“The Creative Director likes your portfolio but doesn’t hire girls,” was my introduction to an internship at one of London’s trendy consumer advertising agencies of the time.
Two weeks later the Creative Director “did hire girls”. (Or a woman to be precise.)
Having demonstrated the benefits of a different perspective to creativity, I landed the job, and became one of only half a dozen women in all of the creative departments in London.
It was 1987. And, as one might imagine under said leadership, the creative department in which I now found myself was culturally very much a “Lads’ Club”. Covert and overt sexual innuendos, and sometimes propositioning, from my male co-workers were regularly experienced.
This behaviour was seen as perfectly normal. It was after all an era when car ads used analogies of sexualised female forms, and confectionary ads featured chocolate bars being fellated by perspiring women in steamy baths.
My agency survival strategy was to channel my own style of work and try to ignore, laugh off or give the blokes as good as I got. To complain would have alienated me from my colleagues. “It’s only banter!” (That is one the few tame retorts I dare publish.)
Fast forward to 2021. Sexual references and abuse in the workplace is no longer acceptable and, thanks to initiatives such as ‘The 3% Movement’ (so named after the number of female Creative Directors when founded in 20121 ), the number of female Creative Directors now stands at 29% in the US2 and 17% in the UK3 . I strongly believe that this rise in female creative leadership has had a positive effect, as evident in today’s ad campaigns for female brands, which empower women rather than objectify them or play on their insecurities.
I can no longer speak with any real insights about behaviour in consumer ad agencies, as in recent years I have worked in med comms – to my mind, a far more respectful and diverse environment.
At my current med comms agency, AS&K Communications, I’m also enjoying putting the negative experiences of my early career to good use by joining the company’s EDI Committee. This is one of my favourite meetings of the week and has ignited within me a new passion – that of influencing new approaches to equality, diversity and inclusivity in communications agencies.
It’s a hugely interesting coming together of minds with discussions that are helping to inform individual-centric policies within the agency – designed to ensure that everyone’s feelings across all aspects of the company are respected regardless of their age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or dis/ability.
My sense is that fully embracing EDI needs to be more than a top-down initiative.
It requires lots of talking and listening across every level of a company. Hearing and understanding the perspectives of those who are from a different mould to ourselves – and importantly acting upon these insights – will provide a safer and kinder work environment for everyone.
EDI may have been slow for the advertising and comms industries to adopt, but my perception is that a need for change is finally being recognised. Had ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace’ been suggested at my ad agency in 1987, I can sadly just see those huge, padded shoulders shaking with laughter.
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