HCB Health President Nancy Beesley recently shared insights with Med Ad News about how her agency promotes diversity and what the industry needs to improve on. Beesley also talks about the agency’s hometown of Austin, Texas, as a city that encourages diversity, how pharma advertising has provided more opportunities for women than other industries, “leaning in” versus “leaning out,” and learning how to say “no.”

How does your agency encourage diversity, in the hiring and in the retention of people?

Let me start by saying that we began as an Austin, Texas, agency and that is still our home office. As our self-proclaimed “ministry of culture” Matthew McConaughey said recently on Jimmy Fallon, when asked about why he lives in Austin, he explained: “Austin is a place where everyone is welcome – regardless of color, creed, sexual orientation, etc.” McConaughey went on to say, “In Austin, nobody is too good, but everyone is good enough.” It’s a simple statement, but it truly embodies our values and culture. Diversity is the essence of our city – and thus a reflection of (and reflected in) the agency. We’ve never had to be intentional to create diversity – it’s organic to us and for the people who choose HCB as their home. When we opened the Chicago and New Jersey offices, we took that same culture and brought it to both shops. I’m proud of the diverse group of people we have, but it didn’t require intention. It’s been who we are since we began.

Have agencies changed very much in that regard? How can they improve?

If you walked through our halls, you would see many faces of color, religious differences, ethnicities as well as sexual orientation. My belief is that if you truly want great creative, you have to create a diverse group. It doesn’t work if everyone looks the same, believes the same thing and sees the world the same way. You need differences to create divergent, creative ideas. Agency leaders should see the push towards being more deliberate in their diversity measures as an opportunity to do better, more inclusive creative work.

What are the differences you see in opportunities for women compared with when you started your career and the present day?

I’ve always thought that pharma advertising – when comparing to banking, Wall Street and even Pharma Manufacturing – has offered women more opportunities for both advancement and leadership. That said, when I began my career all the top leadership positions at that agency were held by men. The highest-ranking females all sat directly one level below. In my opinion, they were some of the smartest and brightest talents in the shop. But the “top” spots were elusive. I also remember that women held many of the most junior positions: receptionist, assistant AE and traffic. Men, even junior men, had more client-facing roles. And, what really used to annoy me?! Offices – women of the same rank had cubes while their male counterparts often had offices. This was the early ’90s; and while women had come a long way by that point, it was not enough.

Fast forward to today. At our agency, our EXCO has six people on it, and half are women. Many might disagree with me on this point, but I think women in this field, more than others, have tremendous opportunities. Why? Because many are skilled communicators, and this is an essential element to success in advertising. We don’t have to be intentional in trying to include women in leadership at HCB – women have been included in the highest offices and everywhere else since the agency’s founding in 2001.

Do women need to still “Lean In”? Or do men need to “Lean Out”?

Both. Women need to lean into the lessons Brene Brown advised – being authentic and willing to fail to be free in all aspects of their lives. But men also need to learn to lean out. Today’s  women are changing, growing and taking charge of their power in their own way. We need to redefine “confidence” and allow it to be a phrase that women and men can both employ with the same meaning – not the archetypes of the past.

How do you achieve a work-life balance? Is such a thing achievable?

I absolutely believe a work-life balance is not only achievable, it’s mandatory to be the best employee and leader you are capable of being. The millennial generation is often maligned for a variety of reasons. In my opinion, its effort to achieve balance is something this group got “right.” One of my favorite expressions is that “life is short.” I have three children, all of whom are in college now. But I remember the days of juggling my responsibilities as a parent with my demands as a partner at the agency. In my 30s, I constantly felt like I was perpetually failing, either at home – when I missed the Halloween parade at school or was late to pick up at daycare because a meeting ran late. Or at work, when I had to leave in the middle of the day to pick up a sick kid from school or skip a trip because I had no one to look after my kids. I thought I was letting everyone down.

As my kids got older, I realized that it isn’t the one thing you miss (I realized this after my 21-year-old son couldn’t remember a single field trip that I attended while he was in elementary school after I had moved mountains to be there). That being said, I DID leave when I needed to. I often made the choice to put my kids first – because if I didn’t, who would? I really try to encourage this for the moms (and dads) at the agency because it’s hard enough juggling career and family. If you feel “judged” at work, that becomes one more nagging stress in your life. The key is communication. If you need support, ask for it. Everyone is balancing life – kids, no kids, dogs, sick parents, whatever. The key to finding balance in your own life is to grant others the right to have it themselves. Happy employees are the best employees – and work can’t be everything. It’s just a part of who you are.

How do you handle the “mental load” of your life? How does that juggling extend to your career?

One of the best gifts in getting older (there are a few) is the ability to say “no.” Too often I said “yes” to nearly everything for fear that I would miss an opportunity. Now I realize that saying “no” is powerful and frees you to make an even bigger impact in the specific things you choose to say yes to.

Now that is not to say I don’t juggle. I am an expert juggler! Sometimes five or six “balls” in the air at once! I believe the busiest people are often the most productive. We were raised on the idea that “women can have it all” but that is, in my opinion, a myth. You have to make sacrifices – whether it’s at work or at home or else you will not be able to produce at a high level. So, three or four balls in the air have to sometimes be enough. I have learned to say no, and then practice accepting the consequences of saying no.

I am a natural extrovert, but I found as I’ve gotten older that my inner introvert has come out. After days on the road – either with clients or traveling to our different offices around the country, I need to take a day to recharge my batteries. Often, it’s just not thinking about work for 24 hours. I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing that in my twenties, by now, it’s essential for my performance and mental health.

I used to complain that “I had to do it all” – work, family, husband, kids, house etc. But through work on myself and getting older I learned a secret. That changing one word in that phrase from “I have to do it all” to “I GET to do it all” has made all the difference. Choosing the gratitude of getting to be all those things to other people is a subtle shift. But I use it as a mantra when the load gets heavy, and simply saying those words makes it lighter. We are lucky we get to do it all. Or most of it!

Who are the mentors you have looked up towards in your career? What did they teach you?

My biggest professional mentor is Dana Maiman. I’ve known Dana a long time, and met her when our agency wasn’t even on the map. She always made time for me when I was in New York – time out of her extremely busy schedule – to give me advice. I respect her not only because she is extremely brilliant and great at her job, but because everyone that works for her (or has worked for her) holds her in the highest regard. In my opinion, there is no greater compliment. She taught me that building the agency organically was a key to her success and I have taken that advice to heart as we grow HCB.

My business partner and our CEO Kerry Hilton is also a mentor of mine. We’ve been together for over 17 years building the agency from the ground up. He is the yin to my yang – a former creative who holds the top job – which is almost unheard of in pharma advertising. He has pushed me out of my comfort zone with candid feedback and an authentic trust. He is the visionary of the two of us – he dreams big – and he helps me to look forward past the trees to what can be. He is not afraid to fail and he has shown me that risk is essential to growth.

Do you make it a point to mentor? If you do, how would you describe your mentoring style?

Mentoring is probably the favorite part of my job. I mentor (and coach) both executives outside of my organization as well as members of my staff. I think mentoring is not something you “should” do as a leader – it’s mandatory. It’s the debt I gladly pay to an industry that has given me so much. The role models I have looked up to – female and male – have shaped who I am and how I behave. If we want to see the behaviors we value, then we have to model them and help teach them.

I think my mentoring style uses what we call “considerate straight talk.” I want to be authentic in sharing feedback; so I use candor to help someone see what a blind spot might be. I try to use my own curiosity to help them find theirs. So much of what we do in pharma advertising and marketing is learned by doing. I am the kind of mentor who will let folks fail, if only to have them learn the lesson of failing. Because without letting them fail, you diminish their growth. I want them to learn how and when to speak up, and maybe more importantly – when to hold back and listen.

My philosophy of mentoring is to work with people in the hope of making them better than my. It’s about removing my ego and genuinely helping them be their best.

What do you think the impact of #MeToo has had on your industry?

In the Sept./Oct. 2019 issue of the Harvard Business Review, there was an article about a study on the after-effects of the #metoo movement and the negative unintended consequences for women.

That movement brought to light some really bad, too-long tolerated behaviors. It held people accountable for things and actions that devasted and diminished women for many years. But the study showed that now, both male and female managers would be more hesitant to put men and women on projects together that would require close contact. Both men and women were more reluctant to have 1:1 meetings without others present. The worse statistic – that men said they would be more reluctant to both hire attractive women and include women, in general, in social work functions.

While this is indeed bad news – as we don’t want to go backwards – we have to now, together, find our way forward. You can’t have meaningful change without some ugly parts. But our industry, maybe most of all, NEEDS both men and women working together to arrive at the best creative product. We have to use common sense, respect for each other and dignity that every human deserves to find a path forward.

Were you ever harassed at any point of your career? If so, how did you handle it?

I was never sexually harassed. But early in my career, I was often asked to entertain clients alone and with loose guidelines regarding “just make sure they have a good time.” I never took this too literally but I felt uncomfortable with the vague nature of the ask. It was inappropriate – and I was young. Thankfully for me, it mostly meant clubbing in NYC ’till the wee hours of the morning. But I know many, many women who have been harassed, sexualized and “hit on” by superiors and clients over the years. If it happens in my organization and I find out about it – it’s nuclear. I am a fierce protector of my staff – women and men – and I have not hesitated to fire a client or an employee who crossed the line. You have to walk the walk to be authentic and to inspire the trust of your staff. Nothing is more important than preserving the dignity of all people.