Dancing on the ceiling: the worrying absence of executive women in advertising

When it comes to the role of women in advertising, things have come a long way from the days of sexism, smoking and secretaries portrayed in Mad Men. But the top positions in the industry are still dominated by men. So why are there ‘too many dicks on the dancefloor’? Is anything being done to address the issue? And what are the benefits of more gender diversity? Holly Bagge investigates.

By Holly Bagge | January 29, 2016 | features

After hearing the news on Tuesday that Nicky Bell had departed Saatchi & Saatchi, the team here at StopPress felt it was the right time to share this NZ Marketing feature with our online readers. The piece asks the question of why there aren’t enough women in top tier positions in advertising in New Zealand and explores the benefits of gender diversity in this field.

While researching for this piece, I was very lucky to meet Nicky Bell twice as she was kind enough to set aside two, two-hour slots for me to take from her everything I needed. I remember sitting in the waiting room in the Saatchi office, a bit nervous, flicking through a heavy book of celebrity portraiture photographs by Brian Smith, when I heard the approaching sound of kitten heels on floorboards, and there appeared Nicky Bell with communications director Isabelle Kerr-Newell in tow. Bell had a wide, warm smile, was dressed well, and exerted a commanding presence. You could tell she had the full respect of the co-workers that flitted about her. Bell was calm, patient, gave me the time of day and made me feel at ease.

While I won’t go into any detail on our discussion right now, as you will read the contents of it below. I would like to say that while the time may have felt right for Bell to move on to a new stage in her working life, it is a worry for the industry that it has lost one of the few women at an executive level. There is still a bottleneck for women trying to get to the top. These women need to be supported, encouraged and reminded of their unique strengths, abilities and perspectives and primed for leading positions. And women in turn need to ‘lean in’, put their hands up, take risks and make their strengths known.

I expect not everyone will agree with what I’ve written below, but I hope this piece will provide some food for thought for the industry about the valuable insights women can bring to the table, which applies just as much to a diversity perspective.  

In August, after it was announced John Campbell had joined Radio New Zealand and would take up a drivetime position and replace Mary Wilson, many New Zealanders began celebrating his return with gleeful posts on social media. But Rachel Smalley took an opposing view and wrote an opinion piece drawing attention to the fact that we were introducing “yet another white male broadcaster to prime time, at the expense of a strong, capable, experienced female interviewer”.

Despite the fact Wilson was actually becoming Campbell’s boss, Smalley went on to name the hosts of New Zealand’s main primetime radio shows—all male, apart from RNZ’s Susie Ferguson who she named “the lone female voice in prime time”—and argued that a male perspective on issues such as domestic abuse, sexual violence, funding cuts to Women’s Refuge, and the gender pay gap is very different to that of woman’s. 

The column created plenty of discussion, and a similar argument could be made about the world of advertising, for it, in many ways, shapes how we see the world from a young age and also has a distinct lack of gender diversity. 

Globally, the statistics of leading women in agencies are so low that at one stage only three percent of creative directors were female, according to the 2004 Communications Arts Advertising Annual. In response, US-based Kat Gordon started the Three Percent Conference, which is held annually and builds a case for more female leaders in advertising, particularly on the creative side.

But, things are gradually changing and now 11 percent of creative directors are female, and while the number is still low, it is moving upwards.

In New Zealand, at least, there are now many women in leadership roles within agencies. OMD chief executive Kath Watson says she has witnessed this change first-hand. 

“It was male-dominated,” she says. “When I started the girls were in media and they were the secretaries. I worked in Colenso in the early days and they were all boys, all of them … None of the creative department were women. But it has changed a lot and many of the young people coming through are women.”

CAANZ chief executive Paul head agrees.

“In my life as a client going back over 20 years I have definitely seen a change within demographics in the industry and that’s a good thing,” he says.
“It’s far less male-dominated than it used to be. My sense is that there has been a change, but that is probably not so much to do with this industry, I think it’s part of a broader societal change.”

Head says when you walk through agencies these days there tends to be a reasonably even gender mix. “We [CAANZ] haven’t done an industry demographic survey, but my anecdotal position is that the gender mix is around 50/50 within areas of the industry … If you look at some of the leading agencies, you’ve got people like Nicky Bell, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, you’ve got Livia Esterhazy, managing director at Clemenger BBDO, Kath Watson, CEO of OMD, the largest media agency in the country, you’ve got Louise Bond running Spark PHD.”

But when looking at the executive board of CAANZ, which is made up of elected chief executive officers of a number of member agencies, there are only three females to eight males. 

In response, Head says members are elected by their peers. “There’s strong representation from strong women around the table.”

Stuck in the middle

Sharon Henderson, founder and director of Federation, former managing director of DDB and former chief executive of Aim Proximity New Zealand and Clemenger Proximity Australia, says there are too many women in middle and junior roles in advertising and not enough women being promoted into executive roles.

“Executive management roles are when you are privy to the true workings of the agency at a network profitability level, and there are very few women who are truly privy to that.” 

Head also says there aren’t a lot of female executive creative directors. 

“Interestingly, women are well represented in the planning ranks,” he says. “ … Three of the largest and most successful agencies have women running their planning departments.”

But he says there’s a danger the imbalance could shift even further as the industry becomes more focused on digital because “what’s coming out of tertiary institutions at the moment is that digital courses tend to be more male representative”. 

Henderson says the advertising industry needs to create long-term career paths for its rising stars. “I think a lot of females can see client-side marketing roles as faster career paths than senior [agency] roles,” she says. “And senior roles where there is a long-term career for them. And I can think of a dozen females who if they had stayed in advertising would have remained in middle level roles but they are in heads of marketing roles or heads of business roles on the client side. And I think that is talent loss for our industry.”

When asked to comment, ANZA’s chief executive Lindsay Mouat said he wasn’t certain there was much he could add.

Money talks 

This isn’t just a case of equality for equality’s sake, however. Saatchi & Saatchi’s Nicky Bell says having a balance of genders in the workplace is simply good business and there is an authentic interest in the business case for diversity and how that can affect GDP. A Goldman Sachs report has asserted that closing the gender pay gap would boost the level of New Zealand’s GDP by as much as ten percent.

The gap currently sits at 11.8 percent in New Zealand, up from 9.9 percent last year, according to the Ministry for Women. In another study of the Fortune 500, companies with the highest percentile of women on their boards outperformed those in the lowest percentile by 53 percent higher return on equity, 42 percent higher return on sales and 66 percent higher return on invested capital. 

“You look at women in the workforce and all the studies that have been done … and investigations really bring it back to the point that when women are involved and more included in the decision making of a community, a country, an economy, a workforce or from an individual point of view empowered, things are more stable, there’s a high level of innovation and creativity, much higher levels of profitability and everybody fares better,” says Bell. “And honestly, I think this applies to a diversity perspective as well.” 

Having women in senior positions is good for men too, she says (for example, studies have shown that chief executives with daughters are more likely to embrace equal pay in their workplace). 

“It can only be better for the men in the agency who are worrying about their children and how their daughters will come through and what kind of environment will they walk into. Because we all have a role to play to improve and evolve the world in whatever small way we can.” 

She says from an advertising point of view it’s crazy not to include more women in top positions.

“Women are making more than 75 percent of the purchase decisions around the world. And so I think that’s now why everybody is starting to say that we should make sure there’s more of a voice here because we are marketing on the whole to women. And 91 percent of women feel like advertising doesn’t reflect who they really are.” 

She believes it’s more of a US-centric issue because of the kind of advertising that’s done over there, but it’s still relevant in New Zealand and Bridget Taylor, creative director and managing partner of Contagion, says diversity in advertising creates a much more balanced view of the world we live in.

“We don’t only hang out with men or only women and diversity isn’t just sex, it’s also background,” she says. “What is the average Kiwi family now? We’re not just white with two kids. Look at the population. We can’t communicate well if we aren’t representing diversity. And I think we are under-represented as females.”

Head says CAANZ isn’t doing anything specifically to ensure women are in senior positions, but he says it’s critical. 

“This industry creates communications for clients that are designed to connect with New Zealanders and from that perspective it is absolutely critical that women are in senior roles,” he says. “I think the industry would be far less effective if women weren’t in senior roles.”

All in favour

Bell says the decision to be more inclusive in a business or organisation has to come from the top. 

“I don’t think it’s an HR function. It has to be fundamental to the overall strategy of the business and there has to be an analysis of how the organisation behaves and then some decisions around where the issues are for men and women and how do we fix those and make it more inclusive. We won’t get very far if it’s an adjunct responsibility and not the CEO’s responsibility.”

She says the Saatchi & Saatchi leadership team is split six men and six women. “It just happens to be that way and I feel quite strongly that I treat the men in the team the same as I treat the women in terms of trying to build a better environment because a more hospitable environment drives stronger results as well. I don’t feel like I advantage women over men but what I try and do is tune into each of their needs at different times as leaders. So it’s less about gender in that instance, and more about what they really need to thrive and grow and contribute their full potential within the organisation.”

Henderson agrees, saying there needs to be a top-down approach when it comes to enabling women to move up the ladder. “I think there are agencies that are providing really good career paths for our senior women right now. And there are those who don’t. It’s a cultural attitude and it starts at the top and it’s really important that attitude is lived and breathed by an organisation.”

In a piece in Ad Age in 2013, Michael Slade said the lack of diversity—gender and otherwise—in the industry could be put down in part to a problem that very rarely gets mentioned: “The advertising industry is an incestuous one; agencies overwhelmingly hire from each other.”

And English advertising consultant Cindy Gallop, who is founder and former chair of the US branch of advertising firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty and founder of IfWeRanTheWorld and MakeLoveNotPorn, agrees, although in a more outspoken fashion. She says the rich white men at the top simply don’t want things to change and told Digiday that depressingly little has changed for women in the last decade or more. However, she says what has changed is that women are not putting up with it anymore. 

The biggest systemic problem with the industry isn’t that women leave because they have children or can’t juggle families, she says. “They leave—often, right when they’re reaching more senior levels—because they get managed out of the business. The entire corporate structure was predicated on the concept of a housewife. Today, everything’s changed, but the structure, systems and processes haven’t. Women drop out of businesses and agencies because sensible women look at the top of their industry at the closed loop of white guys talking to white guys. And they go, ‘Who the fuck would ever want to work like that?’”

So if CEOs want to keep female employees, they should have their businesses designed by women as well as men, she says.

Getting behind the girls

In recent times there has been an increase in brands creatively raising awareness around gender inequality. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency in Australia sent bottled water dubbed Daughter Water to 3,000 CEOs, based around the fact that chief executives tend to take more action on pay equity when they have a daughter. 

The YWCA and DDB tried to close the pay gap in New Zealand with a campaign that turned the tables on men and, through TV, print, online and experiential, including male-only surcharges at coffee carts and sausage sizzles, showed them how absurd it was for the two genders to be treated differently when it came to money.

Lifetime and BBDO New York aimed to ‘Ban Bossy’, coinciding with Sheryl Sandberg’s launch of Lean In. The campaign aimed to fight against labels often given to young girls who show assertiveness, like ‘bossy’, by using celebrities to raise awareness that they can also be the boss.

Elle magazine creating a striking video showing what governments, committees and TV shows around the world would look like if the men were photoshopped out, often resulting in one or two lone females in a room.

Feminine hygiene brand Always released a powerful short film called #LikeAGirl directed by Lauren Greenfield. Post-pubescent girls (and a few boys) were asked to “run like a girl,” which results in them flailing their arms about and not making a serious attempt while pre-pubescent girls ran as fast as they could when asked the same question.

ANZ also released a short film directed by filmmaker Jane Campion to demonstrate the point that women end up with significantly lower lifetime earnings and almost 50 percent less superannuation than their male counterparts. 

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Mind the gap

ABC News Anchor Claire Shipman and BBC America Anchor Katty Kay wrote a book called The Confidence Code last year and the impetus behind it is essentially that men have a lot of confidence in the workplace and women have too little, which prevents them from being promoted into senior roles. Kay has also suggested that when women exhibit too much confidence or aggressiveness it can be seen as an undesirable trait, but for a man it might not be, something referenced in a campaign featuring Beyonce to promote Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In

“There’s been a lot of studies around [the confidence gap],” says Bell. “The famous statistic is that women will wait until they are 100 percent ready to take on more responsibility. Men will jump in when they’re about 60 percent ready. And I don’t think the men are wrong, I think there’s a gap there that we need to close … I think those are the kinds of programmes that workforces bringing more women in are looking at closely. They look at ‘How will we make her understand that what she has is unique, is strong and really useful’ and then build around that, rather than worrying about if she is a replica of what she can see above her.”

Taylor says she scratches her head as to why women can be hesitant. 

“It’s that thing when a guy will fake confidence where maybe women are more inherently honest and we need to get out of our own way and put ourselves there,” she says. 

Taylor also says as a female creative coming into the industry you have to learn quickly that rejection of your work isn’t personal. “Our work is rejected a lot and I think some people take it too hard and they can’t cope and they fall out a bit early and go ‘Well, I don’t want to be a creative’,” she says.

Sandberg addressed this perceived lack of confidence in her book: “Hard work and results should be recognised by others, but when they aren’t, advocating for oneself becomes necessary.”

When given opportunities, Henderson says women will thrive, as she did within the Clemenger network. “I had terrific opportunities and support, which enables you to become a very strong leader. I think when you give permission for women to succeed, I don’t think they’ll let you down.”

But she also says women need to earn the right to a role in the same way that men do. 

“I don’t believe in providing roles for women just for the sake of it.”

In a study from Grant Thornton, privately held business New Zealand partner Stacey Davies said women can’t just sit back and wait to be invited to the top table. They need to invite themselves or push to be invited. 

“I have found that you have to put your hand up for the stretch assignments, take a step (or sometimes a giant leap) outside your comfort zone and be your own best advocate as you simply cannot rely on someone else to do it for you.”

Going backwards?

New Zealand has a proud history when it comes to gender equality, with Kate Sheppard leading the charge to make New Zealand the first country to give women the vote. But Saatchi & Saatchi’s Nicky Bell believes we’re stagnating and just five percent of all the chief executives and board members in New Zealand are women. 

A Grant Thornton study showed that while women make up 22 percent of senior management globally, they continue to be concentrated in management support functions rather than in leadership roles at the core of a business, suggesting a bottleneck for women upon reaching the management level. 

Globally, 29 percent of HR directors are women but just nine percent are chief executives, according to the study. 

Privately held business New Zealand partner Stacey Davies said in a report detailing the study results that New Zealand has dropped to 28th place in a league table of 35 countries surveyed compared with 15th out of 45 countries surveyed in 2014.

“In 2004 New Zealand was ranked third in the world of the countries surveyed, so in a little over a decade we have gone from being world leaders to trailing near the bottom. It’s concerning that the trend is accelerating having dropped 13 places in one year,” she said.

In New Zealand 19 percent of senior management positions in the businesses that were surveyed are currently held by women. This is an all-time low since the survey started in 2004 and nine percent below New Zealand’s long run average of 28 percent. 

“The rate of decline is extremely worrying. 37 percent of New Zealand businesses surveyed don’t have any women in senior management. This number has steadily increased over the years from 26 percent in 2012 and is higher than the global average of 32 percent. New Zealand has the dubious honour of being in the top 12 countries with no women in senior management.”

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Mum's the word

It’s also been suggested women taking time from work to go on maternity leave have struggled to move up the ladder. A New Zealand study on the pay gap shows where favourable policies are in place, such as generous maternity leave and compensation, women are more likely to return to their place of work, and keep climbing the rungs. 

Henderson says the problem is cultural and doesn’t think a law change would help.

“Some networks had no issue with maternity leave and were very supportive and other women, including myself, have left for maternity leave and have had a flexible and supportive environment ... [but] then I’ve seen other networks where the moment a women has announced she’s pregnant there’s been an exchange of looks. The latter should just not take place anymore, it’s archaic.”

Bell says when she came back to work after having twin girls, she felt more focused. “It made me have a stronger perspective on the issues that matter and the issues that don’t. I’ve seen women come through the agency [after maternity leave] and they’re very clear about what it’s worth spending another hour on and talking about … So I will continue to employ new mothers because I actually think in some instances they are a lot more focused.”

Taylor agrees: “Women’s brains do not fall out with a child. You have a different point of view and you’ll come back more focused.”

But Watson questions whether women even want to be in executive roles and says not every woman who leaves [on maternity leave] wants to come back and “continue climbing the ladder”. 

A sporting chance

On a recent list of the world’s highest-paid athletes by Forbes, only tennis stars Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams feature in the top 100, bringing in US$23 million and US$13 million in endorsements respectively (significantly lower than Roger Federer’s US$58 million last year).

But female athletes are catching up. Williams has landed campaigns for Gatorade, Chase, Beats by Dre and others, while UFC champ Ronda Rousey teamed up with Carl’s Jr., Reebok and MetroPCS.

Male athletes still dominate the endorsement deals locally. But some female athletes are being chosen for their athletic prowess rather than just for their aesthetic appeal, with Lydia Ko featuring in ads for ANZ, Lisa Carrington working with Southern Cross and Sarah Walker working with Nike.  

Peter Laatz, executive vice president of sports marketing firm Repucom, puts the change down to female athletes’ potential for growing the already high spending power of women, as well as a growth in the women’s activewear market, something Under Armour tried to tap into through ads showing the toughness of ballet dancer Misty Copeland and model Gisele Bundchen. And that trend can also be seen in video games, with EA Sports allowing people to play as women for the first time in FIFA 16.

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Talkin' bout my generation

Bell says she doesn’t often walk into a situation and feel shocked that she’s the only woman there. “Because it’s kind of been like that all along, quite often,” she says. “And I’ve always had a good balance of men and women in my career, so that doesn’t distract me when I walk into a room because I’m therefore the only person that has my point of view, so I may as well volunteer it.”

She says there are many progressive, inclusive leaders from the older generations who have an open mind and are aware of the issue. But big social changes take time.  

“I do notice a difference from generation to generation … I occasionally get people saying ‘What do you do?’ and I say, ‘I’m the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi’ and they can be absolutely shocked and then they will say, as if to try and figure out whether that’s going to work or not, ‘How long have you been doing it?’ and then I’ll say ‘five years’ and they’ll say ‘Wow, okay’. But I don’t get that from the younger generation.”  

This story first appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of NZ Marketing magazine.

Illustration credit: Eddie Monotone.

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