Melissa Robertson - The NABS Podcast
Advice Line: 0800 707 6607

How a CEO supports herself and others through the menopause – with Melissa Robertson

Melissa Robertson is CEO of creative agency Dark Horses. She is also one of adland’s most visible menopause ambassadors. Melissa created a brilliant open-source menopause policy at Dark Horses that’s become essential use for many in the industry. She also has a great sense of humour so this is a fun as well as enlightening chat.

Find Melissa on LinkedIn

Download Dark Horses open source menopause policy:

Louise Scodie – NABS  00:01

Melissa Robertson is CEO of the creative agency Dark Horses. A vocal supporter of gender equality, Melissa has worked across most sectors, launching brands and consulting on some of the UK’s biggest businesses. Melissa is a huge advocate for those going through the menopause, notably instigating an open source menopause policy at Dark Horses that’s made waves across our industry.


Melissa, welcome. It’s absolutely brilliant to have you on, I still remember reading the story about the open source policy and campaign a while ago, and being really struck by how revolutionary yet how necessary it was. And I also commented about it on LinkedIn as well. So thank you for joining us, and we got the menopause is going to happen to a lot of us, how’s your menopause going?


Melissa Robertson  00:51

Oh, my God, it’s ceaselessly relentless, I would say, it’s so weird, I sort of talked to, as you can imagine, that ends up talking to quite a lot of people about menopause on a relatively regular basis. And, you know, I can be talking to really high powered women and will end up just going, fuck, I just feel so anxious. Do you feel anxious? No. And everyone will be going yeah, you know, like, it’s across my chest. And they’re not sort of emotions or feelings you’ve experienced in the past, you know, we’ve all been working for, and I’ve been working for nearly 30 years. And it really, you know, yes, of course, there are stressed periods, but I’d never sort of felt that side of things. And then suddenly, it hits you. And it’s just quite, quite extraordinary. But you know, there are, there’s a multitude of symptoms and, and they’re often changing. But my one since and that has not changed throughout, is I get word halls. So go off on a tangent or forget really a basic word. But I think I’ve developed a slight different pattern of speech to be able to find myself the time to find the words, but sometimes I’ll just go I can’t find it. So I think that is going to be frustrating for anyone. But even more. So if you are in the comms industry. And you’ve always prided yourself for someone who’s been able to communicate is find yourself in a situation where you’re struggling for words, is, is uncharted territory, isn’t it? It’s just, it’s, it’s such a weird feeling. And what’s odd. And I think when it very first started happening, I felt terrified, because I felt that I looked completely incompetent. And how can people sort of trust somebody that’s supposed to be looking after them, whether that’s a client or one of the gang. But this is why we need to keep talking about the metaphors and all the symptoms so that everyone understands so that you’re not just painted as some lunatic, but actually, you’re going through actual changes. And this is what they look like.


Louise Scodie – NABS  03:35

Thinking about menopause, and just broadly throughout life, what does mental wellness that like to you?


Melissa Robertson  03:44

That’s such a good question. And I’ve sort of thought about it a lot. I mean, ideally, it would be not experiencing sort of anxiety or depression or mood swings. But I think if you are having one of those difficult days, it’s having strong coping mechanics or processes to follow, or knowing that you’ve got people there who can and will support you. So that’s, there’s a bit of a security blanket. And for me, it’s as simple as that.


Louise Scodie – NABS  04:17

So, let’s take an example. How would you know, let’s say on a Tuesday afternoon, your mental wellness is low? What’s happened and how are you accessing that security blanket?


Melissa Robertson  04:30

It depends where I am. If I’m at home, if I’m working from home, my husband’s an artist, so he’s here, he’s very aware of the ups and downs. And I’ll just, sometimes you just need validation and empathy. And that’s enough. So I’ll say I’m just having a really bad day or a really bad afternoon and I just I, you know, I’m not sure I can go and I can perhaps be a little bit more candid with him. You know, perhaps saying in the age didn’t see. Not sure I can go is perhaps taking it a little bit too far. They might actually freak out. But I can say to my partners at work. Yeah, I’m just I’m having a bit of a difficult day. And yeah, they just know and then they’ll probably step up a bit more meetings be a bit more vocal.


Louise Scodie – NABS  06:26

As I mentioned before, Dark Horses is really leading the way on this with the open source policy. And it’s really kind of broad, inclusive approach on this, speaking to the whole industry about it welcoming opinions, and really leading the conversation. So talk to us about how this policy came to be and how it’s supporting the medical community.


Melissa Robertson  06:57

Yeah, I mean, it’s sort of I never set out to it wasn’t a plan, I just was clearly struggling from the symptoms, realised that I wouldn’t be able to cope, unless I had, unless I sort of brought people into it at work. And when I explained, you know, what I was struggling with, and, and saying things like, you know, you can just jump in and help me with a word that won’t be mansplaining. You know, actually, I want to need it. And it was amazing, I think I just, it was such a sort of warm and safe environment. And people were absolutely brilliant. And actually, they made me feel so much better, so much more confident. Because obviously, if you’re feeling anxious, it can just exacerbate all the symptoms. So they made me feel so much better. And that’s when I thought, well, you know, perhaps I shouldn’t write about it, because it’s been such a support, and perhaps other people should know that that kind of thing is incredibly helpful to start talking. So I started writing about it in the just the industry press and I was astounded by the reaction, it got, you know, loads of people writing in saying how brilliant it was to have somebody sort of publicly talking about it. And then I was asked to write a comment on a piece about menopause policies. And we didn’t have a menopause policy. And so before commenting, I was thinking, Well, should we have a menopause policy? But actually, maybe we shouldn’t have known of course policy, because you know, we’re only an agency of like, 42 people, and I’m definitely the only person who’s menopausal. And anybody else is like miles away years away from being menopausal. So would I just be writing a menopause policy for myself? And isn’t that a bit weird? Why would I? That’s suddenly Oh, no, that’s all wrong. And I sort of went in this sort of circular debate with myself until finally I had a road to Damascus moment when I just thought well hang on a second. It’s not it’s not just about the woman going through menopause. It’s about everybody else being able to support and understand. And actually, I wouldn’t be where I was, if I didn’t have that. So you know, that very long explanation gets me to write okay, I’ve got to write a menopause policy. And I’ve always been quite fascinated about the biology of why things happen. And I found it online, just trying to understand more about menopause, everything’s incredibly opaque. In very medical language, really inaccessible, inaccessible. So it just took me ages, because I wanted to make it good and coherent and, you know, perhaps even a little bit entertaining. And so it took me out in about three months to write it. And by the time I’d finished writing it, I thought, oh, maybe no one else has got menopause policies, because they haven’t got the time to commit to writing something that’s actually helpful and interesting. And that’s when I thought, well, I should just make this open source because then hopefully more people will just take it and they can take it and they can better it and they can adapt It just seemed like a logical conclusion.


Louise Scodie – NABS  10:05

Do you know how many other businesses are adopting it or how many downloads you’ve had?


Melissa Robertson  10:11

To be honest, it’s mostly anecdotal, because you can just, you don’t have to download it, you can just take it and, and take it from the site and not actually have to physically download it. And to be honest, we haven’t tracked it. But I’ve spoken to a lot of agencies who say that they’ve used all or part of it. And I know that, you know, there are there are clients who’ve asked me to send it to them. And they’ve said that they’ve taken it and used loads of it. So yeah, I think anecdotally, it’s probably, if not been used in its entirety, it’s helped inform quite a lot of policies out there.


Louise Scodie – NABS  10:55

We will put a link to the policy in the show notes, do have a read it is extremely helpful. Was there anything that you didn’t pop on it that you’d had any feedback about afterwards that you’ve then gone on to include what you thought, oh, actually, that’s a really good point that we hadn’t thought of.


Melissa Robertson  11:13

I’ve slightly changed some of the reference materials and book recommendations because new books have come out. I guess the thing is, I I’m coming to realise is perhaps missing a little bit is early menopause, women experiencing menopause ahead of time, and there isn’t a coherent section on that. And I perhaps don’t know or understand quite as much about that. But I’ve been increasingly talking to people and feel that it’s probably something that would enhance it.


Louise Scodie – NABS  11:51

Yeah, that’s right. I’ve read a few features about women who have started their menopause journey much earlier, whether that’s through illness, or just because that’s how fate hit them. And, you know, they have added challenges to deal with on top of the usual and I guess it’s the same for trans and non binary people as well. They have all the usual menopause symptoms, plus everything else that they have to deal with.


Melissa Robertson  12:15

Yes, I mean, again, I haven’t I’ve, I’ve referred to the trans and non binary community, you know, in a name, sort of acknowledging that it’s not always somebody who presents necessarily as a woman. But I haven’t gone into sort of detail about how that might be different for different cohorts.


Louise Scodie – NABS  12:36

And I guess one of the things about the polity, it’s a springboard. So you’ve got a lot of information and your policy, and it will signpost to, perhaps other people within the menopausal community who need additional support, so your awareness has been raised. And then you can go off and do some research because there’s lots of information on the internet, I found Instagram is very good. There are lots of people talking about the menopause, whether it is exercise, mental health, fitness, all the aspects, which has been really great to see. So you’ve got all of this talk, and you’ve got the policies, how can organisations put them into practice to give good support?


Melissa Robertson  13:16

I think that’s the key question. Because I think there’s, there’s lots of talk in the talk. And there’s a sense that, you know, I’ve spoken to people who’ve gone great, it’s all out there, you know, job done, let’s sort of move on to the next thing. And whilst I think it’s obviously brilliant to be having far more public conversations about not just menopause, the gender pay gap, women’s health, you know, the balance of domestic labour, flexibility, trust, all of these things are really important to drive change. But, but it’s so important that talk is not enough, even just having a policy isn’t enough. It’s, you know, it’s a sort of, it’s a bit like with a maternity policy, you only look at it as and when you need it. But in this instance, we want to need everybody to understand, because we’re always going to have a partner, clients or CO colleague, and aren’t or yourself, somebody that’s going through it that we will come in, in touch within in our everyday lives. So I worry when people think that it’s done now, I think it’s one of those things that if you become aware of it being talked about, because you then become aware of it being you know, that sort of frequency bias. You think, oh, well, that’s it, it’s sorted. But there’s so much that still needs to be done and organisations mustn’t shy away from actually kind of activating the training, making sure managers really know and understand and implement it. And talk about it more. I think you can’t talk about it enough.


Louise Scodie – NABS  14:58

Absolutely. So what would be an example of something practical that we could do this week to help support teammate or direct report who is perimenopausal?


Melissa Robertson  15:11

I think there are lots of ways. I mean, first of all, you know, read our policy or read a good policy or go and buy a book about it go and watch demeanors brilliant documentaries, there are, you know, other great programmes out there as well, you can have fun and, you know, watch their, you know, comedy programmes and things like that just get more informed, and then you just become more attuned to it. So, I mean, I’ve talked to sort of young people in the office who have, you know, gone home at the weekends and watch the Davina programmes. And it’s great to talk to your mum about it. Because you know, so many people in our industry are in their 20s, right, they’ve probably got a mum that’s going through it, that they’ve never talked to them about it. So find sort of a, you know, a more approachable person, you know, someone that you’re close to that you don’t feel embarrassed talking about it because it shouldn’t be embarrassing, and, and I try to make sure when I talk to people, and actually, I’m amazed that they’re not embarrassed it because it shouldn’t be. No, it’s important. Yeah, it’s just what we are and do. Absolutely.


Louise Scodie – NABS  16:20

My attitude towards discussing the menopause is the same as my attitude towards discussing periods. It’s something that happens, and everybody needs to know about it. And if you’re going to know about one thing, and you also need to know about the other, there’s two sides of the same coin. And also, people make jokes about desk fans and stuff like that, oh, just fans are important. But it’s much more than that, isn’t it? Because there are so many symptoms for the menopause?


Melissa Robertson  16:54

I think and this, they’re very, they’re very diverse, diverse and different. And you don’t always expect them. So you know, I another thing I get is like really numb fingers. Suddenly, I’ll realise like, I’m actually can’t pick things up. And it’ll come from nowhere. And it’s not just a cold-related thing. It’s just it’s another sort of hormone related thing that happens, you know, really itchy skin. I always say if you see a sort of woman of a certain age sort of itching somewhere like here, you absolutely know it’s menopause.


Melissa Robertson  17:34

And it’s because you’ve got less oestrogen leads to a drop in collagen, so you just don’t have as much sort of moisture in your skin. And that’s why that’s why you get more itchy.


Louise Scodie – NABS  17:54

How’s our industry doing generally on equality, because the overall issue is one that you’re really passionate about. And as we’re looking forward to the end of this year, and the start of a new year, what changes would you like to see happen if you got, you know, a number one or two or your general policy wish list for the industry?


Melissa Robertson  18:18

I mean, I suppose it just goes back to the job is, is nowhere near done. And you know, you get all of these, you know, you hear these conversations about you know, all this has the pendulum swung too far the other way? And the answer that is no, it has not. I was at a conference last week. And there was this statistic that, you know, we still live in a world where only 1% of investment is in female-led businesses. And by the way that’s down, it’s gone down from 3%. So this is not and I worry so much about all of the conversations around, you know, working from home or, you know, using, you know, making sure that people are in the office and bums on seats. It’s so bad for the women that take responsibility, because it’s such a sort of staggering lack of trust. I think there’s a visibility problem. You know, I heard a debate the other day where, you know, some senior women were saying, we have to have if we want to have a seat at the table, we have to be physically visible. And I really rail against that argument, because not that they’re wrong. I think the irony is they’re not wrong. What pisses me off the most is that it’s a behaviour that is started by men has been a sort of men’s approach to the world for the last however many hundreds and however many years right and so we’re being forced to behave withIn those norms, not create new norms or accept new norms, you know, the pandemic created a whole new way of working, it was shitty for all kinds of reasons. But it demonstrated that great work can be done remotely, and that we aren’t always reliant on physically being there. And that’s not to say that physical meetings aren’t nice, and, you know, often good, but it shouldn’t be the only way to do business.


Louise Scodie – NABS  20:29

What’s happening with return to the office, how are you negotiating that?


Melissa Robertson  20:36

We, I mean, it’s slightly different for us, because we’re an agency that, you know, is really into sports and fitness and wellness. So we’ve got people that, you know, regularly training or playing for clubs or training for, you know, half Ironman, or, you know, doing boxing or, you know, various other bits and pieces. And sometimes that sort of, you know, requires them to be nearer to where those things take place. So, we have a trust model, where, you know, we will occasionally if you’ve got pitch or something, asked people to come in, and on the whole people actually quite enjoy coming in. But we don’t say you have to be in uncertain days, we just say come in and do what works for you. And we’ll trust you to do it. And of course, if we don’t feel that people are delivering, we’ll probably have a little bit of a word with them. But I’m a very strong believer in the fact that if you’ve got a skiver, you’ve got a skiver whether the remote or in the office, you can do absolutely bollocks all in an office.


Louise Scodie – NABS  21:39

Absolutely, and many people have through the ages. So if you’re going to work for Dark Horses, remember, presenteeism is out and CrossFit is in. So what’s your well being passion and how to keep yourself fit and active and topped up?


Melissa Robertson  21:54

So I have a dog. She loves a walk. So if I’m working from home, I’ll always do 5k hours walk with my husband in the morning with her before work. If I’m going into the office, I cycle and I’ve always cycled. So that’s, you know, a sort of, you know, 10k each way. And I love it. And I love both walking and I love cycling, I can’t really do other stuff. I used to be really sporty. But that’s resulted in totally screwed up knees and lots of operations. So sadly, I can’t I’m sort of slightly limited as to what I’m able to do. I can’t see running or stuff like that. I think maybe it’s some sort of thinking when I grew up, maybe I need to do some yoga.


Louise Scodie – NABS  22:40

But I was just going to say you need yoga and stretching.


Melissa Robertson  22:45

Yeah, I have. I think it’s a sort of, for me, it’s a psychology thing I’ve always been able to think of, you know, it’s isn’t it great. I’m dual tasking, I’m going into the office and getting my exercise. I’m walking the dog, and I’m guessing my exercise where it’s for something like yoga that you have to carve out time for. And it’s just a bit of a psychological issue, one that I need to get over. But also I’m a bit scared of being really shifted it?


Louise Scodie – NABS  23:16

Well, I think that’s the point is that you start off rubbish at it, and you might end up rubbish at it. But there’s lots of benefits on the way. Yeah, well, that’s my yoga sales pitch. There was something I was going to ask you before, which may be very obvious to some people and not to others. Why is the menopause a mental wellness issue?


Melissa Robertson  23:38

Well, I mean, you could ask the government, but they weren’t government a lot of things. Yes. There are so many mental health related symptoms in the menopause. And it’s, you know, anything from the very start, you know, we started talking about anxiety, anxiety, depression, mood swings, self esteem, these are all sort of huge mental health issues, but also just feeling unwell all the time. You know, tired, itchy, irrational, you know, all of these things are, but I think there are very specific sort of, you know, mental health symptoms that come to the fore for almost all women going through it. And, and part of the problem in our country is that not enough GPS, trained up in menopause, you know, somewhere like 42% of universities don’t even cover it in medical degrees. So you’ve got all of those GPS out there, who don’t always diagnose it. So women will be going and saying, I’m having some really, you know, terrible mood swings or I’m suffering from anxiety or depression or whatever, and there’ll be put on medication. Yeah, medication is not medication. That’s right. aid for women going through menopause and it can be genuinely detrimental. So I realised that’s not entirely answering your question. It’s going off on another tangent. But I think that sort of awareness and understanding, again, is just really important. People need to know. And when I say people, I mean medical professionals too.


Louise Scodie – NABS  25:17

How does the adlandcommunity lift you up?


Melissa Robertson  25:28

Do you know what I just I, it can be really tough. What we do, because you know, we are ultimately having to be people pleasers. And certainly in my role, you’re sort of often you know, caught between a rock and a hard place. But I, I just, you know, what we do is really fun, right? It’s not life or death. And you work with really bright people who are interested in all kinds of things and can get interested in things. But on the surface, you wouldn’t even imagine, is particularly interesting, but yet, you can find sort of hooks. And so what what we do, I think, lifts me because it’s joyful, right? It’s a, it’s a, we’re the fun part of our clients day. And then, you know, I have, I’m in the privileged position of being able to speak to lots of women across the industry on a regular basis, whether it’s through menopause conversations, or wakol, or things like that. And just the power of support, it’s genuinely lifting. It’s people are great people, when they’re great, are really, really great. And so good at lifting up people. And I don’t mean just women. I mean, you know, guys at work my partners, they, they’re there, and they do lift you and hopefully I lift them and you know, you have a bit of a laugh. But I think it’s a great industry to be in and we should enjoy it. But it’s supposed to be fun.


Louise Scodie – NABS  26:59

Absolutely. That’s it’s a big draw for people coming into the industry, because it’s not super serious. It is something where you can be creative and fun and work with interesting people. Finally, what’s the lesson that you’ve learned about how to support yourself?


Melissa Robertson  27:19

That’s  such a soul-searching question, isn’t it?


Louise Scodie – NABS  27:23

I like to be soul searching, or do your take, it could go either way.


Melissa Robertson  27:28

I mean, for me, I think it’s just about age and maturity to an extent just being comfortable with who you are not worrying about what other people think too much. You know, knowing that you can have a laugh, but I think probably the biggest actual sort of practical lesson is teaching myself to rest when I can’t sleep. It’s as simple as that to sort of go into a meditative state. And even if it feels if you’ve been awake for six hours in the night, you’ve still rested and can survive the next day. It’s been a very great skill I’ve learned about 20 years ago, and I use it regularly.


Louise Scodie – NABS  28:10

Sage advice, and next time I find myself awake with an itchy foot. I still think well, I’ll just have a rest. Like Melissa said it’s worked for her. It’ll work for me. Thank you so much for talking to us today. And thank you for all of your really industry leading work on the menopause, you really have shone a light on the on the issue and continue to do so. So thank you so much. As I said before, we will put a link to the open source policy in the shownotes and also a link to Melissa’s LinkedIn page as well so that you can find out more about her. In the meantime, thank you so much, Melissa. It’s been an absolute joy talking to you.


Donate to NABS to help us support the advertising and media family.

Need support?
Ask Support Bot…