Last night one of Australia’s biggest ad agencies celebrated its anniversary by having a woman jump out of a cake and perform a striptease. In this editorial comment, Mumbrella argues that it is time for the Australian advertising industry to admit that it has a sexism problem.
It was a big industry moment last night as senior industry figures, staff and clients came together to celebrate the 21st birthday of M&C Saatchi in Australia.
The Beresford Hotel in Sydney’s Surry Hills was transformed for the occasion. After a speech from founder Tom Dery, paying tribute to his creative partner Tom McFarlane, CEO Jaimes Leggett took the stage.
Leggett – who is also currently chairman of the Communications Council, the body that speaks for the communications industry – closed his speech by telling the cheering audience: “It wouldn’t be a 21st, however, without a cake. Ladies and gentlemen, happy birthday.”
The cake burst open and from it emerged a woman who began to perform a burlesque striptease.
Although tastefully done, it was rather more like a stag party than a 21st.
Later in the night another burlesque performance featured a number of women stripping down from blouse and skirt outfits to underwear, culminating with each woman putting their props – a Louis Vuitton bag – over their head, covering their faces.
Inevitably, Mumbrella will be accused of being the fun police for taking issue with this.
Actually, we have no issue with burlesque. This is a case of wrong time and place.
The time being 2016 and the place being an industry event.
Instead, this felt like something out of Mad Men. Objectified, near-naked female bodies with bags for heads.
This came in the context of being a matter of weeks after Leo Burnett Sydney was publicly called out for celebrating its new, all-white, male creative appointments. It put the issue of women in adland at the top of the agenda.
Yet this party felt backward-looking, and indeed a party organised by and for men.
Dery told the audience as much, speaking of Tom McFarlane’s infleunce:
“Every year our parties are infamous and it doesn’t just happen. It needs ideas. And as much effort goes into planning, conceiving and delivering the sort of ideas that come with these parties as anything else we do.
“It’s always Tom that conceives of these ideas, thinks of them, thinks of every detail.”
M&C Saatchi founders Tom McFarlane (left) and Tom Dery (right) watch a burlesque dancer perform at the agency’s 21st birthday party last night
It would be fascinating to know the internal process at M&C Saatchi that decided this would be a good look. Did nobody wonder aloud whether this would be the right look in 2016? And were they listened to if so?
It’s now well known that although women make up nearly 50% of the ad industry workforce they account for just over 20% in both creative departments and senior leadership positions.
M&C Saatchi is an agency which wants to be seen as not just a leader in the creative industry but as the most creative company in Australia.
We have no axe to grind against M&C. Just yesterday we celebrated the agency’s achievements over the past 21 years.
Mumbrella sees M&C Saatchi as one of Australia’s best agencies. And there’s nothing more awkward than accepting somebody’s hospitality only to have a sinking feeling that you’re going to need to call them out the next day.
As we point out, Leggett chairs the Communications Council, a position he took on just as the furore around Leo Burnett was kicking off.
At the time he got a pass for not making a public statements on the future of diversity in the industry because he was so new to the gig.
So it’s unfortunate his first public act since taking on the role was to introduce a woman jumping out of a cake.
It will be easy for others to brush this off and take a “glad it’s them and not us” approach. But this is not an issue which is isolated to M&C Saatchi.
It’s just unfortunate M&C didn’t think hard enough about how they wanted their agency to be portrayed to 600 employees and guests, many of whom are important clients, on one of its biggest nights.
The agency might argue that the male waiters weren’t wearing shirts and there was also a drag queen.
Like Spinal Tap, they’d say it was a sexy night, not a sexist, night.
Fair enough, but it was a woman who jumped out of the cake, and women who were the main performers on the night.
It’s time for the industry to let go of the last vestiges of the Mad Men era. Those days are gone, and mostly for the better.
That’s if our agency leaders are ready to say goodbye to their delusions of the ‘good old days’, which continue to push women to the back of the industry.
Most of this is not intentional but it is propagated by the unconscious bias of a self-perpetuating patriarchy in the industry.
This is not a call for tokenism, promoting people based on gender or colour or any other bias. It’s a call for genuine balance which reflects the way Australia and the world is today.
Neither is it good enough to say ‘the best people get the best jobs’. The system at the moment just isn’t set up to make that possible.
Agencies are trusted to handle other people’s brands. The industry cannot afford to be this badly out of touch with what is really happening in society.
Adland has a huge role to play in shaping the perceptions of the rest of the population. This includes more than 50% of the population – women – who are still subjected to the same tropes of cooking, cleaning, raising kids and shopping in our communications.
How can the industry claim to have a moral leadership position in this area when it carries on in public like a footy team on Mad Monday?
The industry is facing big enough challenges without holding on to the last vestiges of empire.
It’s time to move on the conversation.
Response from M&C Saatchi regional creative director Tom McFarlane:
Our party was a celebration of 21 years of creativity. We invite you to take a look at our 21.mcsaatchi.com.au website, which was launched yesterday, and you’ll see that creativity at M&C Saatchi takes many forms. Just as it always does at our annual party. Throughout the evening there were a diverse repertoire of acts – soul diva Deni Hines, dance duo Hip Hop boys, satirical performance artistes The Bag Ladies, drag trapeze acrobat Decoda Secret, top Sydney DJ Alex Taylor, acclaimed London DJ Norman Jay MBE and Miss Burlesque Australia 2012, Briana Bluebell. All these amazing performers have appeared at popular music and arts festivals throughout Australia.
January 23 update: M&C Saatchi has now issued a public apology, saying “the consideration that a burlesque routine may not have been appropriate in this context was overlooked”.