Launched in 2017, the Open Chair initiative was created as a way for young women in the marketing industry to connect with others who have made it to the top. Conceived by Suhana Gordhan, Jenny Glover and Simoné Bosman, the initiative offers something to young marketers that would otherwise be unattainable — facetime with established professionals.

Having attended both the maiden event on 8 August 2017, and the latest online edition on Wednesday, 8 July, media update’s Aisling McCarthy chatted to Gordhan and Bosman about the initiative and the need for more female voices in the industry.

Open Chair launched in 2017 and offered a ‘speed dating’ style event where young women in the industry got to spend nine minutes with some Adland legends, like Nunu Ntshingila, Fran Luckin and yourself. Tell us a little bit about how the idea for Open Chair came about.

Gordhan: As a young person growing up in the industry, I saw that there were not many female creative leaders, and the concept of mentorship was not as actualised as it is now.

It was lonely walking a tough career [path] like advertising without having senior female leaders that I could reach out to. It was important for me that the young women coming up in the industry would not suffer the same issue. During my tenure as ‘Chair Aunty’ of the Loeries, I wanted to focus on transformation — especially of women in the industry.

In my opening speech as chairperson, I [asked the young women coming up in the industry to] be more demanding of us.

“Let go of the crippling voices in your head … and be outspoken. You have nothing standing in your way! See this as a place in which you can thrive and carve out an amazing, unforgettable career.”

I then asked the audience to look around and see the “many open chairs next to [each person]. We all have to keep a seat for the young women coming up.”

I partnered with two powerhouse women whom I knew would hold that same objective as close to their hearts — Simoné Bosman and Jenny Glover. And together, we formed Open Chair in 2017. The purpose was to make space and time for our young women to meet face-to-face with more experienced senior women in the industry.

Since Open Chair’s inaugural event, the world has changed. The #MeToo movement has gained massive traction and, across the globe, women are standing up and fighting for their space at the boardroom table. What are your objectives for bringing back Open Chair in 2020?

Bosman: Our main objective is for Open Chair to become the platform for all women in our industry to come out and share their stories and experiences; a safe space that is accessible by all women so that we can socialise, learn and grow.  

Whilst our premise is primarily centred on female empowerment, we have also acknowledged the importance of inviting our male counterparts into our space so that they, too, are able to obtain a first-hand view of what we, as women, experience.

The 2020 iteration of the event, held virtually on Thursday, 28 May and Wednesday, 8 July, were a little different from the previous editions. What was the response like to your 2020 edition, featuring Boniswa Pezisa, Jenny Glover and Fran Luckin?

Gordhan: The 2020 online edition was really well received. As much as we love the physical event, what COVID-19 taught us is that we can adapt and still provide a meaningful experience for young women. All it requires is for you to sign up, join the [Zoom] call and listen in.

We plan to grow our mentorship and mentee database going forward, and we have the sincere backing of the Loeries and the Creative Circle. While the webinars are convenient, this does not rule out the possibility of us continuing to have physical events in the future, provided we have the funding.

Where do you see structural flaws within the industry in South Africa, since we continue to see a very limited emergence of female executive creative directors and chief creative officers?

Bosman: The late James Brown’s song This is a man’s world tells us how a man basically made everything, but “he ain’t nothing without a woman”. This notion of a man being the lead in society, the house and the world, is proof that the structural flaws within the world are a direct result of how society has always placed great emphasis on the importance of men being the leaders. 

There are more male presidents than women, there are more chairmen than there are chairwomen, and we celebrate more male sportsmen than we do sportswomen. Society sheds more light and gives more airtime to highlight the success stories of men whereas women’s contributions are often an afterthought.

We, as a society, need to change this perception by shedding light on the invaluable contributions that female leaders have made, and currently are making to better our world. The more we shed light on women’s achievements, the more society will respect women as leaders. 

This is why platforms such ours are crucial; so that we can unashamedly celebrate the few senior women who have done so much to better our industry. This will motivate the younger women to pursue their ambitions to become our next leaders, inevitably influencing our structures to become more inclusive.

Transformation is arguably the most important issue for the advertising industry to tackle. How does Open Chair contribute to growing the number of women — and more specifically, black women — in the industry?

Gordhan: I think that young black women need more reasons to enter the industry and more reasons to stay. It’s also super important to ‘see’ what you want to be and that means having more senior black women in leadership. 

Open Chair shines a light on young black women. It says, “I see you, I hear you and I want you to take up space.” By connecting them with more experienced women in the industry, we are providing a space for nurturing, for inspiration and for simple conversation —  all of which are much needed in this industry. 

However, for the industry to truly change, it needs the commitment and investment of everyone. Everyone has to pull up that chair next to them, apply a hyper-consciousness to achieving change, be willing to make space and be willing to create opportunities for young black people, otherwise transformation is just a word people play table tennis with.

Growing the number of women in the industry requires a lot of work from women who have already ‘made it’ in the industry. But what role do you think men play in this transformation?

Bosman: We speak about transformation, but one has to look at the core of how this comes into effect. The transfer of skills is a crucial ingredient to enforce the success of transformation and more so, to balance the playing field.

It is important that the senior men in our industry, who, for the longest time, have enjoyed lapping up great opportunities, need to make time to mentor women. [They need] to transfer their knowledge, skills and experiences with women so that we can also have competitive advantage and to bridge the gap.

The more men can come to the fore and say “I would like to work with a female on this”, the more we will see change in our industry and increase the creative value to our clients and their brands.

What advice would you give to young women just starting out their careers in advertising?

Gordhan: Believe in yourself wholeheartedly. And while the negative voices arrive in your mind, don’t entertain them and let them stay for tea.

Don’t be afraid of the hard work and the journey towards the role you want. It happens in little steps, and each of those steps offers value along the way.

Don’t just expect to be mentored. Show up and have questions. Make the time and take people up when they offer theirs.

Water your craft like it’s a rose, not a cactus.

Don’t be a martyr. It will make you resentful. Rather give as much as you can without hurting your health and wellbeing.

Feed your creativity – it’s your bread and butter. If you neglect it, you’ll live on fumes.

Be accountable and committed. As E.M. Forster said, “One person with passion is better than forty people merely interested.”

Finally, don’t take criticism as a negative outlook on your work, but rather take it as an important evaluation to make your work better.   

What other ways do you think we can encourage more inclusivity in the marketing industry? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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The problem in advertising is not that there's a lack of women in the industry, rather, there is a lack of women in leadership roles. Find out more in our article, Suhana Gordhan: Set on growing women in marketing.