reed and Luke Sayers and Cyan Ta’eed. We need more.

“I’m a potty-mouthed CEO. One that’s always stressed and on the move to improve but also a cheeky and compassionate friend”

Julian: You’re now on a mission to educate and overturn centuries of marketing strategies that still target men despite females being the largest and highest growing purchasing demographic. Like widespread seatbelt or sun cream adoption, when do you see the natural tipping point being? Are there any countries or industries that you see as early movers?

Bec: It’s funny you mentioned seatbelts! A number of safety essentials we have in our cars today are because of female inventors: windscreen wipers, brake lights, Kevlar tyres, and brake pads were all created by women often in an effort to ensure greater safety.

Julian: ...Along with the first car heater, while we’re on the topic of automotives.

Bec is the only recipient of two Women in Media awards

Bec: Right! To be honest, I think we’re seeing the natural tipping point right now. Over the past 10 years, I’ve seen a radical shift that I could not have predicted would be this exponential. Recently I watched Women’s Summit leader Irene Di Natividad’s stirring speech to Australia’s press on women’s imminent rise and how business, government and industry can no longer ignore it. Preach! The early mover countries and industries are already prospering. Nordic countries like Norway and Iceland are already in a great position both socially and economically to innovate gender further as a strength of their country.

Julian: Controversially switching gears: Do you think the "male lens" is more rife in Australia than in the UK or EU?

Bec: The male lens is rife everywhere but that’s not a bad thing. The foundations of business today were built on the male lens. The male lens has been incredibly fruitful – we’ve seen a great many things come of it such as numerous ideologies and philosophies, the industrial revolution, the renaissance and putting a person on the moon. It has brought us extremely far and we should be very grateful. But it has its limits. In fact, this question itself is guilty of being too rife with the male-lens. There seems to be this assumption that the male lens and female lens are in rivalry for dominance when our aim is to have them working in collaboration to create the best environment, work and offering for both men and women. Whether it is more rife here in Australia or in the UK is irrelevant; the rate of change towards gender equality and the acceptance of another lens in addition to what we have is what we should be looking for and measuring. While the entire scope of the gender lens seems to be of greater encouragement in the UK or Asia than Australia, we also cannot deny that change is happening here. We have programs unlike anywhere else such as the Male Champions of Change. What I hope my book Blind Spots and my work will do is advance the conversation in Australia beyond its current limits by broadening our understanding of gender and the power of the new female economy. When we better understand the female market’s capabilities and influence, we can better leverage the gender lens for business and women, and also better share the outcomes for gender equality between the sexes.

“Having peers that gave constant, and often critical feedback kept the fire going beneath me to continue to advance in my career”

Julian: Blind Spots has definitely advanced a lot of my conversations in Australia and the UK.

Bec: Thank you.

Julian: Another change of gears (common auto theme here…). What’s more challenging to manage: Your agency, your husband or your two daughters?

Bec: All of the above. And in that order.

Julian: What sort of a CEO is Bec Brideson? What two words would your colleagues use to describe you?

Bec: Potty-mouthed. (I’m aware that’s just one word.)

I’m a CEO always on the move to improve. I’m a CEO that’s always stressed. I’m a CEO with an agile vision. I’m a CEO who embraces discomfort. I’m a CEO who’s proud of being female because it’s what makes me an exceptional leader.

Julian: Ha! Are you a CEO that makes time for friends still - what sort of a friend is Bec Brideson? What two words would your friends use to describe you?

Bec: Still potty-mouthed.

I’m a loyal, long-standing, compassionate, cheeky friend and I am lucky to have extremely patient friends because I’m always ready with the worst, daggy jokes. If my agency isn’t full of groans at one of my late-afternoon jests, it doesn’t feel like home.

Bec at Venus Comms HQ in Melbourne

Julian: It’s no secret that gender bias finds its way into company performance reviews. Firstly because most companies use their annual review to determine compensation, and we know which sex is winning the pay battle. But also when you look at researcher Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio and author Kim Kleman’s findings in Harvard Business Review that:

  • Women get less constructive critical feedback than men, and
  • Women’s performance is more likely attributed to personal characteristics rather than actual skills and abilities.

How do you think businesses can better mitigate gender bias when conducting employee appraisals?

Bec: Education. I’m not talking about unconscious bias workshops – I’m talking about drilling it down so that understanding gender commercially pertains to the person’s individual goals. When I go in to help businesses solve this age-old ‘gender’ issue, I don’t just go in talking about what I know around gender – I want to know what they know. And what their general business pain points are. Is it they need to sell more product? Do they need to fix brand awareness? Has growth been slow or stagnant? We can better mitigate bias when you put gender in terms that the recipient understands and often this means teaching them how gender can relate to a business’s commercial strategy and financial state.

Julian: Well said and great approach. A big part of Howamigoing’s mission is using technology to level the playing field when it comes to constructive professional feedback. What is it about our mission that draws parallels to your values?

Bec: Having mentors and peers that gave constant, and often critical feedback kept the fire going beneath me to continue to advance in my career. I appreciate what Howamigoing is doing because even in my business giving full and fair appraisals is difficult. You’re identifying a market issue that can really differentiate great talent choosing one business and its culture over another.

“Don’t feel intimidated by pub drinks; push beyond your fears and find sponsors and mentors – preferably one that is male and another that is female.”

Julian: Thank you :) Some shorter questions to finish off...What’s the best piece of professional feedback you’ve ever been given, and who was it from?

Bec: Good friend and business author Siimon Reynolds who kindly wrote the introduction to my book also told me two things that have always stuck with me: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears" and “When they zig, you zag.”

Julian: What advice would you give to females early in their careers who feel intimidated in asking for professional feedback, or who feel cast out because they don’t get invited to the pub for collegiate beers?

Bec: Don’t feel intimidated by pub drinks; push beyond your fears and find sponsors and mentors – preferably one that is male and another that is female. I had many during my years climbing the ranks and even now they are the ones that keep me pushing through any obstacles that crop up. Make yourself indispensable. They can’t let go of what they deem essential. And continue to improve your skills and education always. Even now at the zenith of success, I’m still dedicating time to learning new skills and I love it.

Julian: I love the suggestion of having a mentor of both genders. How important do you see the HR function in helping females "catch-up" career-wise (both in terms of job title and compensation equality)?

Bec: I think that HR managers embracing that employees and potential candidates want to have more purpose and greater welfare within the workplace is long overdue. While I think HR has a huge place in helping women, it has to come from across the business and especially starting with the C-suite. We need leaders acknowledging the issue beyond a token #IWD cupcake, and doing more from the helm to help and understand the issues women deal with in the workplace.

Julian: And lastly, what were you doing when you were 25 and what feedback would 2018 Bec Brideson give to your 25 year old self?

Bec: Take a deep breath and pause. I worked constantly at such a pace to get what I wanted that I was exhausted by my 30s. It’s completely okay, in this crazy world, to take time out for you. To stop and simply ask yourself how you’re doing...

Julian: How you’re going?

Bec: Right :)

...if I had, I would have realised that I need to listen to myself, my body and my soul as much as my ambitions.

Julian: Bec, I’m so grateful that you’ve spent this time with us, that you took the time to challenge the status quo and accomplish what you have.

Bec: A pleasure! Keep up the awesome work.