Media: The lads still rule in adland

Creative departments revolve around the football pitch and the pool table. So where do women fit in?
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The Independent Culture
Advertising, you may think, is a comfortingly liberal profession, staffed largely by young, creative types in trendy specs, T-shirts and combat trousers, this can hardly be an industry in which women struggle to get on. If you think that, you're mistaken.

Women remain few and far between in adland's upper reaches. Half the people working in ad agencies are women, but they account for just 7 per cent of senior management, according to the latest figures from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.

Nowhere are the problems more acute than in agency creative departments, still fearsomely laddish. In the Eighties, Bartle Bogle Hegarty proudly boasted a female creative director, Barbara Nokes, who created the legendary "launderette" commercial for Levi's. But, more than a decade later, Nokes remains almost unique in the British industry. There are, of course, more recent successes, such as Tiger Savage, head of art at Leagas Delaney, famous for her work and not just her evocative name. But they're exceptions. In 1999, only 16 per cent of art directors and copywriters are women.

Hardly surprising, since creative departments are still centred around traditionally male zones - the football pitch, pool table and pub. In this fierce culture only the most laddish women survive. Some major agencies remain no-go zones. In one a new female team found their small office plastered with sanitary towels. And if female creatives do stick it out, they may be stereotyped and have to fight to land the "sexy" briefs such as cars and beer - whereas in planning, account handling and media buying, young women thrive.

Barbara Nokes, now creative director at Grey Advertising, says: "As far as creative departments go, there has been no change in 30 years. They are very aggressive environments. The trouble is that even now, women are brought up to please people, to be accommodating. With creative work you are putting your taste, experience and attitude on the line. And that requires a huge ego. Ideas are fragile things and can be easily killed off in the early stages - especially by a male creative director regarding you with suspicion. I certainly experienced that myself. If you stand up for your idea, you're seen as aggressive. if you don't, you're wet.

"The awful truth is that women are very good at support jobs. Being in research, as a planner, is a classic example. It's not your balls on the line."

"I've never gone for the pub option. I don't like warm beer and indifferent wine. I thought `fuck that' a long time ago. I've been quite bolshy about it. But you do hear awful stories about other women's experiences."

It is an issue that has ramifications outside the bars of Soho. The irony is that, though 70 per cent of all advertising targets female consumers, the vast majority of it is created by men. Which goes some way to explaining why we are still seeing ads that portray women in stereotypical, sexist ways. Think of Claudia Schiffer stripping for Citroen; Gossard's infamous bra promotions, with Sophie Anderton looking terrifyingly submissive; or, less sensationally, the many dumb women portrayed in ads for soap powders and washing-up liquid.

It's against this background that Women in Advertising and Communication London - Wacl, pronounced "wackle" - last week invited 125 middle-ranking women from across the industry to a one-day forum.

"The forum," explains Wacl's new president, Cilla Snowball, head of client services at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, "helps women in management meet their contemporaries and have frank exchanges with successful women in the business. It helps them put things in perspective, and shows them that you don't have to be a superwoman to succeed."

Off the record, delegates were treated to "mentoring" at which they could air problems and strategies in small groups, and talks from luminaries such as Marjorie Scardino, chief executive of Pearson and still the only woman to run a FTSE 100 company; Stevie Spring, a (female) managing partner at Young and Rubicam; and The Guardian's deputy managing director, Carolyn McCall.

Among powerful members with whom guests could hope to rub shoulders were some of the biggest names in the industry, female or male: Mandy Pooler, chief executive of MindShare, the media company that services both J Walter Thompson and Ogilvy and Mather; MT Rainey, a founding partner at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe, one of the hottest start-ups of recent years; Christine Walker, who set up Walker Media after several years at Zenith Media, the UK's largest media buying company; Rita Clifton, chief executive of Interbrand Newell and Sorrell; and Carole Fisher, CEO of the Government's Central Office of Information.

So did Wacl, 75 this year, have anything fierce to say about the slow progress of change? No, its remit is not campaigning, says Y&R's Spring. It offers a meeting place for its high-powered members - to network and relax in sympathetic company.

Many younger women in the business criticise Wacl for just this reason, accusing it of parodying elitist and anachronistic gentlemen's clubs. To start with, they say, Wacl is a closed society with little more than 100 members. And you cannot join unless you are invited - a stark contrast with, say, the campaigning Women in Journalism set up in the mid-Nineties for all women with more than three years' experience. And there is no obvious alternative in the advertising industry.

Other, senior adland womenagree that single-sex clubs should not be the future. Rosie Arnold, one of the most senior female creatives, and a leading light of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, hasn't been tempted to join. "There are difficulties being a woman in advertising, but things are changing," she said.

"There are two all-female teams at BBH and I feel duty-bound to make sure they are not ghettoised. There is a tendency to think that women won't be as radical as men, which is nonsense." Juliet Soskice, marketing director at St Luke's advertising co-op, says Wacl needs to be more accessible to younger women: "I've been to a couple of Wacl events and they were interesting. But it should be inclusive."

Spring, one of the few women ever to have managed a top-20 agency, insists that Wacl can work only if it remains selective. She says: "It's like any club. The larger it becomes, the more impersonal it will be, and so the less useful. It's great to have a network for business, moral and emotional support, to be able to talk to other people in the same position."

Campaigning on women's issues, she insists, is just not appropriate. "I don't think Wacl membership should be about signing up to, say, all businesses having a creche. As an employer myself, I know my staff neither want nor need it."