Break­ing up the boys’ club

If women are to truly thrive in the me­dia, mar­ket­ing, ad­ver­tis­ing and comms in­dus­try, we must re­think the whole sys­tem.

Campaign Middle East - - FRONT PAGE -

In 1968, in the very first is­sue of Cam­paign UK, Beryl Stevens, man­ag­ing direc­tor of an­i­ma­tion com­pany Larkin Stu­dios, laid out the chal­lenge fac­ing women in the cre­ative in­dus­tries in stark terms: “Ob­vi­ously, some things have hap­pened dif­fer­ently be­cause I’m a woman, but I’d like to think I’m not an odd­ity. Once you’re picked, you’re OK – but you mustn’t make any mis­takes.”

This was decades be­fore Face­book dis­rupted the me­dia land­scape with its in­fa­mous “move fast and break things” mantra. For the hand­ful of women who made it to the top of the cre­ative in­dus­tries, to fail fast – or fail at all – was sim­ply not an op­tion. This is be­cause women were of­ten held to dif­fer­ent stan­dards from their male peers; ob­jec­ti­fied, over­looked or ridiculed and con­sid­ered an odd­ity. In an era when self-pro­mo­tion was a dis­tinc­tively fem­i­nine crime, build­ing a pro­file and mak­ing a mark pre­sented a unique set of chal­lenges.

Yet, far from be­ing a relic of a by­gone age, th­ese chal­lenges con­tinue to knock women’s cre­ative ca­reers. In an in­dus­try that re­mains ret­i­cent to bury the male-led myth of the “cre­ative rock­star”, per­haps it is not a step too far to see a red thread be­tween the lack of me­dia cov­er­age given to women in ad­ver­tis­ing and the eye-wa­ter­ing gen­der pay gap.


Con­sid­er­ing it has been 50 years since Cam­paign be­gan telling the sto­ries of ad­ver­tis­ing, chal­leng­ing the nar­ra­tive sur­round­ing women in the in­dus­try is long over­due. The lack of gen­der di­ver­sity may be just the tip of the ice­berg when it comes to ad­dress­ing the in­dus­try’s di­ver­sity prob­lem, but it is none­the­less an ur­gent is­sue.

Cindy Gal­lop, a con­sul­tant and the founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Make Love Not Porn, says the in­dus­try is nowhere near reach­ing equal­ity. “How far there is still to go de­pends on how far each of us goes, who wants to see real change – women and men in­cluded. Don’t wait for things to change. Make them change,” she says.

There is no ques­tion that the in­dus­try is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly aware of the bar­ri­ers that women face in build­ing both their pro­files and ca­reers. Gina Hood, pres­i­dent of Bloom, says from tack­ling overt sex­ism to deal­ing with more nu­anced chal­lenges fu­elled by gen­der at­ti­tudes and as­sump­tions, sta­tus-quo nar­ra­tives are now un­der siege.

She ex­plains: “To ac­cel­er­ate progress, our in­dus­try needs to keep ques­tion­ing the ac­cepted nar­ra­tives of how women are per­ceived in the work­place. We need to re­de­fine what we mean by suc­cess and good lead­er­ship, so that get­ting ahead doesn’t mean women need­ing to change them­selves in or­der to reach the top. And we need to make sure men are in­volved at the heart of this con­ver­sa­tion. We have to do it to­gether.”

So far, progress is glacial; data from in­dus­try body the In­sti­tute of Prac­ti­tion­ers in Ad­ver­tis­ing’s (IPA’s) Di­ver­sity Sur­vey, carried out in part­ner­ship with Cam­paign ear­lier this year, shows that only 30.9 per cent of C-suite roles at UK ad agen­cies are held by women, up marginally from 30.3 per cent in 2016. The IPA’s tar­get of women hold­ing 40 per cent of all se­nior po­si­tions by 2020 is ap­pear­ing out of reach.

For Sarah Gold­ing, chief ex­ec­u­tive and part­ner of The & Part­ner­ship and pres­i­dent of the IPA, the fact that she is only the sec­ond fe­male IPA pres­i­dent in 100 years is proof that things are chang­ing too slowly. She says: “We have a way to go. But I am sure we will get there, not just be­cause it is morally and cul­tur­ally right, but be­cause it is com­mer­cially im­per­a­tive too. Agen­cies would sim­ply be bet­ter at what they do for clients if they were more rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the au­di­ences they com­mu­ni­cate with, and that means we should have an equal bal­ance of gen­ders across all lev­els of se­nior­ity.”


Women in ad­ver­tis­ing, as in many other in­dus­tries, face a dual chal­lenge; not only are they re­spon­si­ble for their own ca­reer tra­jec­tory (or lack thereof), but they are of­ten held solely re­spon­si­ble for tack­ling gen­der in­equal­ity and sex­ism. It may be 50 years since Beryl Stevens de­clared that women “mustn’t make any mis­takes”, but the dou­ble bind of be­ing a woman in ad­ver­tis­ing re­mains.

For all the at­ten­tion on the need to drive equal­ity and di­ver­sity, the gen­uine hard work, com­mit­ment and in­vest­ment nec­es­sary to change es­tab­lished cul­tures re­mains thin on the ground. Chaka Sob­hani, chief cre­ative of­fi­cer at Leo Bur­nett Lon­don, urges the in­dus­try to stay op­ti­mistic but also re­al­is­tic, oth­er­wise it will lose the mo­men­tum. She ex­plains: “There’s still a long way to go to break up old struc­tures – it’s hap­pen­ing, but needs to hap­pen quicker, oth­er­wise we’ll lose more bril­liant fe­male tal­ent to other cre­ative or­gan­i­sa­tions and in­dus­tries where they can thrive.”

Amid the hyper-mas­cu­line rhetoric of the “war for tal­ent”, the real work of shift­ing the work­ing cul­ture is all too of­ten lost in trans­la­tion.


The cre­ative in­dus­tries, like many oth­ers, are cur­rently grap­pling with the chal­lenge of five gen­er­a­tions work­ing side by side in the work­place. Yet, cul­tur­ally, the ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try may still have one foot in the past.

Lind­sey Clay, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Thinkbox, says the in­dus­try is still liv­ing in the shadow of the 1980s. “There is an il­lu­sion of progress and there are still forces work­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion,” she says. “We have had this wave of re­sponse from women, and then you fast for­ward to the present day and you look at [Brett] Ka­vanaugh and you think: how much has re­ally changed?”

Point­ing to the fact that the Gus­tavo Martinez de­ba­cle has only re­cently set­tled (the for­mer J Wal­ter Thomp­son global chief ex­ec­u­tive con­tro­ver­sially stayed at WPP for more than two years af­ter step­ping down from his JWT role in March 2016 over al­le­ga­tions that he made sex­ist and racist re­marks), Clay says the same set of con­di­tions ex­ist in ad­land as in pol­i­tics. “The es­tab­lish­ment ral­lied round, go­ing to end­less lengths to pro­tect him,” she con­tin­ues. “If you look at lead­er­ship po­si­tions, we all know of peo­ple with ap­palling records that are still in au­thor­ity. There is no room for com­pla­cency.”

The 1980s have also cast a long shadow for Melissa Robertson, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Now. She

says that while we’re be­yond the mind­less sex­ism and out­ra­geous be­hav­iour of the 1980s and 1990s, there is still a strong ma­cho na­ture to the cul­ture, at­ti­tudes and be­hav­iours of the in­dus­try. “I’m on the IPA Coun­cil and it’s still dom­i­nated by men. See­ing the pic­tures of Sarah Gold­ing en­joy­ing a cen­te­nary lunch with past pres­i­dents made me just want to hug her and Ni­cola Men­del­sohn,” she says. It’s a com­ment that re­flects the col­lec­tive fo­cus of many women in the in­dus­try, whether through groups such as Wacl, Bloom and Cre­ative Equals, or as in­di­vid­u­als. It’s even ev­i­dent across

Cam­paign’s 50-year ar­chive, where women sup­port­ing women was a move­ment long be­fore it be­came a hash­tag.


For Gold­ing, tack­ling the chal­lenge of nur­tur­ing and keep­ing women in the in­dus­try through their ca­reers is vi­tal to suc­cess. She ex­plains: “Women have to know that ad­ver­tis­ing is an en­vi­ron­ment that is sup­port­ive of com­mit­ments be­yond work and ac­tu­ally wel­comes pro­gres­sive at­ti­tudes to balancing fam­ily life and work life. And this is only go­ing to get more acute for the in­dus­try as it seeks to at­tract mil­len­ni­als, known to be more de­mand­ing of their em­ploy­ers to help them man­age their time and op­por­tu­ni­ties out­side of work.

“Com­pound­ing this, ad­ver­tis­ing is no longer the only sexy cre­ative busi­ness in town. We need to act now to stop the brain drain and at­tract and re­tain women at all lev­els and en­sure long-term, sat­is­fy­ing ca­reers.”

For an in­dus­try that is so cre­ative in its out­put, it has not shown the same breadth of think­ing about how, when and how much peo­ple work.

Cam­paign’s ar­chive re­flects the ways in which the in­dus­try has grap­pled with this is­sue over time. In the 1990s, a plan to cre­ate a cen­tral Lon­don crèche was quashed be­cause “women would need to col­lect their ba­bies at 10pm”, mak­ing it too late for the crèche to be a fea­si­ble so­lu­tion. Even to­day, cer­tain cor­ners of ad­land are slow to recog­nise that work­ing struc­tures, not work­ing par­ents, are the prob­lem.

Ac­cord­ing to Clay, the in­dus­try needs to ac­knowl­edge the cul­tural change re­quired to clear away the ob­sta­cles women face. “There is a dif­fer­ence be­tween hav­ing a flex­i­ble cul­ture rather than hav­ing flex­i­ble work­ing. Un­less you put the struc­tures in place, the right tech­nol­ogy and at­ti­tudes, it just won’t work,” she ex­plains. “As an in­dus­try, we shy away from that, and our ca­sual cre­ative cul­ture can eas­ily cre­ate a sense of in­sid­ers and out­siders. There are a lot of cul­tural is­sues we have to ac­knowl­edge.”


The in­dus­try’s well-doc­u­mented prob­lem with sex­ual ha­rass­ment is per­haps one of the most in­sid­i­ous ways in which cre­ative am­bi­tions have been crushed. The #MeToo move­ment has ex­panded the bound­aries of what kinds of sto­ries must be taken se­ri­ously. By bring­ing a much fuller pic­ture of fe­male hu­man­ity into view, the move­ment has em­pow­ered the in­dus­try to change – not least through the TimeTo ini­ta­tive. Many in the in­dus­try are pas­sion­ate about en­sur­ing that change is both mean­ing­ful and long-term, re­flected by the fact that, when women were asked what they would do dif­fer­ently if they were to start their ca­reers again, speak­ing up and call­ing out bad be­hav­ior is at the top of the list.

Robertson says: “I watched so much in­ap­pro­pri­ate stuff hap­pen­ing and we

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