Published in Jan-Feb 2022
Twenty-five years ago, I read an article in Creativity called Babes in Boyland that asked why there are so few women in an agency’s creative department. You may still ask the same question today – as someone back then once asked legendary copywriter Neil French at a forum of top creative talent. He replied that the work of women in creative departments is “crap... and they don’t make it to the top because they don’t deserve to.”
At the time, his words sent shockwaves across the industry, although to many this was no surprise. The reality is that men dominate the creative side of advertising and French was voicing the inner thoughts of a great number of his contemporaries. Of course, not only did this explain why more women weren’t succeeding in advertising, it played into how guys are more comfortable with guys, due to the homophily in network relationships – the tendency to gravitate to the similarly attributed by way of gender, race, education or lifestyle. In other words, men hire people like themselves (more men) to create an old boy’s network.
In this Darwinian context, it’s no surprise that it is the alpha-coated strengths that are rewarded, and women intent on professional creative success end up reflecting what would be seen as traditionally male characteristics. This is further compounded by a culture of all-male settings, whether it is golfing, drinking, or client meetings at private clubs where women are likely to feel alienated for not being “one of the boys.” Then, women are excluded from working on typically masculine accounts (like cars, finance, chainsaws, or anything containing Taurine…) even though they make up to 80% of household purchase decisions. By the time you reach the award shows and their heavily male or all-male juries, you find that peer recognition for women is hard to come by. Only as recently as 2004, the Chairman of the Cannes Lion International Festival for Creativity mandated that women have at least 25% of the judging positions as a way to dismember the profusion of awards created by men to reward men for creating advertising that (you guessed it) appeals to men.
Where have all the women gone? French may have implied that maternity leave often mutates into a permanent departure. However, the real issue may be entirely different. Motherhood brings radical shifts in perspective in ways, so that caring about the power men strive for may not matter to most women. In his defence, he later admitted that he was merely articulating cold, hard truths as “being a creative director is a hell of a job, and anyone interested in looking after a family just can’t devote the required time and energy.”
The other issue with the French attitude is its self-fulfilling prophecy. Once a male creative director (or any man for that matter) undervalues a woman’s abilities, the lens he sees her through creates an ecosystem of discrimination where the conditions for success become increasingly marginalised. This is especially true in commercial messaging where, for decades, women have been spoken to in the voice of men – largely because creative departments have traditionally been made up of men, so through no fault of their own, they tend to create advertising from a distinctly male perspective. Just as children are not little adults, you cannot appeal to women on the premise that they are not men.
Although there have been significant advances for women in marketing and advertising, giving them more influence within creative would help excel in two ways – better messaging for women (and maybe even men) and a better work environment. Firstly, because better talent is the genesis of better advertising, it is idiocy to ignore half the creative pool, and secondly, while work-life balance is important to women, especially those with children, it is as important for men, even if they are less likely to admit it.
Advertising needs a heavy dose of womancipation. It will make for an industry that is more egalitarian, more productive and more creatively relevant and effective – which adds up to your agency making more money.
Faraz Maqsood Hamidi is CE & CD, The D’Hamidi Partnership.