Ali Hanan
Aug 9, 2016

Six ways to rewrite gender in adland after the Kevin Roberts debacle

After the Kevin Roberts controversy, Creative Equals founder Ali Hanan proposes six concrete ways to improve gender diversity in the ad industry.

Six ways to rewrite gender in adland after the Kevin Roberts debacle

Kevin Roberts—now the ex-chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi—and the surrounding press last week was as devastating for adland as a wildfire. But the damage is done. Swift, actionable frameworks must now be a priority for every business.

Rather than giving the Roberts’ debacle more attention, let’s start talking about what is brilliant about this industry, otherwise we’re in danger of alienating Generation Z and incredible female talent we need to attract and—more importantly—retain. 

With the way the industry was portrayed last week, why would any young, up-and-coming talent want to work in an industry that appears so culturally out of date? (And please, press, no more Mad Men pictures.) It’s time for stories celebrating the groundbreaking, culture-changing work we can do—and an action plan for how to move forward.   

While women graduate from ad schools in equal numbers, aside from attracting the brightest talents, we have a glaring retention issue. We have to do more to carve pathways to success within the industry. As Tom Knox, president of the IPA, said in Campaign in the IPA’s January’s report: "It remains an uncomfortable truth men dominate creative departments. This cannot be good for creativity or our ability to solve business problems. Finding ways of keeping [women] will require a sea change in culture and ways of working."

So, enough talk. Here are six tangible ways to kickstart the change the Roberts’ furore highlighted and that Knox deemed an "urgent necessity" nine months ago.

1. Change workplace culture, starting from the top

As Kevin Roberts showed, unconscious bias training should be mandatory for everyone in senior leadership. Without tackling the deep roots of bias, particularly at Roberts’ level, like hires (and promotes) like. Workplace cultures and robust HR practices start from senior leadership down; for example, ensuring women are on interview panels and, for creatives, reviewing CVs and portfolios. As Kate Stanners, chief creative officer of Saatchi & Saatchi, says, "I put a female team in charge of junior creative recruitment and the change of young women making themselves available to us was amazing. It changed our department overnight."

2. Help more juniors stay and thrive

In a survey with the Young Creative Council, Creative Equals discovered 50 percent of junior talents are considering leaving the industry because of low wages and living conditions. To shore up the talent pipeline, every junior talent needs mentorship, training and support right from the outset. When Creative Equals asked for "gender equality actions" from 55 of the world’s top creative leaders at the Cannes Lions Festival, this was a key commitment from Victoria Buchanan, executive creative director at Tribal DDB, Simon Gill, chief creative officer at Isobar and Brent Choi, chief creative officer at J Walter Thompson (New York and Canada). For more actions, check out

3. Move all talent "one rung up" 

Imagine how quickly we could shift the numbers if every female talent had briefs, equal opportunities and clear career pathways to move up the ladder over the next three years. Many women end up stuck in the cul-de-sac of middle management, with no clear path forward. Cherry-pick future leaders with "vertical ambition" and give them what they need to be successful in these roles with management, business acumen and negotiation skills training. Create a succession plan including diverse talents from the rung below.

4. Champion mums, adland’s most undervalued asset

Creative Equals’ Young Creative Council survey revealed 60 percent of young female creatives believe they can’t stay in the industry with a young family. A 2016 IPA Mother’s Day study showed 55 percent of mums say marketers "don’t understand them", so to address this disconnect between those who make the ads and audiences keeping mothers is business critical. Parenthood signals a huge life transition, particularly for new mums. Right now the right frameworks aren’t in place to help them stay. Since you’re always only as "good as your last piece of work", for those who take a career break, coming back is a mission impossible. Creative Equals is setting up a "Returners programme" to tackle this issue.

5. Install a gender-neutral hiring stage

Agencies need to put diversity at the core of their HR policy, requiring their recruiters to provide diverse candidate long lists across gender and ethnicity. Studies show men are hired on potential, while women on achievement, so with so few in roles where they’re set up to "achieve" (and tick every job description box), it’s critical to start hiring on potential. As Cindy Gallop says, "Hire a non-white woman with [the] potential to do the job. That ticks three diversity hiring boxes." More importantly, job ads with gender-neutral language and imagery should be a mandatory requirement for all. One recruiter recently wrote on Linkedin, "This ECD is looking for a CD to be his right-hand man".

6. Make more women visible everywhere

In our survey with the Young Creative Council, Creative Equals discovered 88 percent of young female creatives say they have zero role models to follow. So, give senior females time to speak, judge and write for the press. All award shows need to aim for a 50/50 jury split. Many senior creatives, like Susan Credle, global chief creative officer of FCB Inferno, now refuse to sit on juries with less than this.

These are just the start of a comprehensive framework developed by Creative Equal, the gender equality kitemark of the creative industry. This initiative aims to create gender-balanced departments at all levels, partnering with Wacl, the IPA, D&AD, Creative Circle, Cannes Lions, The Girlhood, Creative Social, SheSays and more. The industry’s most respected agencies – R/GA, DigitasLBi, Grey London, Wunderman, Mr President and AnalogFolk – are behind the framework, fast gaining momentum.

Enough talk about Kevin. Now it’s time to invest (yes, financially) in real tangible action.

For more, see 32 things to start today at

Ali Hanan is the founder of Creative Equals


Campaign US

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