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Picture: 123RF/skdesign
Picture: 123RF/skdesign

The 25th birthday of a 90% women-owned advertising agency provides an opportunity to ask how cracked the glass ceiling is in a traditionally male-dominated sector, and if the old boy network still exists. New research suggests gender parity is largely being achieved, but still not at the highest industry levels.

According to a survey by SheSays, a global network for women in the ad industry, there are more women than male MDs, but many more male creative directors.

Gillian Rightford, a former agency MD and founder of consultancy Adtherapy, tells the FM: "Some areas are underrepresented, like tech and digital, and some overrepresented, like account management and social media."

Women are more represented in operational and relationship-based positions such as account and project management, progressing into MD positions. "From there, the leap to the top table is not documented, but in my experience it doesn’t reflect well," she says.

Lisa Currey, MD of Hamiltons Advertising, which has just marked its 25-year milestone, says: "Strong businesswomen do not see the glass ceiling because we are too focused on being independent, driven, confident, passionate, supportive, innovative and highly skilled. This includes the massive effort it takes to keep up with the change that the world has brought upon us all so quickly."

Currey says that in her 23 years in the business she has learnt important lessons from male colleagues in the retail space. "They did not treat me any differently as they expected the same output and input around the boardroom table. I have always been able to be ‘one of the boys’ and still maintain respect for myself. If you have strong values, ethics and ethos, you will not allow your belief system to be overlooked. Ultimately, this is how you will and should be perceived."

Rightford is concerned, though, about the chances of high-level promotion for women. "Many of the agencies are founded by male partners and at the most senior level there are shareholdings that are allocated based on founders’ capital. It does feel to me that the current crop of old boys is much more closed to the idea of female partnership at the most senior level than in the early 1990s, early 2000s. It feels like we have regressed. How many women move from MD position to CEO? How many move from operational to real leadership? Not many."

Rightford believes gender representation is becoming more of an issue for clients. "They want insightful strategy, great creative delivered seamlessly across all channels on budget and on time. Clients care about diversity and in categories where women are largely the customers, would like an agency team that is able to empathetically engage with the target audience. There is no doubt that a diverse team allows better thinking. This has been proved time and again, even at board level."

Currey says there are a few businesses that direct their advertising only towards men. "My clients understand that as a woman I bring a different set of thinking to the table, which is invaluable and in many instances more representative of the market. It is not always an easy win, though, and sometimes it is a case of who shouts loudest. I am usually outnumbered, and it is a tough audience."

Rightford says most consumer goods are purchased by women. "Curiosity means that sometimes being outside a category you are better suited to look in, so men can use data to observe what drives a woman’s purchases. However, being a woman, and being able to empathise with the challenges your female target audience goes through, is useful. You still must really be able to dive into categories and behaviours, but the perspective of empathy, and the ability to translate that into real behavioural insight, are useful."

She says another dimension women in leadership bring is the ability to forge a creative and accountable environment. "Strong male creative leaders are not always the easiest people to work with … But there must be a balance where criticism is controlled and where growth is more important than destroying talent. The female perspective can act as a balance to very dominant egos."


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