Boys’ club: The ad industry’s secret shame

AlexAdvertising has always been a white boy’s club, but now is the time to change that argues Alex Hayes. 

Cindy Gallop’s tirade yesterday about Leo Burnett Sydney’s creative hires being five white men has caused a lot of commentary. What worries me is the amount which are to the effect of ‘there’s nothing to see here’.

Last year I did some management training which involved personality testing, and the results were very interesting. It showed that in each department of the company we had effectively hired the same personality types.

The lesson: you tend to hire people like you.

While publishing and the ad industry are two completely different sectors, there’s still something in that insight.

Full disclosure before we go any further, I’m a white, middle class male in his 30s.

homer white male

Are Leos being unfairly singled out here? Yep. In truth it could have been one of three dozen agencies, large and small, who send out these type of releases (check out this Tumblr for many more examples globally, or this one). Who doesn’t want to boast about their amazing new hires, and judging from track records each of these guys got there on merit.

The picture which triggered Gallop's tweets

The picture which triggered Gallop’s tweets

Ultimately of course it isn’t about Leos (who according to many anonymous comments have lots of women working at the agency, but won’t engage on the issue publicly). Gallop would admit Leos were a convenient scapegoat. She was just trolling them as a catalyst to get the topic on the radar. As she says herself she “likes to blow shit up. I am the Michael Bay of business”.

Guess what, it worked, and here we are.cindy gallop what the fuck are you thinking

But judging from these stats that the Communications Council has shared with me from their last annual salary survey, which takes in around 2,500 employees, I’m inclined to say as an industry as a whole, there is a problem. Just spend a couple of minutes looking at them, and think about the real world implications.

The reason I say it’s a hidden shame is highlighted by a lot of contributors on the Gallop comment thread: “There’s lots of women at my agency, I spent this morning taking briefs from them.”

Another said: “At my agency there are around 25 creatives, and only five of them women. Women are poorly represented. But does anyone actually know if as many women WANT to be creatives as men? Are 50% of applicants for creative roles women? I’m going to say no.”

I’m sure the 42% of the Award School students this year who were female would fancy themselves as CDs someday.

The chances are at least half the people at your agency are female. After all they’re over-indexed in client services (69%) and Operations (76%). By the looks of things they’re keeping the ship running for those hopeless creative chaps who can’t tie their shoelaces. By the looks of it they’re enjoying the long lunches still.

What they’re not doing a lot of is actually running the ship. If the industry is damned near 50/50 in terms of gender split overall, then why are just 21% of senior management roles held by women? If we’re saying everyone gets to where they are on merit (as a lot of anonymous commenters have been) then women must mostly be hopeless leaders – right?

At the top of the tree it’s a boy’s club. There’s no way to deny that. A quick flick through my contacts book shows me it’s mainly men under the job description ‘CEO’ or ‘managing director’ – with a couple of exceptions like Melinda Geertz and Lindsey Evans – that’s one of the reasons we’ve asked her to chair our Future Leaders event in a couple of weeks time. Encouragingly nearly half of those enrolled so far are female.

Hell, you just have to look at most agency names to see they were founded by men.

That imbalance means we also struggle at times to make sure women are properly represented on panels at our events. Often it’s not for wont of trying, and we’re conscious of the new Peggy’s List which has been set up as a good tool to help us bring out new and interesting voices.

Talking to the Comms Council CEO Tony Hale yesterday he readily admitted there is a problem in some parts of the industry that needs addressing. And the Comms Council is trying to facilitate change, with initiatives like the Male Champions of Change and a Gender Diversity hub. Get on there and have a sniff around, there’s some interesting stuff.

Worryingly, what we don’t have any tangible evidence for is the ethnic diversity of the industry. But you just have to look at the team photos on websites or pop into an office to know there’s not a lot of people who don’t speak English as a first language at home, or have grown up west of Leichardt. I’ll wager they don’t come close to reflecting the actual population as a whole.

Again the Comms Council says it’s working with the charity I-Manifest to give people from different backgrounds a chance to experience agency life, and see there’s a potential for them to have a career in the ad industry.


And why don’t we extrapolate it further and look at the ages of people in your agency as well. I don’t think there’s any data on that, but I’m willing to bet there’s quite a large disconnect there with people over 50 hard to come by. Grey hair doesn’t say ‘innovative and creative’ in the way most agencies seem to want to. What it does say is ‘experienced’ and probably ‘expensive’, two underrated qualities.

tony hale


Even Hale admitted to me he got a little fed up of being the oldest person in the room at his agency by 10 years or more, which is why he took a job with the Newspaper Works, and now the Comms Council. But there’s clearly a part of him that wants to be connected to the industry.

None of this is not a new or unknown problem, just one you as an industry have been ignoring for too long, and just won’t engage with.

How do I know that? Last year we did our own research into this area and came up with some very similar results to this – you can revisit those articles below.

Leaving aside the brilliant op-ed from Nitsa Lotus there were a total of 19 comments on these articles. So far the Cindy Gallop article has had 60+ in just over 12 hours, and that’s still rising – fast.

Similarly, whenever we put on diversity sessions at events like Mumbrella360 it’s crickets – people would rather sit through a dry session on data analytics than engage in the debate.

I don’t think quotas are the answer. I also don’t think things can go on as they are. There’s a self perpetuating patriarchy in the industry which doesn’t consciously know that it is.

I do believe in people being promoted on merit. I just happen to think there may be a lot of people out there in positions to hire who need to reassess what their definitions of merit are.

If you’re struggling, like many agencies are, then chances are hiring yet more people who look, work and think like you isn’t going to help you much. It’s not like the industry is churning out such vast quantities of amazing work that it couldn’t do with some fresh perspectives. Think of how many people are paying money to actively avoid your ads.

If you’re interested in ideas on how to change this thinking then Gallop’s keynote address to the 3% (that’s the number of women who are creative directors in the US) conference last week, gives some interesting perspectives. Feel free to leave other resources in the comment thread and I’ll add them in at the bottom of the article.

There’s a long road ahead, but the bottom line is this. Women and people from ethnic backgrounds don’t need the ad industry. Let’s face it, there’s many better paying and less stressful career routes out there.

The ad industry needs more of them.

  • Alex Hayes is editor of Mumbrella








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