Saturday, 27 August 2011

Female creatives. Do we really need 'em?

There are two questions that get perennially asked in advertising:

Why aren’t there many women working in creative departments.

And, how can we redress the balance?

At RKCR we seem to have an unfair share of the female advertising workforce, 11 women. But that’s still nowhere near 50/50.

Whilst the, mostly male, creative community bemoans the dearth of female creatives, in truth they’re not doing much to change the situation.

This may be because, in their heart of hearts, they believe you don’t need to be a woman to ‘get’ women?

And it’s true, there are men who are intuitively ‘in touch with their feminine side’ and know women better than they know themselves. The fashion business is stuffed with them.

Less so the ad business.

Conventional wisdom, and the research companies, would have us believe that focus groups can tell us all what we need to know to make us experts in what women want.

If only it really were as simple as just chucking money at the problem.

Personally I love women.

I spent 15 years working with one.

Mary Wear is one of the best writers in the business. And one of the smartest women I’ve met. And she helped me create work I wouldn’t have made had I been working with another man.

We once worked on a campaign for Tampax aimed at teenage girls.

Never having been a teenage girl myself I found this a fascinating learning experience. (I’m afraid my prior knowledge of the target audience had sod all to do with worrying about their ‘emotional needs, wants and desires’.)

Having lived through that maelstrom of a life-stage herself however Mary was the best depth research group you could ask for, there in the room. And at no extra cost to the client. Added value!

During our extensive ‘insight mining’ - chatting - I’d ask her whether a sixteen year old girl would think something-or-other.

Her reply would often be: “Would they bollocks.”


Mary would always say women could tell an ad aimed at them that had been written by men. As an example of what not to do she’d quote the copy of an old Tampax ad she once saw which started: “If you’re a woman or a girl who has periods…”

You don’t need girls to do work aimed at girls. You don’t need to be a woman to get inside the mind of a woman.

But the truth is that work done by the target audience offers a powerful mixture of insight linked to creativity.

And you don’t get that from research groups.

Because of those 15 years working with Mary I have a lot of time for mixed-sex teams.

They add balance.

They prevent blokes from being too blokey. And mitigate against girls being too girly.

But what about the numbers of women wanting to enter the business? Why aren’t they greater?

Though not as tough or sexist as it may have been in the past, the advertising business doesn’t take any prisoners.

And creative departments especially are high-pressure environments: It’s painful having your beautiful ideas smashed to shreds by clients and creative directors.

Then there’s having to deal with competitive colleagues, playing mind games, desperate to out-do each other.

In Dave Trott’s book Creative Mischief, he talks about why women steer clear of creative jobs. He rightly describes creative departments as playgrounds, full of boisterous piss taking and gags.

Playgrounds are fun, but they’re also where bullying happens.

We not only need to entice smart women into the business, it’s imperative we give them a reason to come back from maternity leave when they start a family.

If we’re to do that perhaps we need to look to ourselves to change rather than asking them to.

The answer, soppy though some hardened practitioners may think, is providing a nurturing and caring working environment.

A support culture rather than a blame culture.

Offering encouragement and positive feedback rather than sarcastic sniping.

Baking into the culture the freedom to fail.

I’m not saying treat women differently to men. Why not treat everyone decently?

Yes, it takes more effort. And that might be a stumbling block for some.

But it’s a simple equation:

85% of purchasing decisions are made by women.

We need clever women to help us do our jobs well.

If we don’t treat them with respect they’ll just sod off and go and do something else.

And, gentlemen, that certainly won’t help the end-of-year numbers.


  1. Great post Damon. We have to really want more women in creative depts before anything will change.

    Debbie Klein did lots of good work around this topic for the IPA. More than half of all entrants to art college are women but they get encouraged to go more into publishing, broadcast services, illustration, even fashion rather than advertising because of the perceived bullying culture. I think we should all be a bit ashamed of that.

  2. Looks like the Vision 2011 conference think it's a worthy topic too

  3. It's just a thought but have you considered that woman might just prefer to do something more.. how can I put this... useful to society than advertising?

    Let's look at nursing, purely as an example. That's a predominantly female career that requires a lot of specialist skill & training. They work long hours and deal with death, loss, pain & numerous other challenges which make claims that advertising is "high pressure" or "stressful" quite laughable by comparison. What is it that attracts so many women to such a demanding, under-appreciated career path while men tend to shy away from it?

    If we look at the new style of PR & customer relationship management which are about nurturing communication with communities of consumers; learning from them and changing products & services to better suit the consumers' needs, we start to see more women and, crucially, more women innovating. Again, this area doesn't get a lot of recognition even though it can effect real change and, ultimately, improve the bottom-line.

    By comparison, traditional advertising is often about showmanship and impact; it requires a person with - to some degree - a desire to manipulate and control the consumers' desires, to tell them which product to buy and how to feel about that purchase... it requires the desire to lead.

    I can't prove any of this - it's just an off-the-cuff comment not a thesis - but it does make me wonder if, in general, women might get their validation through other methods to men and, perhaps, a career in advertising just doesn't offer the type of emotional rewards - the buzz - that women desire.

  4. Excellent post. Thank you.

  5. Hi aleceast.

    I agree, advertising will never be as high pressure, or as worthy, as nursing (though I always jump at the chance of working on projects that can help save lives like charities or anti-smoking organisations), my point really is that if we, at least, understand why women are important to us, we can do something to help ourselves attract more of them.

    I think your point about the new style of PR and customer relationship management is really interesing.

    My view is that this is exactly the direction advertising is and needs to continue going in.

    Therefore the old Mad Men macho style of 'selling' is irrelevant.

    Our job needs to be more about understanding and engaging our consumers and offering up things that'll help add value to their lives.

    Thanks for the comment.