Creative departments subordinate women, says researcher who spent six months inside two Sydney agencies

Female creatives struggle to get work presented to clients or entered into awards, while women in account service roles are exploited into working long hours, a researcher who spent six months inside two of Australia’s largest creative agencies has reported.

Researcher Paul Priday spent the time embedded at Sydney agencies M&C Saatchi and McCann, along with Ogilvy in Shanghai and McCann in Delhi, before concluding: “Despite change being the lifeblood of the advertising industry, gender relations continue to protect the status of men through the organised subordination of women.”


mccann logo

According to the findings of former ad executive Paul Priday, women find themselves in “a manspace” while male staff told him that working mothers who return to work are “devalued employees”.

Priday embedded himself within the agencies during 2013 and 2014 while working on his PhD thesis ‘Obsession with Brilliance: Masculinities and Creativity In Transnational Advertising Agencies‘ for the Department of Gender & Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. He interviewed seven men and three women at McCann Sydney, and 13 men and eight women at M&C Saatchi in Sydney. The thesis was submitted in June 2016.

M&C Saatchi is among Australia’s largest agencies. Last year the agency apologised after organising for a woman to jump out of a cake and perform a burlesque striptease routine at the company’s 21st birthday party. McCann is best known for its award-winning Dumb Ways To Die train safety campaign.

Priday’s observations draw a picture of creative departments populated by arrogant male hipsters, being humoured by female account execs.

Priday | Source: LinkedIn

Priday | Source: LinkedIn

In his abstract, Priday asserts: “The creative department is a hierarchical ‘men’s club’ that through masculine cultural capital sanctions masculine privilege.”

Priday says the 240-page thesis was in part inspired by the culture outlined in the TV series Mad Men. He claims: “The role of the decorative female continues in current advertising agencies.”

In the study, which alters most names to protect identities, Priday highlights copywriter “Hailey”, who works at M&C Saatchi. He writes:

“Female creatives, like Hailey… refer to the creative department and advertising as a ‘boy’s club kind of industry’.”

“To keep herself in the game, Hailey says she adopts a survival strategy to ‘Dress like a girl and have a foul mouth!'”

“Hailey constantly comes up against male resistance and has experienced senior male creatives avoiding putting her work forward for presentation to clients.”

Priday reports that Hailey was told by a creative director: “You know you’ll never earn as much money as I will.”

Priday adds: “She remains realistic about the ‘manspace’ she works in and the ‘manpower’ she encounters… where she could be ‘at the top but never equal.’ Hailey explains that ‘as soon as I say I’m a feminist it seems that I’m not equal’ because ‘being equal means being a part of the ‘boy’s club’.”

Hailey is also disdainful of the effort made by her male colleagues at M&C Saatchi to look like “hipsters”, reports the researcher.

“What is curious about the creative dress code is how uniform it is amongst people who champion originality, difference and individuality.  The best explanation for this comes from Hailey who describes what signifies a male creative. Some of the younger men adopt a hipster look which is their interpretation of what they think an advertising man should look like. Hailey uses hipster as a pejorative to describe a young male creative who is pretentious and overly trendy. Hailey notes that talent is usually disproportionate to the effort that individuals put into how they look. ‘The brilliant ones don’t care’.”

In his research, Priday quotes M&C Saatchi’s male creative director “Wyatt” who admits: “We’re children really. I think we’re kids. I actually don’t see myself as a guy in his forties I still see myself as about nineteen.”

Wyatt concedes to the researcher that advertising is “the last of the gender divided industries” and makes no secret of M&C Saatchi’s creative department not being a friendly place for mothers.

“Within the agency world in Sydney, Wyatt tells me that because of the constant demands and pressures faced, the advertising agency is not able to
accommodate four day working weeks and flexible hours for women, so that a woman who has a baby ‘returns after pregnancy a slightly devalued employee’.”


M&C Saatchi’s website

M&C Saatchi’s regional creative director Tom McFarlane is quoted by the researcher a number of times.

Tom McFarlane

McFarlane: Women do good non-violence work

On the role of women and gay men in creativity:

“Tom McFarlane, one of the two ‘Toms’ who founded M&C Saatchi  in Australia, explains: ‘I’d like to say its transgendered [used in the sense of including all genders] but it’s male. I’m not being flippant but it’s a fantastic industry for gay men and women as well in terms of non-judgmental, non-violence work.'”

And on the transition to female-dominated client-side marketing teams:

“I call them the Russian dolls, and they are all girls … there’s another one, another one, another one and a little bubby one down the end of the table and everyone’s allowed to speak. You know it’s that generation, the kids have been told, ‘You speak up, your opinion counts.’ Well sometimes your opinion doesn’t count.”

The agency’s creative team is currently led by executive creative director Michael Canning following the surprise departure of chief creative office Andy Dilallo in November. The interviews set out in the thesis would have taken place prior to Dilallo’s tenure.

According to Priday, the “absence of a female creative director is not lost on the other female creatives in the agency”.

“As Katherine, a senior copywriter tells me: All of the people sitting at the top table, at the disciples’ table are men. It’s like the last supper that table, there’s not a single woman there.”

Priday quotes “Lincoln”, ECD at M&C Saatchi at the time. He says:

“There are no women in creative in the most senior positions…I actually got asked this by B&T or AdNews this question funnily enough, just three weeks ago. My response was, well there is someone in the industry, who I won’t name, he said, ‘Well we all know why, it’s because they’re not very good at it.”

Overall, Priday asserts he found each agency – McCann Sydney, McCann Delhi, Ogilvy Shanghai and M&C Saatchi Sydney – and each creative department to be a ‘manspace’.

“This is despite the increasing number of women in advertising, and even where there are more women than men in a particular agency,” he writes.

“Nevertheless, there has been a significant change in the account service department that was once the most male gendered space in an agency but which is predominately female.”

Priday states when he asked why this shift has happened, he was told: “It is the result of declining media commissions and women’s superior organisations skills.”

He concludes: “In other words, women are cheaper and better organised.”

Priday quotes a conversation with “Noah”, a creative director at M&C Saatchi who asserts the industry “exploits” young women.

“He confirms how facilities and benefits lead to extra hours at work and a ‘casino mentality where there are no clocks and no windows.’ This creates a temporal disconnect that separates the worker from the outside world where ‘young [female] suits hang around to eleven at night.’

“Noah tells me ‘the industry exploits talented young women’ who stay back working long hours only to become disillusioned and replaced by another intake of young, energetic, enthusiastic females into account service’.”

Throughout the thesis, Priday sets out a number of interactions.

At McCann Sydney he observes a “disinterested” art director who misses his previous “blokey” agency:

McCann's website

McCann’s website

At the first briefing I attend at McCann, Sydney two young female account managers are briefing Dan, a male art director, on a series of magazine advertisements for a healthcare client. Dan arrives some time before the meeting and goes straight to his desktop computer to login and watch the highlights of an overnight English Premier League soccer match.

Reluctantly he tears himself away from the soccer to attend the briefing. The women are well organised and have all the information ready to provide background reference as well as precise details of the task and when it is required.

They are neat, well dressed and alert. Dan lounges back in a sofa chair and listens, in a rather disinterested way, at the same time nodding to confirm the pressing deadline. During the briefing, [Dan] leans back and yawns as his t-shirt rides up exposing his belly to the young women.

“Sometime later Dan tells me that his previous agency was very ‘blokey’ and the men there were ‘right arseholes’ but admits that he, ‘Sort of miss it a bit’.”

He says of the McCann Sydney creative department:

“Female account service managers have conditional entry to this space where they are expected to be deferential, reflecting their subordination to support role.

“There are three female creatives here; Laura, a junior art director; Kate and Petra, also art directors, working on healthcare products. They remain at their desks throughout the day only leaving for sanctioned breaks and meal times.

In contrast the male creatives, whatever their status, get up, move around, sit, lie and stretch out on the sofas, or drape themselves over the chairs. Abandoned pizza boxes, noodle packs, wooden chop-sticks and used napkins are strewn across the working surfaces. There is very little housekeeping here. This is left to the overnight cleaners who will return the ‘mens’ club’ to order ready for the members to return the following day.”

Last month, a survey by industry action group Agency Circle – which covered 15 creative agencies in Australia – revealed the results of its study of agency gender balance. Creative departments were 71% male, while the top management tier is 84% male.


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