Time won’t be up for sexism in adland until clients as well as agencies deal more honestly

Yesterday we had timeTo, a somewhat belated effort to tackle sexism and its consequences in UK agencies from, among others, The Advertising Association and women’s ad group Wacl.

Now in the US, where there’ve been more cases of sexual harassment, publicly revealed anyway, there’s Time’s Up Advertising, a group of 180 C-suite women including, inevitably, that new ornament on the C-suite stage the “Chief Talent Officer.”

There are some important people from big agencies, like Wendy Clark of DDB, and many from independents including some all-women operations. WPP’s Grey is there as is JWT’s new global boss Tamara Ingram. JWT is where the WPP/JWT Gustavo Martinez vs Erin Johnson case, which arguably triggered all this, shows every sign of continuing until they both reach retirement age.

Time’s Up Advertising says it will “drive new policies, practices, decisions and tangible actions that result in more balanced, diverse and accountable leadership; address workplace discrimination, harassment and abuse; and create equitable and safe cultures within the advertising industry.” Beyond that nobody seems to be saying much, maybe because, as is the nature of consortia, its members are coming from rather different places.

The ad business has enough on its plate with big clients cutting back, which has already meant rounds of agency staff cutbacks in both the US and UK, without a protracted spell of tortured inward analysis. But that’s what we’ve got and the industry as a whole (by which we mean its mostly male leaders through the years) has nobody to blame but itself. If such people can’t treat their own employees fairly and decently then how can they ask clients to trust them with their money?

Answer, of course, they (clients) don’t.

But clients are not as pure as the driven snow either. A messy case of bullying emerged at Unilever recently, with a senior data analyst resigning. This person has well-publicised previous working for the Conservative Party. Unilever CMO Keith Weed, who’s leading the charge for more ethical online media, presumably knew him and reads the papers.

Consumer goods companies con their customers by reducing pack sizes or the number of contents without letting on. Retailers invent non-existent farms to spruce up their basic offerings. Even the sainted Waitrose has taken to selling one Barnsley chop (a double lamb chop) as two by slicing it through the middle.

One of the things Weed is concerned about is the threat to brands, which might be defined as products you like because you “trust” them. They can be damaged by inappropriate placement in online media but, probably, not as much as cheating. Marks & Spencer in the UK was pilloried recently for selling a couple of bits of cauliflower for more than a whole one. I noticed the other day that it was selling a tiny bit of packaged halibut, a pricey fish admittedly, for £49 per kilo. Some people would have been royally ripped off.

So mendacity is all around.

For today though the issue is sexism and, underlying it, an increasingly desperate agency ecosystem that’s buckling at the seams as it tries (and often fails) to treat people fairly as money and talent dry up. It can be argued that women were more prepared to put up with sexism when agencies had more money. Similarly someone said the other day that men being fired for sexism was a good way to get rid of high-priced middle-aged males.

In a recent interview Weed spoke of “leaning in” to the online media issue. Leaning in is a phrase coined by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in a co-authored book. So it was a neat choice by Weed, as Facebook, according to many, is one of the chief villains of online media. Leaning In means, as far as it means anything, leading without being dictatorial. Trouble is, it can mean making the right noises.

The ad business, including these distinguished ladies from the US, needs to show it’s willing to change behaviour even as pressure to deliver growth and profit ratchets up. As well as making the right noises.

“A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money” said DDB founder Bill Bernbach all those years ago. Will adland, and the marketing world as a whole, be prepared to pay the price for doing the right thing?

This is an updated version of an earlier story.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.
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