Women ad execs deserve better (Guest commentary)

Why celebrated ad guru Neil French and sexist attitudes in the industry need to be challenged
By Nancy Vonk
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/22/2005

Recently the creative head of one of the world’s biggest advertising companies made the error of telling the audience at an industry event in Toronto that women “don’t make it to the top because they don’t deserve to.”

At the event, billed as A Night with Neil French, French shared candid thoughts about his work and the business. He and other advertising stars sharing the stage were served drinks by a woman dressed as a French maid.

His controversial comment, offered in reply to a question about the lack of women in senior positions in the advertising business, cost French his job as creative director of WPP Group PLC. French resigned, but said his comments were taken out of context. What he was trying to say was women can’t work the hours required by the industry if they have families to look after.

Nancy Vonk, co-chief creative officer at WPP’s Ogilvy agency in Toronto and one of French’s long-time colleagues, wrote the following rejoinder to French’s assertions on her blog. It was her comments below, reported around the world, that caused French to step down.

Although still partially paralyzed by Neil French’s words about women, following his speech I felt compelled to push my rigid hand across a page or two to attempt a response on behalf of women, who in the extremely entertaining, informative performance took a particularly harsh beating in the last minutes of the show, edging out the Australians and account people for his greatest disrespect.

First, a little context. Janet Kestin and I have known Neil since we began seeing him at the Ogilvy “Cadre” meetings he organized starting in 1998 in cities around the world. We became fast pen pals and over the years we learned a lot from him, especially through his example of being brutally honest and true to himself. We’ve felt honored that Neil calls us his friends. We would both say we’ve had the most fun, most memorable parts of our ad careers in his company.