Jillian Bannister

Championing leadership, gender equality and creativity

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we sat down with Jillian Bannister, CEO and cofounder of Ext. Marketing, to talk about the forces that shaped her as a woman in the c-suite and how she strives to create a culture where all genders can thrive, produce their most creative work and achieve outstanding outcomes for clients.

In conversation with Jillian Bannister

What inspired you to be an entrepreneur?

I always knew I wanted to be a business owner. I love the idea of building something from scratch and growing and scaling it. I love a good challenge. I find it fun to face and solve issues and to partner with smart, interesting people while doing so. My morning game of Wordle with my first cup of coffee is just a warm-up.

What was your catalyst for starting Ext. Marketing?

I spent many years working and ‘growing up’ on the client side – helping large financial brands devise their marketing strategies. As part of that experience, I worked with numerous agencies as vendors, but found the process to be challenging and tedious because most agencies were generalists in nature and they weren’t fluent in financial products, players or the regulatory environment. This resulted in a heavier lift for me. When I was introduced to Ext.’s co-founder Richard Heft, we recognized a significant gap in the market: a marketing firm specializing in financial services marketing. Over 13 years ago, we joined forces to tackle this white space – and never looked back. Today, we serve the full financial services marketing ecosystem – from newly launched hedge funds to globally diversified asset management platforms.

When did you realize there was gender bias and how did you try to solve it?

I always admired women in leadership positions when I was growing up. I was riveted when listening to stories of my parents’ friends talking about their work experiences working in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. These working women had every obstacle thrown at them: condescending treatment from colleagues; pay inequity; juggling home and work. I always admired them for pushing through and not letting those obstacles stop them from achieving their goals. They were resilient, resourceful and had a good sense of humor along the way. These earlier generations paved the way for women of my generation to have a better work experience – and I am grateful for that. But we still have a lot of work to do. I try to solve inequality by elevating the women and men in my organization – giving them opportunities to learn and grow in an environment where the quality of their work speaks louder than their gender. Today, our team is 45% male and 55% female – so a relatively balanced split. And I’m proud to share that we have seven women in leadership roles (Director and above). Women’s voices and ideas drive a lot of the results! But at the end of the day, it’s a collaborative effort, and everyone can contribute to the next big idea, and the next success.

Have you seen any trends in how your clients’ conversations about gender are changing?

Our clients – large asset managers and alternative managers alike – are embracing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) as well as Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues. They have realized how additive inclusion can be, and the value in building teams with many perspectives versus a single view.

Today, gender is a totally different conversation, with many nuances. As an employer, it’s important to be open and proactive to secure the best talent, and that means maintaining an open mind and fostering an inclusive, equitable workplace.

Why is diversity important at Ext.? What role do you play as a leader?

My role as CEO is to build an environment, an ideal space, where creativity and collaboration can thrive. The more perspectives at the table, the better. I firmly believe that diversity leads to better solutions. The merit and the caliber of a person’s work and thinking should stand on their own. When you make quality and collaboration the priorities, you arrive at the best solutions that can drive outcomes for clients. And that simple equation has been key to unlocking success and growth at Ext.

What is your philosophy toward leading?

I believe in leading by example, rolling up your sleeves, working alongside the team. My goal is to reduce any power/privilege imbalance between senior, seasoned team members and younger employees. I believe that true mentorship and learning can only take place when people are comfortable and set up for success.

The core pillars of our culture are Excellence, Collaboration and Working Smarter. If all three of these dimensions are in place, I believe every team member will be well served in their personal goals and Ext. will be well positioned to achieve its corporate goals.

Why is it important to achieve balance and how did COVID transform that?

The pandemic put a lot of pressure on workplaces across the world. But it also spurred positive changes in our workplaces and our families. We’ve realized that mental health and physical health need to be priorities if we want to succeed. More parents are sharing responsibility for parenting and maintaining their households. Colleagues are supporting each other if someone is off sick, or if they need a moment to help their kids with online learning. Getting through a common challenge like this requires flexibility and empathy. I think it’s made us better problem solvers – with a better understanding of the needs of others.

What role does good partnership play?

People often ask how Richard and I have maintained such a strong business partnership, given so many end in failure. I think we have been successful because we both came into the partnership with the attitude that failure was not an option. We also have very different skill sets and therefore complement each other. It’s very Ying and Yang. We’re aware of what the other person is good at and are honest about our strengths and weaknesses.

What is something people don’t know about you?

I wrote a book, Practically Divorced: A Woman’s Practical Guide to a Successful Divorce, inspired by my personal journey. I went through a challenging divorce and had to rebuild my life – all while caring for a newborn baby. During the process, I felt there was no practical guide that easily explained the system and how best to get through it. I hired a researcher, conducted a series of surveys, and synthesized the takeaways into a single, short guide. My goal was to empower women and give them the tools to go through this often-traumatic process and come out ahead. It was cathartic to write, but the best part was meeting all the amazing women along the way. I saw it as one way that I could contribute to the evolving dialogue – and help others to benefit from my lessons learned.

What habits/rituals contribute to your success?

Exercise – I am religious about it. I turn off my phone in the evenings and try to reduce screen time. Recharging is important to creativity. I am also adamant about booking vacations in two-week spans. I don’t think you start to disconnect until the end of the first week.

What one piece of advice would you give to a young woman starting out in her career?

Having a vision is very powerful. Once you determine that, you can work backwards and surround yourself with a network of people you trust and admire to achieve it. Sheryl Sandberg’s book Leaning In really resonated with me. Women are often taught to shy away from praise or recognition. But they shouldn’t be afraid to articulate and strive for what they want. It’s not always easy to own and make a game plan for your success, but it’s something important for young women starting out in their careers to do. It won’t always happen from day one, but persistence pays off.

What was the last book you read?

David Sedaris, The Best of Me. I literally laughed out loud every night. Laughter is so important and having a sense of humor is vital to solving problems, because it’s never a straight line to the solution.

Tell us about why philanthropy is important.

It’s appropriate that we’re talking on the eve of International Women’s Day. Giving back to the community has always been a priority for Richard and me. That’s why we decided to support a cause that my family has been involved in since I was a kid, Ernestine’s Women’s Shelter. For me, access and economic mobility are critical to a high-functioning economy. Women living in abusive situations have these two things – among many others – stripped away from them. Ext. is committed to helping Ernestine’s keep its doors open and end the cycle of violence against women – a challenge COVID has only amplified. Tackling gender bias can’t happen without ensuring women have achieved security at this most basic of levels. And this is a challenge we are proud to help solve.

Help us to elevate women

Connect with Jillian on LinkedIn to continue the conversation, or help Ext. in supporting the good work of Ernestine’s Women’s shelter.

Looking for innovative and creative ways to bring your marketing to the next level? Ext. has the expertise you need. Contact us today at 1.844.243.1830 or info@ext-marketing.com.