What a week it was for . . . ad women

Smug advertising boys had better watch out, says Mathew Horsman
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Suddenly, there are a lot of women in key positions at Saatchi & Saatchi, the London-based flagship of the worldwide advertising giant Cordiant. The departure of Maurice and Charles, the brothers who founded the celebrated, if now troubled, agency, set off a minor exodus of senior executives that has cleared the way for women formerly stuck on the sidelines.

Women now hold the posts of chief executive, marketing director and client services director, and at the very pinnacle is the agency's new chairman, Jenny Laing, who began her career at Saatchi's and was lured back there this week from her own company, Laing Henry, to replace the Maurice Saatchi loyalist David Kershaw.

Chosen for her intimate knowledge of Saatchi's and her proven rapport with clients, industry insiders point out that her management style is at complete odds with that of the high-flying and even higher-spending Saatchi brothers. "She is calm, confident and capable - just what Saatchi needs now," says a competitor.

Is radical change really coming to a business long known for its male clubbiness, backstabbing and fierce competition? Yes, say many industry insiders, although the pace of change, for the most part, is still slow.

Women in advertising say the new order at Saatchi is just the most obvious example of what had already been happening in the business. Traditional roles for women - administration, cosmetics accounts - are no longer the norm, even if most firms have yet to name quite as many women as Saatchi for the key managerial positions.

That has meant a change in corporate cultures: gone, or at least going, are the macho management styles and the power politics that used to typify what was, without a doubt, a man's world. In their place comes consensus management and teamwork.

"Certainly things have changed," Mary Baskin, head of planning at JWT in London says. "In my field, women now actually dominate the business."

Anna Manwaring at Leo Burnett agrees, although she points out that there are still not that many women in the very senior roles. More important than the numbers game, she says, is the fact there is "certainly more respect for what women bring to the business. Attitudes have definitely changed."

Fifteen years ago, one woman executive recalls, meetings with clients were normally dominated by men. When she and her assistant (also a woman) entered the room, the assembled men called out "hi, girls". That, she says, would be unheard of today.

The changes can be seen in at least two ways, insiders agree. Ms Laing's appointment typifies the first tendency: to give women the titles to go with their increasing presence in the business, as account executives, group directors, creative heads, even board members.

"Positions no longer go to the women with the shortest skirts," says Helena Rubenstein, group manager at Leo Burnett.

The second tendency is to use the skills of women to develop advertising campaigns specifically aimed at women. Roughly 80 per cent of television advertising is targeted at the female audience. Yet until quite recently, 80 per cent of it was created and developed by men. Ms Rubenstein says: "Agencies began to realise it was a great advantage to appoint people to the team who intimately understood their target audience".

Clients have been convinced too. Sectors traditionally viewed as being male-oriented, like cars and petrol, are being promoted in a "unisex fashion", says Kate Bruges, who handles the Esso account at JWT. That reflects important social changes - for example, the fact that more women are working and working longer.

Ads on TV in particular are beginning to reflect a different approach. Out, or on the wane, are scenes of happy housewives gamely cleaning kitchen floors. The new breed of TV adverts features bright, powerful women of independence running their own companies, as in the Kenco coffee adverts. In print, the car ads that run in women's magazines stress safety over power, air bags rather than engines.

The trend is set to continue, as advertisers, with their agencies, continue to target the female buying audience. Not just at Saatchi's but elsewhere in the advertising business, the executives huddled around the chairman's desk look more likely to be Laing clones than Maurice Saatchi lookalikes.