Breaking up the boys' club: the next 50 years of women in advertising

Breaking up the boys' club: the next 50 years of women in advertising

If women are to truly thrive in our industry, we need nothing less than a complete overhaul of working life.

#TellHerStory is produced in partnership with Publicis Groupe and Stylist

In 1968, in the very first issue of Campaign, 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 to 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.

With this in mind, over the next five weeks Campaign will be digging into its archives to re-write the stories of some of the most trailblazing women in the industry, successfully changing the narrative and achieving success on their own terms. These will include: Marilyn Baxter, the first woman on the board at Saatchi & Saatchi and the vice-chairman and executive planning director; Laura Gregory, chairman and executive producer at Great Guns; Claudine Collins, managing director of MediaCom UK; and Caroline Jones, the president and creative director of the New York agency that bore her name.

Changing the narrative

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 to address.

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 the IPA’s Diversity Survey, carried out in partnership with Campaign earlier this year, shows that only 30.9% of C-suite roles at UK ad agencies are held by women, up marginally from 30.3% in 2016. The IPA’s target of women holding 40% 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."

The power of the collective

Women in advertising, like 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 long shadow of the 1980s

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.

Bridging the flexibility gap

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."

A 'calling out' culture

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 all fidgeted a bit uncomfortably and let it pass. Is it right to watch a male boss massaging employees' earlobes? Is it right to let it happen to you? And that was just the tip of the iceberg. It wasn't right, and we knew it, but at the time we felt powerless to effect change. No longer is that the case.

"It's difficult to make yourself heard in a room full of seemingly hyper-confident men. Invariably, I just couldn't be arsed as they all strutted and preened. But, actually, we need to be arsed. We've got good stuff to say and we need to say it."

New beginnings: the next 50 years

The future of women in advertising is increasingly built on creating a space in which women's voices are heard. Already, the power of these voices for change is bringing a renewed sense of urgency and energy to the creative landscape. Leyya Sattar is one of these voices, having founded diversity organisation The Other Box in September 2016 as she was frustrated that diversity was only focusing on gender. "Two years on, we can see how the conversation has shifted, but there is still so far to go when talking about diversity and equality, in an intersectional way where no voices are ignored or silenced," she says.

Sattar urges young women starting out today to embrace everything about themselves that make them "different". "All of the things you wanted to hide, so you could assimilate and fit in – embrace it all, as it will lead to your passion and purpose," she explains.

Change is also happening within agency structures; Creative Equals' Ali Hanan points to new leadership teams, such as Annette King’s Publicis and the success of brands such as Wunderman, as a sign of the positive winds of change.

Never a better time to be a woman in advertising

Amid the continuing fight to challenge stereotypes and reach gender parity, Libby Brockhoff, co-founder of Mother and chief executive and co-founder of Odysseus Arms, thinks there is no better time to be a woman in the industry. "I’m in my eighth year as a female agency owner, and when I started I couldn’t even get anyone to even write about it. Yet if I were to open now, I feel I would get a ton of coverage," she says. "The industry is interested in female leaders because they need them." However, she adds: "In the last couple of years, lots of agencies run by men have put a lot of women forward in the press, but they haven’t made that real meaningful change within the companies they work for."

For Brockhoff, making the change happen is about confidence as well as challenging outdated structures. She explains: "Our confidence compared to men is terrible. Men overestimate their abilities, while women are so diligent they look for 100% perfection, when the truth is women need to take a punt more. Confidence matters as much as competence."

Monetise your frustrations

There are myriads of reasons for creative women to believe in themselves and their value to the industry. Hanan points to the demand for junior creative women, who are being offered salaries above their male peers (although parity is not reflected in senior roles). "In a time of disruption, as we see the shakedown of current models, the future is theirs for the taking. When we can show our junior talent clear career paths, they – and the industry – will flourish like never before." 

For Gallop, this future cannot arrive soon enough, and she reminds women in the industry of the burgeoning opportunities to monetise their frustrations. "Start your own business as soon as possible. Look around you at what's missing in our industry, at what you wish were there, at what you think you can bring to the table," she says. "Start it, build it, scale it, sell it for an absolute goddamn fucking shit-ton of money and use that money to fund disruptive female-founded ventures that reinvent ad tech, brand tech, martech and the industry as a whole, and in turn make a ton more money that will make the industry finally appreciate that the future of advertising is female, because the men in it will not be convinced any other way."  

Rewriting the future

So what will success look like for women in advertising over the next 50 years? Mark Read, chief executive of WPP, says that over that period technology will have advanced so much that it is hard to make any sort of prediction about how we will work. He says: "Different skills will be valued. AI will replace many jobs, create new ones and make others more valuable. Despite this, one thing must be constant, which is our commitment at WPP to build a culture where there are no glass ceilings, barriers or stereotypes that limit each individual from reaching their potential."

He believes the group needs to lead the way not just in being inclusive, collaborative and diverse in its talent and how it behaves as a company, but also in realising the impact of its work and influence in changing society. He continues: "We are doing it now as part of our Common Ground initiative to help achieve gender equality by 2030 and through our partnership with UN Women empowering women and girls across the world. Over the next 50 years, our industry must be at the centre of helping to build a society where gender inequality and discrimination are things of the past and where we no longer need to have debates about the future of women in advertising."

Gallop thinks the future for women in advertising is built on women creating their future based on their own values. She explains: "The future for women in advertising is us redesigning, reinventing and rebuilding the industry we all want to work in – one where women's creativity, talent, skills, experience and insight are welcomed, celebrated, championed, valued and rewarded, and not sexually harassed and abused out of existence. I can't wait."

For Creative Equals, it means a world where gender parity is achieved and they will be out of a job. As Hanan states simply: "In an ideal world, Creative Equals won't exist in 50 years. And this article will be a piece of history."

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