There is something revealing about the aftermath of a creative pitch session once the people have gone home. Torn paper and post-it notes; mood boards and sketches; empty beer cans strewn around. It can feel like a teenage boy’s room.
Advertising has always been seen as a male-dominated profession. So when an adland veteran-turned-academic says that the creative departments of agencies are still the ‘boys’ clubs’ they have been labelled as for so long, you know he’s not just perpetuating a stereotype.
Paul Priday spent two years observing teams at M&C Saatchi in Sydney, McCann in Sydney and Delhi, and Ogilvy in Shanghai as research for his 240-page PhD thesis, Obsession with brilliance: Masculinities and creativity in transnational advertising agencies.
This article is part of a package of features:
Gender inequality in APAC adland: Scope, causes and cures
Published in September by the University of Sydney, the topic for the paper was partly influenced by the recent groundswell of concern about gender inequality in the advertising workplace, and partly by the popular American period drama Mad Men.
Priday, who has spent his whole career in advertising, mainly in creative director jobs after starting out in JWT London in 1965, confirms that the role has “strong male connotations”. To be a creative director, he says, “means being a person who competes with others by activating and challenging their creative utility”.
Although women account for more than 50 percent of the staff in each of the four agencies where Priday conducted his fieldwork, he found power and status construct a space that “privileges men and typically tolerates women”. But Priday also argues that both genders bring traits to the table that add value to the creative process.
By nature, male creative directors are far more anxious to win when competing in pitches and awards. For many of these men, advertising has gradually changed from an occupation to a preoccupation — with winning.
The fundamental difference between male and female creatives, Priday suggests, is that men have an inherent aggression in them. He argues that it is this stereotypical testosterone-driven aggression that pushes male creatives to “go for the kill” in work projects.
This is overwhelmingly evident in the everyday language of the male creative, says Priday. Military-style terms such as ‘brand warfare’, ‘battle for market share’, ‘guerrilla marketing’, ‘fighting for the account’ and ‘new business victory’ are all common in adland, and specifically in creative.
“Male creatives see themselves fighting on the front line with the females ready to provide support services, administer care and offer encouragement,” Priday writes. This kind of self-visualisation justifies why female creatives are not put on the front line — hired or promoted — as often as males.
The macho theme prevails even after marked cultural differences are thrown into the mix. Priday’s thesis quotes a “Ritishal” — aside from a handful of named senior executives, interviewees in the thesis have been partially anonymised, referred to with pseudonyms but identified by agency, job title and often described in personal or biographical detail — a female creative director at McCann Delhi, who describes male creatives as viewing winning pitches and awards as “symbols of their creative potency and virility”. This results in a vulnerability Priday identifies in male creatives in all four offices, which he terms “manxiety”.
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Tax evasion ad reflects Indian patriarchy
Evasion issue: Campaign ads infer only men dodge tax.
McCann Erickson’s campaign for the Indian government hoped to convince service tax evaders to pay up.
The team produced TVCs representing the four stages of the consequences of evasion — ‘Nudge, trigger, jolt and threaten’ — a communication strategy based on the idea of ‘an iron fist in a velvet glove’.
In the first stage, the tax defaulter is nudged towards a diplomatic solution in the form of a period of tax amnesty. Later, a naming-and-shaming approach is taken. Finally, the tax defaulter is threatened with arrest, jail and a term of hard labour.
The tone and the language in this campaign are distinctly masculine, tied in with the authoritarian voice of government. The graphic presentation, using bold, red capital letters on a black background, suggests male authority and the desire to be
Furthermore, the campaign declares war on ‘thick-skinned tax defaulters’, who are all shown to be men avoiding their national obligation to pay their fair share of sales tax. The only women featured in the campaign are dependent wives, mothers and children, who stand to become ‘victims’ if their tax-defaulting husbands are punished.
But the phenomenon is by no means universal. In China, he encountered a more nuanced concept of masculinity, incorporating dualistic concepts of wen (scholarly virtues) and wu (militarism). Add in the concept of “losing face”, however, and the prospect of failure could have an even more dramatic impact on fragile male egos — Priday cites examples of male Chinese creatives quitting their jobs after being criticised in front of colleagues.
In all four offices, Priday found women had to take steps to deal with the predominantly male cultures. “Female managers and account service executives adopt strategies to handle creative male egos when their work gets rejected and the notion of rejection varies according to different cultural settings,” he writes.
Female creatives often need to adopt masculine attributes and become similarly competitive in order to get ahead — but that can come at a social cost, the thesis argues.
In India, aggression tends to be seen as a virtue when applied to Indian men, but ambitious women may be labelled a ‘sheranee’, the Hindi word for a tigress. “Yashika”, another female creative director at McCann Delhi, reflects that women who resort to what Priday calls “manning-up” to advance their careers may end up being “respected but not always liked”.
In Shanghai, though, Priday’s sources seem to positively revel in the city’s women having a reputation as tough, outspoken “dragon ladies” who pose a “physical threat to men”. Another Chinese term for ambitious women is a “green tea bitch … [who] appears innocent, like green tea, but inside she is a bitch”.
Male-dominated echo chamber?
“Allison”, an art director at Ogilvy Shanghai, laments to Priday about the lack of female visibility in advertising.
“All over the world … every time we have one of those creative gatherings, or meetings or forums or whatever, you know strangely you just see men,” she tells him. “It’s always men, men, men, men, men.”
Her refrain will ring all too familiar to many in an industry where award juries — particularly local ones organised in the mainland — are almost always male-dominated.
Priday finds this all-male culture often pervades into the idiosyncratic characteristics of an agency, and these environments have become a haven for male creatives.
Long working hours — which already work against women who are often expected to keep up heavier family commitments — are made more comfortable by clubroom-style perks, such as in M&C Saatchi Sydney’s “chill-out areas” where there are pool and foosball tables, dart boards and pinball machines.
With a few exceptions, the people who play with these “boy toys”, remarks Priday, are dictated by “a minority number of men … physically crowding around, restricting access and turning them into small, homosocial centres of male exclusivity”.
In similar relaxation areas at the McCann office across town, Priday notes “the men drape themselves over the seats or stretch out on the sofas while the women sit upright, alert and attentive”. He sees this as the “way the men mark their territory, coming across as owner-occupiers of the creative space, asserting their power advantage over the women who present as ‘other’ and are accepted as visitors”.
One side effect of male dominance in ad agencies is that masculinity tends to be seen as the default starting point for creativity. This is “hardly questioned” and “taken for granted”, Sheena Jeng, China chair and China chief creative officer at Publicis Worldwide, tells Campaign Asia-Pacific.
The only female CCO among all the multinational agencies in the market, Jeng says that although there are occasional ads — such as SK-II’s ‘Marriage market takeover’ — that attract attention by challenging society’s conventions, everyday ads still portray women as “preoccupied with beauty, domestic duties and motherhood”.
Behind the ads, however, in the brainstorming room, Jeng’s view is that the best creative teams should collapse traditional notions of gender. This means a female copywriter should be expected to create copy for a ‘masculine’ client, such as a car brand. The same goes for a male art director working on a ‘feminine’ sector such as cosmetics.
Promotions should be granted on creative merit alone, Jeng believes. Any men and women who have risen to the heady heights of ECD or CCO are the product of accumulated skills and experience. The best employees, no matter what their gender, need to be able to ideate fast, be precise and particular in their conceptualisation process, and meet deadlines.
However, many women in China’s creative shops tend to gravitate towards account servicing roles, often seen as capitalising on ‘coordination skills’ and the ‘high emotional quotients’ crucial to handling the egos of male creatives.
This distilling of characteristics into such simple ‘male’ and ‘female’ camps needs to stop, thinks Jeng. “When I approach a new client or a new campaign, I think of myself as a ‘creative person’ rather than a ‘female creative’,” she says. “I don’t have a female-centric credo.”
This being said, Jeng concedes that men are generally more obsessed with breakthroughs in craftsmanship compared to women’s focus on nuances of expression and creative iteration.
Jeng’s point is also substantiated in Priday’s thesis, in which he recounts a conversation with a young female account service executive at M&C Saatchi Sydney. “Lucy” expresses how “female creatives generally will think of a creative solution and then think around it to see how their work can be adapted for different circumstances and alternative media”. She continues: “In contrast, male creatives focus on coming up with the ‘big idea’ as the foundation for all activity, and [believe] that any additional requirements and adaptions will take care of themselves.”
“Wyatt”, a male creative director at M&C Saatchi Sydney, states a clear preference for just that approach.
“I’d rather make the big stuff, that’s what I like to do,” Priday quotes him as saying. “I don’t like the small things I like to go for the big brief, the risky brand campaigns … because they’re bigger. You know there’s so much more to deal with if you’re dealing with music, sounds, directors, social. They’re much bigger things.”
Priday’s thesis cites just one example of “blatant gender bias” — a source’s claims she had heard of creative directors who simply “don’t hire women”. But he argues that overt prejudice alone does not explain continued imbalance in the industry. Rather, ingrained perceptions of what it means to be creative can be far more pervasive.
Priday finds his female respondents resigned to the ad industry being inherently masculine, and will always be so. “The young females … look at me quizzically when they say this as if I would think it can be otherwise,” he writes.