Damien Venuto: Ad industry lags behind the rest of corporate New Zealand

OPINION:

For an industry that loves to trumpet progressive ideas, the advertising business has been notoriously slow at making internal changes that reflect the concepts they’re selling to the public.

The appointment of a pair of women in leadership roles at two of New Zealand’s biggest creative agencies marked an important milestone, but the industry might want to cut short the celebratory back-slapping.

It has taken literally half a century to get to this point, and two appointments will do little to change the ingrained legacy structures that continue to see top roles dominated by white men.

Those who guffaw at this and claim the gender debate in the industry is over, might do well to remember that’s exactly what Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide chairman Kevin Roberts said five years ago.

Things have certainly progressed since that bad take, but advertising can do better than comparing itself to its own low baseline. Look instead at what’s happening elsewhere across corporate New Zealand, where the appointment of women to top roles is no longer viewed as the exception.

For instance, three of New Zealand’s major banks – ASB, BNZ and ANZ – have had female leaders for some years.

If your moral navigation system is running behind that of a bank, then maybe you shouldn’t be so fast to gloat.

While advertising celebrates two appointments, steps taken by the NZX have seen female directorships among NZX50 businesses exceed 30 per cent for the first time in 2020.

And even the politicians are faring better, with New Zealand’s Parliament ranking among the most representative in the world, with women accounting for 48 per cent of our MPs.

Industry veteran and owner of an independent ad agency Sharon Henderson compares the appointment of two female bosses to the first real cracks in the Berlin Wall, and wholly rejects any notion that advertising has had anything to do with smashing the glass ceiling.

“The glass ceiling was broken years ago by many industry sectors,” says Henderson, who was also the first female managing director of DDB before starting her agency.

“No company should be provided the opportunity to obfuscate their track record on gender equality via spin-doctoring and mathematics trickery.

“Otherwise we will see the disproportionately large numbers of women in lower-ranking roles being used to average out the over-indexing of men in the most senior roles. And nothing will change.”

Henderson is referring to the tendency of agency bosses to boast about the proportion of their workforce that is female.

This neatly sidesteps any focus on who occupies the top positions in the hierarchy.

“The executive leadership teams of agencies have remained heavily skewed to men; from chairman to group chief executive, chief finance officer, chief creative officer, chief strategy officer, managing director and executive creative director.”

This issue has also been called out in other industries, serving as the impetus for the increase in the number of directors on boards and helping ensure a more even distribution of representation at higher levels.

A common counter-argument to concerns in advertising is that the broader communications industry – which includes creative agencies, media agencies and PR firms – does have decent representation of women in leadership roles, but Henderson says this brushes over the problems on the creative side of the business.

“Media and PR companies have always done better on gender diversity and equality measures and have been regarded as a comparative safe harbour for women in marketing,” she says.

Her contention is that the same cannot be said of creative agencies.

“It’s with more than a degree of frustration that I’ve witnessed slow progress for women in the creative advertising industry over the past decade, together with an imbalance in the way the actions and achievements of men have been lauded versus those of females,” she says.

Part of the reason why progress has been so slow is because advertising agencies are somewhat anonymous to mainstream New Zealand.

They are the ultimate ghostwriters, passing credit for everything they do on to those who pay them. They’re the invisible force pulling the communications strings for our biggest companies.

If you’re looking for further evidence of this, just ask a non-industry person to name three advertising agencies apart from Saatchi & Saatchi. You’re likely to get blank stares and a long “ummmm” – and no, neither of those are the trendy names of a hot new independent shop.

Public attention tends to accelerate changes in business. When companies are called out for the hypocrisy of their corporate structure when viewed alongside the progressive messaging in their ads, they’re more likely to make changes.

Advertising agencies have benefited from hiding in the shadows of the big brands they serve. That isn’t likely to change any time soon, but the hope is that these recent appointments and the growing willingness of senior women to speak out will lead to faster change in the coming years.

The real question, though, is whether the pace of that change keeps up with the rest of corporate New Zealand.

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