Liz Valentine | Crain's Portland

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Liz Valentine

Background:  

Swift is a rapidly growing Portland, Ore.-based creative agency that focuses on digital to lead brands forward. Its client roster has included Starbucks, Google, Nestlé and Pandora. In 2014, it was acquired by WPP.

The Mistake:

We are very unique in our industry. We’re in the advertising field and digitally driven. We’re also run by two women. That’s not something we really talked about in the press or PR, or even just leaned into, that we were founded by females.

We’ve been around about a decade or so now, but for the first seven years, we intentionally shied away from saying we were women-owned. And that was a strategic decision. Today, there is a very robust and active conversation around gender and the lack of female leadership. But that was certainly not the case when we started out 10 years ago.

We felt if we talked about being a women-owned advertising company, we’d get pigeonholed as a women’s agency that worked on pink products. We chose to ignore gender and not bring it into the conversation. What we wanted to talk about was the work.

Today I absolutely feel an obligation to speak out and help other women.

The Lesson:

We’ve shifted in the past three years and have begun to embrace that we are an anomaly within the industry. The agency is 60 percent women, with 50 percent making up its creative department and 50 percent holding creative leadership positions. That’s an unheard-of percentage of women in a creative agency.

Today, I would say one of the most rewarding things I do is mentor women and talk about gender influence in our agency, and in the advertising industry overall. Women make so many of the buying decisions but most agencies out there have a very small representation of women on staff.

That we have such a strong female presence really resonates with women and men. It’s been good for business. We’ve begun to use this as a differentiator when pitching to prospective clients. We have begun to write about it, to blog about it and invest time in getting our story, my story out there. I talk about what it takes to be successful in business and what I’ve learned along the way.

As a result, we’ve not only won clients, but we also are able to attract top female talent because it’s a women-led company. As women, we prioritize different things. We are very, very family-friendly. We work hard to run the business very efficiently and then go home to take care of kids and dogs and protect weekends.

In terms of policies, we have a generous maternity and paternity leave policies in place. We prioritize time off for working parents.

Again, all of these internal practices and priorities really resonate with clients. I wish I had known that sooner. It’s just so obvious. If women are making the majority of buying decisions and your agency has zero female representation on team, that’s a missed opportunity.

Today I absolutely feel an obligation to speak out and help other women. There are so few female role models out there. I am privileged that people recognize me as one.

Follow Liz Valentine on Twitter at: @LizValentine

Pictured: Liz Valentine. | Photo courtesy of Liz Valentine.

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