How 'working like a woman' will transform creative businesses

Brittaney Kiefer interviewed Mary for Campaign magazine on the launch of her latest book, Work Like Woman.

The window of Mary Portas’ communications agency on Emerald Street, London, is emblazoned with a big, brightly coloured manifesto that also serves as the title of her latest book: "Work like a woman."

Portas, a retail consultant, author, broadcaster and agency founder, has set out on a mission to change the way we work. Following the release of her book late last year, she is rallying businesses to get behind her vision. Although there may be some who bristle at the suggestion to overhaul centuries of work culture, she is not worried about causing offence: "If I offend people, it’s probably going to be those who feel slightly threatened."

The window of Mary Portas’ communications agency on Emerald Street, London, is emblazoned with a big, brightly coloured manifesto that also serves as the title of her latest book: "Work like a woman." It’s an audacious headline that some people, including her daughter, warned her against.

"She said be careful, this isn’t just for women and you don’t want it to be anti-men," Portas recalls. "But, in the end, I thought: I want this to be bold because the only way we can make change happen is by being bold. And the only way you can do that is by pushing all the way out."

Portas, a retail consultant, author, broadcaster and agency founder, has set out on a mission to change the way we work. Following the release of her book late last year, she is rallying businesses to get behind her vision. Although there may be some who bristle at the suggestion to overhaul centuries of work culture, she is not worried about causing offence: "If I offend people, it’s probably going to be those who feel slightly threatened."

With Brexit looming and the marketplace shifting rapidly, many traditional businesses do seem under threat – not least retail and marketing, the industries in which Portas has spent her entire career. Yet she is convinced that if the ideas outlined in her book are embraced, the future doesn’t have to be doom and gloom.

First, what does it mean to "work like a woman"? Portas says it is about eliminating alpha culture in the workplace and embracing qualities that have historically been seen as "female".

"This isn’t just about changing some of your company’s offers, like maternity leave. This is about culturally shifting the premise of the values that we hold within business," she explains. "This could be called ‘Work like a decent human being’, really. What I’m trying to put back into business is fairness, kindness, collaboration and values that historically have not been recognised within businesses."

Portas is quick to clarify that this message is not aimed at one particular gender: "This isn't about male or female. Females have taken on alpha culture and behaved appallingly, and there are men within alpha culture who don’t want to work like that."

The marketing campaign for her book uses the phrase "Don’t man up", because "this is about young men too, and young boys told to man up is basically saying don’t show your emotion. And that is what we need to show", Portas adds.

In the wake of movements such as #MeToo and efforts to close the gender pay gap, Portas’ manifesto couldn’t be more timely. During her book tour, she says she has been "overwhelmed" by the response of readers, particularly young women who are "crying out for advice and guidance".

But change isn’t going to happen overnight. Many large corporations are taking these ideas into account by re-examining the services they offer, but few are diving "deep into their roots", Portas points out. She applauds those who have taken a long-term view to transformation, such as H&M, which has set a goal to use 100% recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030.

"They know the end goal. They know consumers will be demanding it, but also they have a responsibility to lead the change to what is good and right," Portas says of the brand. "Short term, will their margins be the same? Probably not. But they’re looking at the long term. We should be looking at culture in business in the same way."

There is also more of a chance to start from scratch with new kinds of workplace cultures, because entrepreneurship is growing in the UK. According to a LinkedIn survey of UK members between 2016 and 2017, the biggest businesses are seeing the largest reductions in the size of their workforces, while entrepreneurs, sole traders and small and medium-sized enterprises are on the rise.

"More people are starting up on their own, because the big corporate systems are letting them down," Portas says. "So this [change in culture] can shift quite quickly."

Portas is optimistic about the retail sector’s future precisely because of the new players entering the space. She believes established retailers are suffering because "they’re working to the same format that they always have".

"They’re frightened of what the future is," Portas says. "Therefore they’re hanging on to the old rules. And the new players are coming in who don’t even know those rules – so they’re not bogged down by them – and creating what the future is. That’s exciting."

A return to creativity 

One thing many of these new competitors share in common, and in line with Portas’ "Work like a woman" ethos, is a focus on creativity. She points to the example of Coal Drops Yard, the recently launched shopping and restaurant district in London that is centred on innovative design.

In fact, Thomas Heatherwick, the designer behind Coal Drops Yard, previously collaborated with Portas when she was creative director at Harvey Nichols in the 1990s. Heatherwick made an abstract artwork for Harvey Nichols’ windows that won a D&AD Pencil in 1998. That commission was part of Portas’ maverick experiment to transform the department store into a buzzing, social destination.

"Harvey Nichols became such a destination because it was a cool place where things happened," Portas says. "Nobody said: 'I must go because it has the best range of Dolce & Gabbana.' People went because it had a bar, for example, and no department store put a bar on the floor."

To survive, today’s retailers may need to take a similar approach by asking how people socialise and connect now. "If we just say bricks-and-mortar retail is about more bloody stuff – give me a break, you ain’t gonna be here," Portas stresses. "How do we create these new destinations, these new anchors that are no longer just about stuff and product?"

Modern retail spaces must also build community because "humans are neurologically wired to connect", according to Portas. She imagines a future when shopping centres or derelict stores are transformed to include start-up offices, gyms, wellness studios or crèches. The emphasis will be on collaboration "between brands that you wouldn’t have dreamt would mix", she adds.

"When you go outside, it should be about connecting, interacting – the trivial things that make us human," Portas says. "I want the discovery, I want the joy, I want to maybe bring my friends with me and have a social experience as part of it."

In the past, that focus on connection may have been dismissed as a "woman’s" pursuit. But as the workplace revolution arrives, more businesses may discover that such principles are simply common sense.

An agency culture is much more than the sum of its policies

Caireen Wackett, MD of Portas on agency culture for The Drum.

Women now represent half of the workforce – from politics to retail – but it’s men who dominate the positions of power. In fact, three-quarters of UK boardrooms are made up by men and – coincidentally or not – three-quarters of conversations held in the average UK meeting are carried out by men too.

That has to change. And that is why Portas’ founder, Mary Portas, wrote Work Like a Woman, her manifesto for change.

If Ziggy Stardust was David Bowie’s alter ego, Work Like a Woman is ours. Behind closed doors we like to call it Pop (‘People of Portas’) culture. It’s the beating heart from which everything else is formed and although our agency has been around for 21 years, Pop culture is only five years in the making.

Five years ago we realised we were, as many are, stuck in a model of alpha culture. We were structured in a linear, hierarchical way; we measured our success on profit and growth and quite frankly, it wasn’t making us happy. It was at this point that Mary focused her time on working out which values she held dear, particularly as a woman.

We decided to restructure our agency around these values and prove that there could be a different way of working.

We scrapped alpha culture altogether and created a new kind that rooted the more ‘feminine’ values of collaboration, with kindness and understanding at the heart of our business. The Portas manifesto is included in the Work Like a Woman book and while it isn’t a blueprint for cultural change, it is a helpful and honest account of how we got to where we are today.

We’re still a profitable business, not any less ambitious, but we’re a much happier place to work.

Setting policies is one thing but making sure they are actually happening is how real change happens. Take childcare. You can have the greatest childcare policy in the world, but if the culture encourages employees to laugh and mock the dad who’s chosen to take three months off to be with his newborn child, then other dads won’t do it. Last year only 3% of men used their shared parental leave, despite 50% saying they’d like to. That’s depressing.

Policies should be used by us, not against us, and ensuring policies are accepted in your culture doesn’t happen by luck. You have to make fundamental shifts in how you run your business. When we rebuilt our agency to ‘work like a woman’ we structured it around competency, not hierarchy. This means we don’t care where you’re from or how long you’ve been doing what you do. We just care that you enjoy it and can do it well.

We also placed collaboration and diversity at the core of our business. For us this meant a number of things had to happen. We decided to invest in our offices because we know how important it is to creativity and the general mood of an agency to be welcomed into a space that’s been constructed with love and understanding. We also made it fully open-plan and scrapped meeting rooms, so all conversations are open and fluid.

Ensuring everybody has a voice is also key. I now hold a weekly meeting called ‘MD for a day’ where I sit with three different Pops each week and ask them to honestly tell me what they’d do if they were in my shoes for the day. A number of new policies have happily come out of these meetings.

Working like a woman also means bringing your whole self to work and not pretending that you don’t have a life outside of work. The best asset in any business is its people so it’s imperative for businesses to be more flexible and ultimately, more human. Your home life can be totally unpredictable and while it’s good to have a routine and structure in your working day, you can’t expect staff to fit that exact structure week in week out.

When you encourage your working life to be more real or adopt the mindset to ‘work like a woman’ you accept that emotions are not the enemy. Used well in business they can be your greatest tool.

If there was more emotion in politics, do you think we’d be living in the state we’re in currently? And that’s the thing – history taught us that businesses should be devoid of emotion. “It’s business, don’t take it personally”. How many times have you heard that?

Of course, businesses shouldn’t be filled with daily tears and dramatics. But it’s perfectly reasonable to run a business that not only allows but welcomes employees to say: ‘I’m not OK’; to show they’re human and not make them feel like they’re in an episode of The Apprentice.

I’d know, because I run a business exactly like that.

The high street is not dead, it just needs to be reimagined

Christmas is the most important time of year for retailers. It just wouldn’t be the season if they didn’t get into the full, unrelenting swing of things, filling their shops with a profusion of festive paraphernalia and blaring carols on repeat.

At Portas, we’re closely watching how retailers fare over the festive season. We’re predicting there will be some deaths. Shopping is as much a part of the Christmas tradition as turkey and sprouts, but shoppers' needs are changing, and some retailers have been slow in stepping up to the challenge. 

So, what’s the way forward? What will get the High Streets’ tills singing over Christmas – and keep them that way in 2018 and beyond? 

Trade is tough

In our 20-year history as an agency, we’ve never had so many clients asking us for advice on how to navigate the changing ways consumers are buying. 

A quick scan of the current UK retail landscape and it’s clear that trade is tough.

Damp consumer confidence and mounting costs pressures mean we’ve heard very few success stories from the big boys over the past twelve months. John Lewis, DFS, Paperchase, Game and Dunelm have all reported worse than expected profits. And this week Toys R Us announced they’re shuttering a quarter of their UK stores – and 800 jobs with it.  

Shoppers are opening their wallets, but they’re doing so cautiously. We’re seeing what we call the ‘Lipstick Effect’, where shoppers forgo big-ticket items in favour of affordable everyday treats.

Even the retail bonanza that is Black Friday disappointed. Three years ago, police and ambulances were called to supermarkets as near-brawls broke out among bargain-hungry Brits. This year, Black Friday was more of a dull grey. E-commerce sites were overwhelmed with hits, but High Street retailers failed to attract the numbers they had hoped.  

For us, this is proof of something we passionately believe as an agency – that in a world where online sales are growing exponentially, promotions and price cuts are simply not enough to get people to shop the high street.

The death of ‘stuff’

Fact: experiences account for an increasing share of our hard-earned cash. Take UK leisure spend – it’s more than quadrupled over the last 30 years. Plus, it shot up 30% over the last decade – which, let’s not forget, included the worst recession in living memory.

So, it’s not that we’re not spending. It’s just that we’re not spending on stuff.   

Shopping used to be a pastime. Today, it’s not. Placing an order online, popping into Little Waitrose on the way home from work – it’s impersonal. But we still need to connect with people. And savvy retailers know this.

Experience has become the metric for assessing value per square foot. Brands are using shops as spaces to immerse us in their worlds. Within four walls, they teach us, inspire us and encourage us to try new things. We go to them not just to ‘shop’, but for entertainment, education and connection.

It’s interesting that many of the brands doing the best job at this are not what we would traditionally think of as “retailers”. The likes of Tesla, Dyson, Microsoft and Smeg have all followed in the footsteps of Nespresso - moving onto the high street and using stores as brand building tools.

Brands like Dyson above are moving onto the high street and opening brand showrooms.

Brands like Dyson above are moving onto the high street and opening brand showrooms.

But this doesn’t mean that the only route to success is investing in a five-storey brand temple on London’s Regent Street. Retailers are driving customers to stores by creating unique products and experiences that can only be found for a short period of time in a handful of locations. Take the success of Supreme’s “drops” that cause a line of fans to snake around the block every Thursday morning ; the new hand printed political t-shirts found each week at H+M’s Weekday fascia; or even the Mary Portas Living & Giving charity pop up at Liberty this summer - the most successful fundraising pop-up Save the Children UK has ever run.

Others retailers are seeing success by focusing on community rather than commerce. Take Lululemon. The activewear brand has united a tribe of wellness lovers by offering complimentary in-store yoga classes. And Rapha. Through its in-store cafes and never-ending roster of bike-related events, the cycling brand has galvanised a movement. People go to Rapha stores to meet and mingle with the like-minded and lycra-clad – the fact that they spend big on the gear is just a by-product.


Above: cyclists stop for coffee at a Rapha store in Tokyo.

Feed the omni-vores of retail

There’s no denying that mobile technology, social commerce and the internet of things have conspired to forever change the way we buy. But when a person sees a brand on a street, experiences it in a tangible way, and becomes a part of its community, it goes deep into their psyche.

It’s powerful – and it’s why a wave of digital retailers are branching out into bricks and mortar. Missguided, Bonobos, Warby Parker and now even Amazon have a presence on the High Street. That’s right – Amazon, the world’s largest e-commerce player, controls 460 Whole Foods locations across the US, and last year opened its first physical bookstore on home turf in Seattle.

Above: Amazon physical bookstore in Seattle, USA.

Above: Amazon physical bookstore in Seattle, USA.

What can we learn from all of this? The future of retail isn’t online – it’s omnichannel. And for retailers to win, they must feed the retail omni-vores.

A brilliant example of a retailer doing just this is Australian luxury sneaker brand Sneakerboy. Picture this. A modern showroom, walls lined with the latest sneakers. Cool, knowledgeable dudes looking hip in their kicks, inspiring customers to buy. Rent overheads are small because there’s no stock out back. Find pair you like? Order it on an in-store i-Pad and have it delivered in three days.

Above: Sneakerboy showroom in Melbourne, Australia.

Above: Sneakerboy showroom in Melbourne, Australia.

Retailers have much to learn from the way Sneakerboy facilitates movement across different platforms. Incorporating digital seamlessly into retail experiences is the only way forward.  

The High Street, reimagined

At Portas, our client roster includes some of the best known and most loved British high street brands: Sainsbury’s, Moss Bros and Liberty London, just to name a few. We’re champions of these brands not just because they’re our clients, but also because we believe high streets are vital to communities. People have always wanted a place to meet, to spend time, and to transact – and these basic human needs will never go away.

Of course there will be fewer shops around the country going forward. We live in a digital age, and we simply don't need as many. But the shops that we will have will be better. For businesses, they will be build serious brand equity, and for shoppers, they will be places to learn, discover and make new friends.

Despite what the doom-mongers may say – and no matter how many retailers shutter in the wake of underwhelming Christmas sales (inevitably there will be some) – the high street is not dead. It just needs to be reimagined.