Where media agencies got the jump on creatives

Mumbrella's Calum Jaspan looks at the key area creative departments have lagged on, and how they are catching up, in this excerpt from The Weekend Mumbo.

There is a lack of diversity at the top of Australia’s creative departments. A lack of diversity that, surprisingly, we don’t see as much in the media agency space anymore.

International Women’s Day is approaching this Wednesday. The pitches and opinion pieces have been coming thick and fast for weeks.

No doubt, gender equality has seen progression over recent years across across differing sections of the media, marketing and advertising industries, but there is still work to be done.

Let’s look at some of that progress.

When Katie Rigg-Smith was appointed as Mindshare CEO in 2013, she was alone at that level in the industry in media agency land. Not the first, but there was only one. That figure was particularly stark considering 40% of management roles were occupied by women in 2014, according to the MFA’s industry census.

Look around now and 6/14 MFA board members are female, also occupying the top job at more than half of the top billing media agencies in market.

31 of the CMO50 list in 2022 were women too, showing the marketing industry is well ahead of some other sector sectors.

While there are green shoots in the form of Aimee Buchanan and Rose Herceg, respectively in the top jobs at GroupM and WPP, the majority of the top group roles in market don’t have a flush record in regards to diversity.

When we turn to the indies, there are a number of prominent female leaders, though those that have struck out alone (ie: started up and own the majority of the business) in the past few years are all men. That is a topic for another time.

Notably this week, Clemenger Group, an organisation that hasn’t had a particularly diverse leadership in its steeped history, confirmed four new appointees to its board this week, all women. A straight swap for the four men that have departed the past year.

There is certainly a bit of a revolution going on at Clemenger, in more ways than one.

Things tighten up on the media owner side of things, though. Despite increasing presence across editorial titles, few of Australia’s media companies have women running them. Cathy O’Connor, Beverley McGarvey, and Jane Huxley, to name a few. The sample size is smaller, to be fair.

Out of all of this, creative leadership appears to be the area lagging the most. To be clear, we’re talking about the creative department. There are plenty of brilliantly talented executives across these agencies. The ACA has an even split on its board, too.

There are only two female chief creative officers in the Australian market right now, The Monkeys’ Tara Ford and Dentsu Creative’s Mandie van der Merwe.

Chief creative officers: van der Merwe and Ford

Extend that across the ditch and we can add Clemenger BBDO Wellington’s Brigid Alkema, one of the four board appointees mentioned above. She is also now the head of Clemenger’s Creative Council, following James McGrath standing down this week.

This moment, with Alkema stepping into that role, now providing leadership and mentorship to the best creative talent across Clemenger BBDO Australia, CHEP Network, Clemenger BBDO Wellington, and Colenso BBDO appears to be a fairly pivotal moment.

A study in 2018 aggregated results from the major awards across the globe. It showed of the 300 most-awarded chief creative officers, executive creative directors and creative directors, only 39 were women.

So why is the creative department dragging its feet?

To quote Cindy Gallop, “equal opportunity for others doesn’t mean less opportunity for you. It’s not pie.”

Gallop is right. It’s not a zero sum game.

“It’s an antiquated problem that’s getting reckoned now in real time,” said Belinda Lodge, headhunter at her own company, iPopulate. “Let’s say it takes 10-15 years to become an ECD. It’s a 15 year old problem we’re trying to correct now.”

Lodge says, as a general statement, that women have historically been precluded from these creative spaces, which have been particularly dominated by men.

“They let the women sell, but not touch the product.”

Add that to the fact, she says, that 15 years into your career, many are wanting to start families.

“I don’t know how you fix that. I think that is something that is stagnant, that if you choose to have children, you also probably have time out of the industry, and that really does have an impact.”

The aforementioned Tara Ford was Australia’s first woman to don the CCO title at a major agency, when DDB Australia elevated her to the role in 2019 (keeping in mind ‘CCO’ hasn’t always been around).

“I never had a female boss,” she told me this week. Nor did she have any female creative role models to look up to in her earlier years in the industry.

There were exceptions though globally she said, such as Susan Credle, Leo Burnett’s CCO at its Chicago head office (now global CCO at FCB), or Susan Hoffman, co-CCO at Wieden+Kennedy.

“See it, be it,” and all that.

“I think it’s getting better,” Ford said, referencing her own agency, where three of the four creative leaders are women, alongside founder Scott Nowell.

“I guess I’ve kind of hired and promoted that way, not on purpose, but its a conscious thing, with that in mind, promoting talent that I think is deserving and because of that, we’ve got a completely different dynamic in the department.”

“I think it kind of snowballs, because more want to work here when you create that environment because its not just hiring, its also having an environment that women feel comfortable in.”

According to the Ad Council last year, in its Create Space report, 60% of the advertising industry is female. A number that far trumps the Australian workforce at 47%. That number rises in Australia’s media agencies, at 62%.

“Women progressing into leadership positions reduces the structural reliance on the male breadwinner model,” the report said.

Why is diversity of voice particularly important when it comes to the creative department? Because it sets the tone for the communications we see in culture, on TV, on the radio and across all assets.

It goes without saying this doesn’t stop at gender, either.

“I think when whole departments are run by men, it has a different kind of tone to what they think is good, what is funny, all those things. It kind of does affect whose work gets up as well because as a creative leader, you decide which work goes ahead, how are you going to sell it and what you’re going to push,” continued Ford.

Ford also makes the point to recognise that at the same time, she has been promoted and supported by a number of men across her career, so “it doesn’t have to just be women helping women, otherwise no one would’ve ever made it”.

Last year on the Mumbrellacast, van der Merwe added said “we write and create often from where we know,” adding that diverse voices are important across all levels of leadership.

As Lodge says, it’s an issue that is in the process of being corrected, and one that can’t be rushed through early promotions, and the sort.

There is a vast amount of excellence at Australia’s top agencies, including Barbara Humphries, Pia Chaudhuri, Katrina Alvarez-Jarratt, Amy Weston, and Shelley Parsons to name a few.

Most of which will take on the CCO title at some point, not that the title is really the difference maker.

But prominence of voice does matter. The important next step is making sure we build on the progress that’s been made, because there is still plenty, plenty more to be done.

“I think it’s a matter of time,” Ford says in reference to wholesale change in the industry, “but I don’t think it’ll just take care of itself. So yes, it will get better with time, but only if we’re always still concentrating on it.”

It’s important to note that everyone’s experience differs. So please drop me line if you think I’ve missed something.

Calum Jaspan is news editor at Mumbrella.


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