Miss Smith’s Excellent Idea


Next to pay equality, the so-called glass ceiling and women’s lack of representation on Boards of Directors are the most often cited female career complaints. One of my favourite cartoons features the archetypal boardroom scene. The be-suited males gaze in a bovine manner at the lone female executive. Their chairman is saying “That’s an excellent idea Miss Smith, perhaps one of the men would like to have it.”

Even those of us sympathetic to the idea of an egalitarian society are somewhat bored with the issue of how many women are on the boards of FTSE100 companies. The ‘only ‘x’ per cent’ argument begs so many questions it has ceased to be interesting unless challenged with an Aristotlean ‘why do you think that is?’ To be useful, answers have to go way beyond the assumption that the problem is negative discrimination caused by male prejudice. This theory is usually accompanied by the debateable suggestion that if women were in charge, life would be fairer and nicer and much better managed.

The idea of a regime based on so-called more feminine values (not shouting, managing the household budget) has a superficial appeal, given the recent history of economic and political incompetence. But it is as yet dubious and unproven notwithstanding the example set by Aung San Suu Kyi and Angela Merkel. It is also of pretty limited application, confined to the interests of well-educated and highly paid professional classes.

However, being an ex-(m)adman my attention was caught by an item on Woman’s Hour earlier this month about the dearth of girls at the top of the advertising tree in the role of Creative Director. That is, the person ultimately responsible for the quality of the advertisements and much like a newspaper editor in function. You may not write the story but you make sure that you get the right story and that it is told right by the right quality hacks.

The three successful female ‘creatives’ called in witness agreed that it was tougher for women to make it to the highest office of their specialism. They had no conclusive insight as to why this was, other than that somehow the advertising process was sort of a bit ‘macho’. To be fair, their own success left them powerless to critique the profession. They could only mourn the failure of women to apply in more numbers for creative roles. Some sort of case was made based on apparent facts that suggested women made most buying decisions (83%) and what did men know about almost anything. It was all very inconclusive and saved mostly by the youngest of the participants who said she was delighted to be paid to play in a business she loved. This explains why the BBC really doesn’t like running pieces with real ad-folk.

Moving lightly on, I checked out the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising. It does seem that the number (56) and proportion (13%) of women in the topmost positions of ad. agencies have declined in recent years. Even more to the point a mere 3% of agency creative directors are women. That said, in gender terms employees in advertising are pretty much evenly represented. This is less true of ethnicity, but let’s not go there.
So why worry? Well not just the BBC, but other commentators and campaigners get cross about the stereotyping of females. It is argued that if women had a more powerful management position then less offence would be caused; and one supposes ads for cosmetics and washing powder would have a different style of presentation. Though if women make up such a majority of purchase decisions there is something of a dilemma if you can’t show their avatars (or as often is the case, their male minions) doing whatever it is they do.

In this vein, very recently, the Lynx brand of male toiletries has been castigated for sexism. Curiously, the creative director who presided over the brand’s engagingly old-fashioned take on how men who smell good drive women wild with desire is a woman. In the Woman’s Hour programme she refreshingly acknowledged having two teenage sons who provided insight into male fantasy.

On the site of a group called WACL (Women in Advertising and Communications London) one alumnus, in a shared call for more women in powerful advertising roles suggested that men could hardly be expected to write tampon ads. This is nonsense. So-called creative teams have the benefit of research (mostly undertaken and interpreted by women) to tell them what motivates consumers. In fact ad campaigns are created from a very tightly defined and well-informed brief. They are then subjected to severe scrutiny from more research and the dreaded client who is paying for the stuff and who is very often a woman. All of which might lead the uninformed to find it remarkable that so much bad advertising happens. But I digress.

The empathy factor also enables men to write about women’s products. I was in a meeting once with a client whose business included feminine hygiene aids. During the discussion a female research executive in the room exclaimed ‘you men just don’t understand’. To which one of the admen involved replied ‘oh, I do, I’ve been wearing one of your tampons all day.’ Anyway, men know about women’s cycles, bits and moods – at least enough to write reassuring ads. It isn’t that difficult. The difficulty is to make the proposition interesting and different.

Since there are as many women as men in advertising (a notably bourgeois profession) and even more in PR, the industry’s feminist issue does appear to resolve round why they don’t run creative departments. Or why, in general more of them don’t get on the boards of agencies. Maybe it is because they don’t really want to. In reality, the media as a whole features many truly high profile females as CEOs, Editors and the like; Rebekah Brooks for one. In another realm of show business – football – who would quibble with Karen Brady as a Top-Gun girlie? Although no one would dare to call her a girlie to her face.

Back in ad-world, the aforementioned WACL home page features a dozen high-flying women in the communications stratosphere. In my own career in the business, it seemed to me that women did what they wanted to do as professionals. Other than having to put up with the occasional randy and ageing director in the elevator, life was peachy enough. Creative departments are for creative people, so historically Dorothy L. Sayers and Fay Weldon were very successful as copywriters before zipping off to write for their livelihood. Advertising agencies are usually very agreeable places for clever people who have a facility for imaginative expression and a hedonistic tendency. Hence a contemporary of mine, Fay Maschler, became one of our most respected restaurant critics.
This point is made simply to say that advertising is far from a penal colony for women and has always welcomed their skills way beyond coffee making. The genders are equally represented, the pay is excellent and the conditions of work pretty damn good. Women do well. Even back in the eighties I remember having trouble finding enough good males for my client management department. One of my female account directors said ‘for God’s sake get in a few interesting men with great bums’.

There are loads of data on the various professions in which women do more or less well or badly. They tend to rely on the ‘only’ principle. For example only 10% of aerospace engineers are female. In contrast female pharmacists share their job space 50:50 with men. Unsurprisingly – to most of us and for many cultural reasons, it is in the social professions (health, medicine, education) that women are more equally present (and often dominant) and over the past 25 years have shown the greatest proportionate increase. Even within these generalities we find women comprise one third of all physicians and surgeons but nearly 7:10 psychologists. The only response to these analyses is either ‘aha!’ or ‘so what?’

Either way, explanation of these variations requires considerable deconstruction of the specific factors that link the question ‘where are we now?’ with ‘how did we get there?’

So far as advertising is concerned and the matter of the paucity of female creative directors I can do no better than acquiesce in my wife’s comment. ‘I know advertising is fun’ she said. ‘But at heart it is slightly silly games-playing.’ She meant I think that to become a top player in a silly game was a boy thing and that women are too serious-minded and practical to bother. That is to say, women like the frivolous stuff – much as they like shopping. But they can’t be bothered to struggle for a fragile supremacy in a profession where the creation of meerkats as icons represents the apogee of accomplishment. Not when there are so many more serious professions to conquer.

Looking back on it, the creative adwomen I knew were almost universally clever, witty people with whom it was a pleasure to work and, on occasion, play. Except that work and play were bundled up in a daily and often alcohol liberated continuum of conversations. And we did take it seriously. Some of the best intellectual exchanges occurred as boys and girls explored the psychic boondocks of the (often female and housewifely) consumer experience in the context of the client’s unshakeable belief in his product and its unique benefits. Being smart and creative were the criteria. Gender was irrelevant, although on a good day might become an interpersonal factor.

But for the most part, only the men seemed to want to take the career game forward to its ultimate conclusion. The ambitious women writers went off to their own futures as book writers or heads of foundations or journalists or whatever. The males in the creative arena slogged on like warriors with greater or lesser anxieties about their ability to sustain and adapt their creativity to the evolving demands and pressures on their tradecraft.

If we are to play the percentage game, grumpy women might like to reflect on how many male creative people have run the race and survived in the trenches of commercial brand warfare with small honours and awards but without having achieved the glory of being called ‘Creative Director’. In reality, ad agency creative directors, newspaper & magazine editors and football club managers have a lot in common. The job is to produce outstanding performance from inherently awkward performers. The reward is possibly a transient glory, but more often opprobrium followed by oblivion and a lurking sense of failure.

Only men or women with very sturdy self-esteem matched by an ability to present their ideas to a suspicious audience with the probability they will be rejected (and any good stand-up comedian will know this) should contemplate this profession. To stick with it enough to get to be called Creative Director is a task few can master. If women want to do it, there aren’t any barriers other than talent and will-power. In reality, talent is relative, will-power is essential.

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