Cannes 2011: Too much testosterone in the ad world?

By Ashwini Gangal , afaqs!, Cannes | In Advertising | June 22, 2011
On Tuesday morning at the Cannes Lions festival, an all-woman panel discussed the issue of gender balance in creative roles.

In a session titled 'Beyond Mad Men: Toward Gender Balance in Creative Roles', four highly-placed women spoke about the dearth of female representation in top-level creative jobs.

The session was moderated by two eminent individuals, namely, Michael Roth, chairperson and chief executive officer, Interpublic, and Kitty Lun, chairperson and chief executive officer, Lowe, China.

The panellists comprised Martha Stewart, founder, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Soledad O'Brien, anchor and special correspondent, CNN, Carol Lam, managing director and chief creative officer, McCann Erickson, Shanghai, Kimberly Kadlec, worldwide vice-president, global marketing group, Johnson & Johnson; and Gail Heimann, vice chairperson, Weber Shandwick.

Roth and Lun introduced the topic of discussion by informing those present that out of this year's 13 jury presidents, only one was a woman. Thus began the discussion of the dearth of women in senior creative roles in advertising agencies.

Stewart began by expressing that according to her, creative work is not 'a man's job' or 'a woman's' job', rather, it is "creative work that needs to be done".

Taking the issue forward, Lam shared some interesting points. She said that in China, the problem of too little female representation in senior creative roles is not a big one because "we're facing the problem of shortage of talent overall, so we don't have the 'luxury' of discriminating based on gender". She went on to say that in her career so far, she had not once felt that she was competing with men in particular; she always felt that she was competing with her peers.

Lam was very vocal about her opinion that women are far more competent than their male counterparts in agencies! Why? "Women have the advantage of being more open-minded and bearing less of an ego. So, being a woman in the creative industry in Asia is an advantage."

She added that this is also why, though male creative professionals may outnumber female ones, the difference is not felt much.

Heimann had a different take on the matter. She opined that a little extra courage and defiance on the part of women in the industry surely helps them get ahead in their careers, because according to her, "the advertising industry is a testosterone-driven world with a lot of male swagger."

Women, she said, need to learn how to compete as equals, given this scenario.

Kadlec began her take on the issue by sharing a personal example from the 1980s, when she started her first job. Apparently, only the men in that office got cigarette breaks -- not the women. This, she expressed, was her first tryst with gender discrimination in the advertising industry.

Moving on to the main topic, she stated, "A male mentor once told me that it is important for women in advertising to be very clear about what they want and verbalise it to the people who can help them achieve it." She also added that the glass ceiling effect is a reality in advertising; in roles above those of manager and director, the number of women who get promoted is known to drop drastically in most agencies.

Given the topic being discussed, the issue of work-life balance was an inevitable one. Kadlec -- a mother of three -- contributed, "Work-life balance is not about juggling; it is about playing catch! If women partner with people, both at work and at home, it becomes easy to manage both."

Lastly, O'Brien asked why so much anger exists in male advertising professionals towards the reality of women trying to break into senior-level roles. Heimann responded, "All said and done, the advertising industry is a club of sorts and no one wants their club to be invaded by new members." The walls of this club, however, seem semi-permeable and change is in the pipeline.

In fact, today, as Lam pointed out, having a family is seen as a symbol of overall success, as opposed to the previous notion of viewing childless women as more successful than those with kids.

To view interviews from Cannes 2011, click here.

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