Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in May-Jun 2009

Under the glass ceiling

A seven-step 'women-in-advertising' survival programme.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

So you’re fresh out of art/business/any school and want to pursue advertising either out of choice or because you have no choice. And you are female. You may have heard stories about how advertising is not the place for ‘decent’ girls. Or stories about how terribly glamorous it is, cavorting with models and directors, parties galore. It’s your first day and you are twiddling your thumbs in between the odd trivial task, wondering when the real fun work will start. The studio hands look at you with disdain, while the directors (account/creative/art) see through you.

Here’s a seven-step guide on how to survive advertising if you’re female:

1. Be the tortoise, not the hare

If you are from Indus Valley, then before you form an opinion take a good look at the KU graduate sitting next to you. She will have great ideas and sooner or later will know how to package them and present them as well as you do. So don’t turn your nose up at her. Because slowly and surely she will inch forward. Also, leave the pill popping for the weekends and refrain from conspiracy theories while at work. Try to get to know people and learn to accept them for what they are. KU grads – leave the preconceptions at home, just be who you are.

2. Surviving the tharak mafia

There is one in every agency. If you are lucky it will be confined to just one person. And if you are luckier, there will be enough people to put the tharki in his place. If there is more than one and no one appears to want to do anything about it, change your job. The angst is just not worth it, no matter how impressive the accounts are. If there is just one to deal with then take a stand and send a well documented complaint to HR. Sad as it may seem, the seemingly anachronistic advertising world of Mad Men is still thriving in many agencies in our part of the world… without the witty dialogue and sophistication.

3. The lone ranger needs a sidekick

Advertising agencies are notorious for being hotbeds of insecurity and politics. And so there are many who prefer to work in isolation. Women unfortunately are more likely to do this than men because they make the mistake of competing against their own gender rather than competing against themselves. Learn to work with others (both men and women), brainstorming in a group not only yields better ideas but allows you to bond with the rest of the team. Create an atmosphere of team-manship and trust even if it doesn’t exist yet in your workplace.

4. Create contenders

Pakistani agencies suffer from a lack of succession planning. The higher a person goes up the creative or client service ladder, the more prone they become to guarding their skills and tools closely to themselves, not sharing with subordinates for fear of being replaced by the underling. The problem is that if people don’t train others to do their jobs, they will find themselves doing the same work in the same way for the rest of their working lives.

5. It’s a man’s world

No matter which agency you join, you will be a part of a very small group of women in a sea of men. And nowhere will you feel this sense of marginalisation more than in the studio. You may try to win respect by throwing your weight around and then, having failed to do so, retreat to your seat muttering nasties about them. You need to remember that the operator in the studio probably has no female family member in the workplace and views you as a spoilt girl working simply to occupy her time before marriage. What you also need to remember is that he is technically more sound with all things Photoshop than you will ever be. So here is what you do. Eat some humble pie, adopt a more deferential tone and instead of telling him what to do, tell him you need help and ask him what he thinks of a particular idea. Chances are you will learn a lesson in diplomacy and get a whole lot more work done in the studio. And he might realise that working with women isn’t too bad.

6. At your service

Advertising is a service industry, which means you never switch your phone off, are always on call and can look forward to many late nights. That is the truth. More so for the client service executive than the creative. This is one of the reasons why women shy away from client service. The hours are intense and the constant to-ing and fro-ing with the client is tedious at best. But if this is what you really want to do then be a man, roll up your sleeves, get to know the brand and target consumers better than the brand manager, be proactive in suggesting initiatives which may potentially build business and say goodbye to a social life. At least until you can educate your client and boss on the benefits of work/life balance.

7. You’re not an artist, goddammit!

Ah, the creative female. You are here to build business for the client and earn more money for the agency and not create great art or win awards. Secondly, please observe the male creative carefully. He had to fight against convention to get there because this is what he really, really wants to do. So he will work harder and learn faster. And if you are there because you couldn’t figure out what else to do, then he will leave you behind. Again, if you want to stick around long enough for a shot at the CD job, then leave the PMS at home, resist the temptation to flounce out at five by saying “I have a life”. Understand the brand and the consumer better than the client service manager does, sharpen your skills and position yourself as a concept writer rather than a visualiser.

If it all seems a bit grim, well, grim it is. Having a healthy work/life balance is necessary. Being able to successfully juggle office and home is desirable. But this is not an industry for the fainthearted. Go boldly forth if this is truly, madly and deeply what you want to do with the rest of your life and are willing to put in the time and effort to do your job brilliantly. If that is the case, then you will eventually figure out how to fit your personal life into all of this. And you will find out more about your countrymen than in any history book, you will make great friends, learn how to sell dreams, discover the power of a great idea and collect a lifetime of experiences. Be true to yourself, be true to the agency that hires you and be true to the clients who trust you with their most valuable assets.

S. Hyder works for an advertising agency in Pakistan.