Women ad execs deserve better (Guest commentary)

Why celebrated ad guru Neil French and sexist attitudes in the industry need to be challenged

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.

I knew before his Toronto appearance where Neil stood on women. One of my first clues was the way he introduced a new female creative director to the overwhelmingly male cadre members in Bangkok. He spoke glowingly of her accomplishments before concluding with, “And can you believe it? She’s a woman.”

Janet and I became jaded to his frequently outrageous comments long ago, thus surviving many experiences of laughing and crying simultaneously. We genuinely like him and developed a take-the-good-with-the-bad philosophy, looking the other way as required to maintain the highly valued relationship. To stay in the club.

In Toronto, Neil was true to form and more than delivered on the event as advertised. He performed, he said what he really thinks and added spin on top if it. I almost managed to blank out the idiocy of the French maid for awhile because the Fenske-Boyko-French combo was on the whole so interesting and enjoyable. But by the time Neil let into the women — the slacker breeders who he made clear really don’t belong in this man’s game, my jaded jaw hit the floor.

It’s too easy to discount Neil’s views as those of a man from an era and geographies that reinforced that the role of women should be reserved for pleasing men, marrying them, bearing and caring for their offspring. What struck me so hard as he described women as a group that will inevitably wimp out and “go suckle something” after their short stints in advertising, was that in his honest opinion he was voicing the inner thoughts of legions of men in the senior ranks of our business. Before us was a big part of the explanation of why more women aren’t succeeding in advertising.

If a male creative director is already convinced a woman is extremely limited in her ability and value, what lens is he seeing her work through? Would you expect him to offer the same support and guidance and consideration he gives men? Might that woman keep herself down on the farm when her leader conveys in countless ways she’s not as good as the boys? Might she respond with less than her best effort when the adored leader expects little of her? Might she want to leave, not to have babies but because the conditions for her to succeed don’t exist and the message “she can’t succeed” is too discouraging?

Many young women in school or just out of it have asked Janet and me, “Can it really be done? My teacher keeps telling the women, ‘You know, this is really hard. Are you sure you want to do this?’”

Another ad legend shared with me recently that he doesn’t think women can do great ads, because they’re hard-wired to have the “balance alarm bell” go off at a decent hour of the evening, therefore leaving the men to carry on putting in the long hard hours required to do the best work. There was no malice here; he meant it as a sort of credit to women that they won’t kill themselves like the men.

If our greatest leaders are busy quietly persuading girls they’re just not cut out for this gig, how far is this group going to get — the brave ones who soldier on in spite of the discouragement? Can you imagine law or med school professors giving their female students the same advice? “Step aside, ladies, the boys will take care of the hard stuff. Enjoy motherhood you lucky girls.”

Well once upon a time, of course, they did. Advertising remains in the dark ages as other fields reap the benefits of workforces now glittering with talented women. Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of the sea change that happened in the music industry when auditions for symphony orchestra members began to include hiding the musicians behind screens, thus eliminating the enormous bias against female artists. Female membership skyrocketed when conductors could no longer see who was playing the best. Now women comprise up to half the orchestras on merit.

Neil didn’t know his Canadian audience. He doesn’t realize we have Elspeth Lynn, Lorraine Tao, Christina Yu, Judy John hitting home runs in the shows he respects most while they fulfil the top jobs. That Canada’s largest city has almost as many female creative directors as male in the best known agencies. He doesn’t see the creative departments filled with women burning the midnight oil as much or more than the men (not that either gender should be bragging about that). Too bad for him that his experience working with women has been so limited, considering he’s spent his career in the most notoriously sexist environments in the world.

Yes ladies, the deck is stacked against us, as it used to be in so many other demanding professions. Even as the best ad schools graduate equally talented men and women in equal quantities. What happens after that is the question of the hour.

There are many factors. Among them: those who do want a family don’t get stay-at-home spouses like so many men do and we’re not happy to hand the job over to a replacement mom. As long as we’re pegged not as heroes but as slackers for taking on the whole deal, it’s a rocky road indeed. Never mind being condemned from day one on the mere chance a baby may some day materialize.

Neil did us the favour of voicing a widely held view, albeit an extreme version. It’s an opportunity for us all — men, too — to confront something every bit as wrong and unacceptable as racism. Replace every comment Neil made about women with the word “black” and take my point.

The women reading this are going to have to do better than me. I’ve suddenly realized that looking the other way, turning the other cheek in any situation equivalent to a black person being called a “nigger” makes me part of the problem. I’m snapping out of it awfully late, and it seems obvious that we can’t take this shit and expect to see anything change. Don’t be discouraged; be outraged and act accordingly.

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