Dozens of women in advertising gathered under the chandeliers of Cipriani’s restaurant in midtown Manhattan on Wednesday to celebrate the best in their field, but the celebration was marred by another bitter reminder that the ad industry is still stuck in the Mad Men era of 1960s.
Just hours before the 2016 Women to Watch luncheon, Kevin Roberts announced that he was resigning from his position as the executive chairman at Saatchi & Saatchi following his remarks that the “debate is all over” on gender equality in the ad industry and that women lack “vertical ambition”. His remarks come at a time when the percentage of female executives at ad agencies is still in single digits.
“The remarks made by Kevin Roberts last week were particularly alarming, because he said them with no guilt. He said them so openly,” said Lynn Branigan, executive director of Advertising Women of New York, AWNY, which held the luncheon. “I can’t imagine that a person who is a chairman of an agency can be that naive so either he has moved so far from the day to day business that he has convinced himself that the problem no longer exists or he had nothing to lose.”
While Roberts’ resignation helps send a message that “gender bias won’t be tolerated”, Branigan worries that he might have been saying what a lot of others feel. AWNY was formed in 1912 to help women “pick up business in the industry”, yet fast forward 104 years and women are still struggling to get a seat at the table.
Women are are very close to being back to where they were in the 60s, when they were told not to make a fuss, according to Jane Maas, the author of Mad Women.
“Unfortunately now that we have a major party candidate running for president who says to women: if they are harassed, you just leave,” Maas said, referring to Donald Trump. “You don’t bring a suit, you don’t make a fuss. That’s what we were taught in the 60s! You don’t go around and complain that your boss is harassing you. You cope with it.”
While the 84-year-old does not deny that sexism and gender bias exist, she says there might be some truth to the notion that women in advertising do not want the top jobs. For her book about women in advertising, Maas said she interviewed many women who worked in the ad industry in the 1950s and 70s as well as those working in the industry in 2012, and found that many, even now, chose families over top positions at agencies. Maas herself worked in advertising as a copywriter for Ogilvy & Mather and president of Earle Palmer Brown.
“I do think that women are not getting to the top of advertising agencies because to a large extent we are opting out,” she said. “There was a big conference in San Francisco called the 3% Conference that was all upset because of all the thousands of advertising agencies in the US, only 3% of the creative directors are women. I don’t think there is some plot to keep women out of these top jobs. Women are saying: ‘We can’t be everything. I don’t want to be a creative director who has to be there until midnight every night and has to be there all weekend and has to fire the creative department if we lose the big account.’”
After its debut in San Francisco in 2012, the 3% Conference has been an annual gathering that draws hundreds of women. Cindy Gallop, former president of ad agency BBH, and a woman who has been outspoken on the issue of gender bias in the industry, has spoken at all four of the conferences and is scheduled to deliver a closing keynote at this year’s annual gathering in New York. According to Gallop, women do not opt out of the top position but instead are managed out.
“Any sensible woman looks up at the top of her agency, at the top of the industry, where it’s white guys being surrounded by other white guys, being bro-like and so the woman goes: who the fuck wants to work like that? Myself included,” she said, noting that she left BBH in 2005. A free agent, Gallop has founded two companies – If We Ran the World and Make Love Not Porn – focused on sparking philanthropic acts and challenging the values of the porn industry, respectively.
One way to help bring about gender equality, she says is by talking about it – something women are not always able to do.
“What you have to do if you want to advance is self-censor. You have to turn a blind eye to sexual harassment. You have to find a way to live with that,” Gallop explains. Women have to be “one of the guys”. “You have to let that happen. You have to not get angry. You have to not call it out. You have to live with it.”
For Maas, it took “a lot of years” before she was able to talk about her experience.
“It took me a lot of years before I could say [that] my creative director came to my hotel room and slid his hand up my thigh and I said: ‘Yawn. For some reason, I get so tired when I have my period.’ He immediately disentangled himself and went home. But it was the first of many encounters, and I couldn’t use that all the time!” she said. “Why didn’t I do something? Why didn’t I tell him to go to hell, right? Why didn’t I got to the boss? But that was not done at the time. And it’s still apparently frowned on!”
In order for women to be treated as equal, both men and women have to speak up and agencies have to hire more women at all levels, according to Gallop. She referenced a 2006 Wellesley Centers for Women study that found that in order for women to make a difference on corporate boards there cannot be just one or two of them – there have to be at least three.
“One woman does nothing. Two women does nothing. Because the alien organism has to adapt to the culture around it. It has no choice,” she said. “When you have gender-equal environment where men are engaging women as professional equals, you don’t have an environment where men are encouraged to see women in one of two roles: girlfriend or secretary.”
The fact, however, is that the current ad industry is far from gender equal. After speaking up about Roberts’ comments, Gallop says she received many emails, tweets and Facebook messages from women who have experienced gender discrimination but are not willing to go public due to fear of retaliation.
“If nobody speaks up, nothing changes,” said Gallop. Maybe this time around things will change. In this case, Publicis –parent company of Saatchi & Saatchi – acted very quickly, she points out.
“That is encouraging. I now want to see what Publicis and Saatchi & Saatchi do next,” she said. Hours before her interview with the Guardian, Gallop tweeted that her services as leadership coach were available to fill the vacancy created by Roberts’ resignation. She had just one ask: “The same salary, obviously.”
“I am here. And I am waiting. I am waiting for that call,” she said.
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