Media: It's ads for the lads - but what about top jobs for the girls?

Advertising is said to be dominated by men and out of touch with what women want. So why aren't there more female creatives? By Meg Carter

The British advertising industry remains a decidedly male domain: a fact underlined by a steady stream of complaints about the portrayal of women in ad campaigns. Further proof lies in the lack of women in top jobs throughout the industry - the subject of a one-day conference today, which has been organised by the Women's Advertising Club of London.

"Whichever way you look at it, we're still a rarity in British business," says WACL president Carol Reay, chief executive of advertising agency Mellors Reay & Partners and one of the few women at the very top of her profession.

"I don't think there's a lot of active discrimination, but we have struggles to face which others don't." Such as the inevitable clash of long hours and small children, which knocks many off the corporate ladder in their late twenties and early thirties, either temporarily or altogether. The result, she believes, is evident in much of today's advertising.

Latest to draw fire is Vogue, whose fashion spreads were accused by an advertiser, Omega, of advocating famine-thin models and junkie chic. And then Gossard's Glossies poster featuring a reclining woman in sheer, black underwear, which is accompanied by the strapline: "Who says a woman can't get pleasure from something soft?" So far this has fuelled more than 40 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority. While the agency behind the campaign, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, claims the poster is aimed at women rather than men, others disagree.

"It's further proof that male perspectives of women's interests and aspirations can thwart the effectiveness of their campaigns," one female executive at a rival agency notes, dryly.

Some blame the advertising business's over-reliance on averages and stereotypes. Saatchi & Saatchi's planning director, Rita Clifton, talks of "the tyranny of typologies".

"In the quest for understanding a target audience, clients and agencies will often conduct research analyses on `segmentation' and out comes a set of average profiles of consumer characteristics, which are then dignified into `pen portraits'," she explains.

Others highlight another cause. Although around half of those working in advertising agencies are women, only four per cent are at management level, according to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising. And nowhere are the problems more acute than in the creative department. While some 70 per cent of all advertising targets female consumers, only 3 per cent of creative directors are women.

"It must surely be a big loss to the advertising business that, as an industry, we are not communicating as effectively as we can," says Reay.

"There are no more senior women in creative departments today than there were 20 years ago," according to Barbara Nokes, creative director at Grey London. She is one of the few senior women creatives in the business and readily concedes that departments such as hers remain a male-dominated, pub-oriented environment.

"To be an agency creative, you must be prepared to put your ideas on a piece of paper and talk about them, which is tremendously emotionally exposing," Nokes explains. "Women are still educated by schools and society to please other people. Being creative is just the start of it. Then you have to stand up and fight for it." She believes the situation has marginally improved within larger client companies, but adds: "Agencies have definitely lagged behind."

Getting to the top of a creative department invariably depends on winning acclaim from contemporaries - notably in the shape of gongs from the industry's many awards schemes.

"Historically, the ideas that win reflect a particular sense of humour," says Clifton. With the majority of awards juries male, it is no coincidence that beer and cigarette advertising traditionally enjoy tremendous success. "Advertising based on human observations and humour - more likely to make women laugh - tend not to win."

But the answer to all this is far from simple. Increasing the number of female creatives is no instant panacea.

"It's definitely not so clear cut," Nokes cautions. For a start, she defies anyone to identify correctly the gender of the creatives behind an ad solely by the end product. "While more women in the creative department would probably help over time, we need to look higher. The problem is the people who say `yes' or `no'; the people who have the final say. What we really need is more women decision-makers."

Where many campaigns go wrong is failing to empathise with the target audience, whoever that may be, Nokes adds. "A good creative, whether male or female, can think themselves into and identify with anyone in any situation."

Addressing this is the most important issue, agrees Rita Clifton.

"In recent years there have been fewer entertaining, original and sharp ads," she says. "Women bring a different perspective. Now must be the appropriate time to ask: is this reasonable? Surely a sizeable injection of a different sort of person within agencies would be a good stimulus to reclaim innovative and creative thinking."

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