Got Sexism? Ad Agencies Not Shifting Fast Enough for Ad Biz Women Leaders

Heidi Zak, CEO and co-founder of ThirdLove, fought to make a change in a sexist billboard campaign.The irresistibly popular TV series “Mad Men” about the ultra-sexy, highly sexist advertising industry in the 1960s may have officially ended last year, but the historic traditions of gender inequity in the industry apparently have not.In her recent New York Times piece, writer Sydney Ember concluded after interviewing a dozen top advertising executive women leaders, that half a century later than the setting of the iconic show, it’s still pretty grim for women in the ad biz. According to recent reports, only 11 percent of creative directors are women, she writes.“Advertising is far from the only industry that has struggled with issues of sexist behavior and gender bias through the years,” Ember writes.“Many said they found it hard to believe how much their particular business still remained a white man’s world. Although some women said they had never personally experienced gender discrimination and referred to it as a thing of the past, many said they repeatedly felt ignored or dismissed by male colleagues and left out socially. They recalled times when they were the only woman in meetings with both co-workers and clients.”Ember continues: “Nancy Hill, a longtime advertising executive who is now president and chief executive of the 4A’s, an industry trade group, said that men called her ‘young girl’ all the time, though she has been working in the business for decades.”She is far from alone.“Susan Credle, who has been an executive at the agencies BBDO and Leo Burnett and is now the global chief creative officer for the agency FCB,…recalled standing with two men while waiting to go onstage at an annual advertising conference in March when another man came off the stage. That man, who had just spoken about diversity in the industry, acknowledged the two men with her, but ‘didn’t bother to look at me,’ she said. ‘I felt invisible.’“This conversation follows a March lawsuit against Gustavo Martinez, the chief executive of J. Walter Thompson, by JWT chief communications officer, Erin Johnson. According to Ember, “she accused him of  ‘an unending stream of racist and sexist comments as well as unwanted touching and other unlawful conduct,’ made ‘numerous comments about rape’ and, on multiple occasions, ‘grabbed Johnson by the throat and by the back of her neck.’” Martinez resigned and denied the allegations.He was replaced by Tamara Ingram, now CEO Worldwide at JWT, and one of the top international women leaders in advertising.Some women leaders in advertising and other observers suggest that the popular advertising today reflects a traditionally sexist and possibly misogynist culture inside the halls of advertising’s top creative agencies.International advertising and Internet expert Elle Nerdinger recently supported this notion in her  “Sexy or Sexist” conference presentation with hundreds of examples of female-demeaning advertising internationally.Anyone who watches sports events on television or passes by billboards can see that the portrayal of women visually in marketing and advertising is not one where they are seen as women leaders. Rather, they are seen as objects, most often sexualized.Heidi Zak, CEO and co-founder of ThirdLove, a lingerie company, recently started a campaign against Calvin Klein for its “I seduce in #mycalvins” billboard. The billboard depicted a photo of a woman oddly positioned in a see-through dress, while a man in an opposite photo in the same billboard was pictured only with his face and the caption, “I make money in #mycalvins.” Zak succeeded in having the billboard removed from her New York neighborhood.Zak told the Huffington Post: “This victory highlights that women can do anything we set our minds to, and we deserve advertising that reflects that.”Buzzfeed drew attention to the blatant sexism in advertising before last year’s Super Bowl, with the video of women reacting to sexist ads that to date has earned more than 1.3 million views since January 2015. A follow-up video of sexist vintage ads in June of last year garnered  Buzzfeed  3.9 million views.Coming at a good time then, is JWT’s release of  “Female Tribes,” a sunny report from a survey of “4,300 women between the ages of 18 and 70 in nine countries, comparing generations and geographies in their attitudes to everything from finance and sexuality to ambition and religion,” according to Emma Hall in Advertising Age.“In the report, 76 percent of women surveyed say there has never been a better time to be a woman, 86 percent say femininity is a strength, and 76 percent say they make the majority of financial decisions in their households.”Quoting Rachel Pashley, global planning director at JWT, Hall writes: “We wanted to dramatize the diversity of female capital, and to be sure that female tribes are not seen as the province of affluent Western women. I hope this will influence every interaction with our clients, and all our creative and planning processes.“JWT identified 20 “Female Tribes,”  and have released publicly only three of those tribes, including Cultural Icons (Beyonce and her gang plus more); Asian Alphas and Teen Activists. We are hoping the other 17 are more revealing and insightful about women and women leaders.According to the JWT website: “It’s estimated that women control up to two-thirds of the global $18 trillion consumer spend, we have women presidents, astronauts, bishops, entrepreneurs and inventors, and we can no longer use age as a predictor of life-stage.”(Time will tell soon enough on the woman president claim in this country.)[bctt tweet=“If we want to truly engage this audience we need to understand women’s value as consumers and wealth creators, leaders and influencers.”]The site continues, “Yet within the advertising and communications world we still insist on viewing women through a narrow lens. We define her according to her parental responsibilities – ‘the busy working Mum’ – but do we really understand who she is or appreciate her true sphere of influence? If we want to truly engage this audience we need to understand women’s value as consumers and wealth creators, leaders and influencers: the idea of Female Capital. Defining women according to their responsibilities is limiting, but to celebrate their achievements and aspirations is inspiring. We believe changing the conversation will be game changing.”And change can do this industry good. It may also serve as a high-visibility example for Take The Lead’s mission of leadership parity for women across all fields and disciplines by 2025.