Do You Need a Penis to Direct Ads?

December 15, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

The Swedish One of Three initiative reminds us of the terrible gender imbalance in the global ad industry.

The Swedish advertising industry recently made a bold move for equality. Five years ago a survey found that out of 130 commercials directors in Sweden only six were women. By 2014 little progress had been made. The industry has responded by introducing the En av Tre (One of Three) initiative, which states that for each pitch between an advertising agency and production companies, at least one in three directors should be a woman. This was written into the Swedish production and agency associations’ joint pitch guidelines in October, setting a new standard.

In exploring the issue it feels like I’ve spoken to half the London advertising industry and I’ve encountered every opinion from “fucking brilliant” to “the most sexist thing I’ve ever heard.” Thankfully, while Sweden’s choice of solution divides opinion, everyone recognises the problem the ad industry faces.

The Swedish guideline is a radical reaction, but in the face of the inequality it’s hardly surprising. While advertising is a business that prides itself in being trendy and creative, its demographics tell a different story.

Joi Persson runs Swedish production company Folke Film and recently signed a second female director to his roster. He supports the initiative. “I think it’s good,” he says, “and, sadly enough, needed because it will be very hard to change, especially when the commercials industry is pretty conservative. You pretty much need to be a guy [who is] a friend of some other guy who works as a copywriter or art director.”

This boys’ club culture is global and the UK is no exception. Out of all the directors listed on the rosters of Advertising Producers Association member production companies just nine per cent are female. That's pathetic.

Toby Moore, a Creative Director at Wieden+Kennedy London, has only worked with one female director in his ten years in advertising. “That’s just strange,” he says. “But not so strange when I’ve never worked for a female ECD. And when our houses of parliament, sporting fields and boardroom tables are dominated by men.”

Feminism has taken some blows recently, resulting in a worrying trend for people starting sentences with “I’m not a feminist, but…”. But even the misogynists of Adland should be able to support One of Three’s sentiment because diversity is good for advertising. “Film, which relies on diversity of vision to keep the medium vibrant, needs more women directing that vision,” says Toby. “Without female directors, the medium suffers.”

Lindsey Clay, Chief Executive of Thinkbox, think it’s slightly more nuanced. “It’s not saying that just because you have a male director you will get a skewed, misogynistic view of women,” she says, “because that plainly isn’t true. But variety and diversity of point of view is a good thing and you get insights and reflections that you wouldn’t get from men.”

Of course directors should be selected on merit. A creative agency should choose the best director from the options available to bring their script to life. But when you look at the numbers, it seems impossible that this is the simple reality of how things currently work. Are nine out of ten scripts really best served by a male director?

The advertising industry is in some respects very meritocratic. Kai-Lu Hsiung, Managing Director of Ridley Scott Associates estimates that their runners are 50/50 male and female. “Ridley jokes that it’s like film school here sometimes because you find out quite early on what [aspect of filmmaking] they like. More of the women this time around want to start directing. So that’s a healthy thing, rather than going into wardrobe or something.” With no formal training required for many positions, the doors are open to anyone with the passion and intelligence for it. And the female voice is being heard in advertising, with women succeeding at every level – just not enough of them.

“We have to be very mindful to make sure we get a variety of people in [the ad industry] from different backgrounds,” says Kai. “It’s not just people you know. We’re trying to look for talent from all walks of life. That’s what keeps the business interesting and varied.”

Deputy Executive Creative Director at Grey London, Vicki Maguire, is familiar with the well-rehearsed arguments of this discussion. “Every time we have this debate in our office everybody trots out ‘it doesn’t matter who does the work as long as it’s good,’” she says, “but studies have proven like employs like. If you recognise what’s good within your department and you employ like then you are just going to dilute that influence pool.” She remembers when she first started at an agency “it was full of Oxbridge blokes and Northern men made good. So it wasn’t just gender. It was geographical as well.” We’ve made some progress since then, at least.

In a rational world, advertising would have no diversity issues. But people aren’t rational. Neuroscience has shown us that decisions are made on more of gut feeling and, since we are naturally clannish in nature, an industry built in sexist times by men selects men to continue the sexist business. This makes it tough for women at various levels. Firstly, in finding representation, secondly, in being chosen to pitch on scripts, and, thirdly, in winning those jobs.

To be clear, this is not the overt sexism of the Mad Men era, and we can be thankful for that. Much of it is subconscious. We have a set of norms that inform our decisions; ideas in our head of what a director (or copywriter, editor etc.) looks like. It seems likely that this influences how we evaluate people. Unfortunately this means everyone adds to the problem, even female creative directors who want to end sexism in advertising.

Another obstacle for women in advertising is the way their behaviour is perceived. To succeed as a commercials director you have to have a lot of meetings, which require confidence and leadership skills. Some people I spoke to suggested that traits that would be respected in a man are met with disapproval in a woman. It’s become a cliché that women with powerful roles are cast as “bossy” where no man would receive that label, but there’s truth to it. The way our gendered society creates men and women shapes our personalities.

Maybe girls don’t aspire to become directors, some of my interviewees suggested. “There’s a lack of ambition,” says Joanna Bailey, a director at Bare Films, “because maybe they’ve been brought up to believe that that could never be theirs.”

Lay on top of this the fact that female directors are often pigeonholed into a softer style and end up shooting ads for domestic and beauty brands – a force that’s hard to resist. “I did a lot of beauty advertising when I was younger,” remembers Sara Dunlop, a director at Rattling Stick, “and the odd ad comes through that’s great, fresh and new, but in that world it’s very difficult to do creative advertising. It’s too specific, like ‘what does this cream do?’ It hasn’t developed at all. For me it’s the scale of idea I want. And if you look at my reel it isn’t girly.” That involves saying no a lot, which she admits is hard. “Once you start saying no it’s like 21s. You keep turning over the cards and if the next card isn’t as good you’ve got to keep going.”

None of these obstacles are great for gender diversity in advertising. And, as the Swedes have concluded, the balance seems unlikely to tip on its own. Their answer has been the One of Three initiative, encouraging advertising agencies to at least consider female directors. “It gives them a way to change their bad habits and traditional ways of working,” says Henrik Eriksson, Chairman of Commercial Producers for the Swedish Film & TV Producers Association, who brought in the initiative.

Nothing like One of Three has been attempted in the advertising industry before, but similar examples of affirmative action are worth looking at. The Rooney Rule, introduced in 2003 to America’s National Football League, made it obligatory for teams to interview ethnic minority candidates for head coaching and senior roles. Within three years, the proportion of African American coaches had jumped from six to 22 per cent. 

Sweden have a track record for this kind of approach. Four of their major political parties have gender quotas to make sure men and women are represented equally. And they’re almost there on that front, with 45 per cent of seats in their parliament occupied by women.

Whether this is the right course of action for advertising remains to be seen. “It’s different with politicians,” says Kai. “You understand the fact that it’s reflecting society and therefore their opinions are important, whereas when you’re talking about creativity, it shouldn’t be about your sex. It should be about whether you’re a creative person.” Piling regulation onto the industry is a blunt instrument, and opinion is fiercely divided on the subject of positive discrimination. It’s suddenly a disadvantage to be a male director.

Some suggest a more subtle approach, based on encouraging and educating people on gender and celebrating the best female directors as role models. Daniel Bergmann, Chairman and EP of production company Stink, says he would love to see the outcome of One of Three, but he wants more initiatives in education and business to support female directors too. More female voices on award juries, opinion columns and at conferences. “There is a lot of positive focus on female business leadership,” he says, “but I feel there is definitely a gap for more contribution in these areas from female minds.”

No director would want to be given a script to pitch for on the basis of her gender. Benefiting from sexism is isn’t satisfying. “In pitching, [female directors] have got a better chance than a male, just by their sex. Is that fair?” asks Matthew Fone, President of Riff Raff. “Not really. But how else do you kickstart this? You have to go to this extreme level to make people aware. Natural progression just doesn’t happen. Why is that? It’s stupid.”

Unfortunately it’s easy to foresee some women being brought in on pitches as tokens now this new initiative is in effect. “If you feel like you’re just pitching and pitching, never in with a chance and just there because you’re the token woman, I think you’d feel pretty bad,” says Kai. Most of my interviewees agree. It’s a situation sure to leave a bad taste for all.

“I want to be there because my showreel’s good,” says Joanna. “I really don’t want to be there because of my gender. But on the other hand I absolutely recognise that it’s an issue. I love it when women come into the office and are good and I really want to see women do well.”

From a business perspective, some have speculated it could end up wasting production companies a lot of time, effort and money if their female directors keep pitching without converting those chances into work. And since directors’ treatments became the behemoth they are today, that could be a significant blow.

Another worry I heard from several my interviewees was that there wouldn’t be enough supply for the demand One of Three creates. They say the top flight of female directors are already working hard. Sara already spends a lot of time treating on scripts. “There’s definitely pitch fatigue if you’re doing treatment after treatment. And not being genuinely considered after that would be worse.” How will they find time to fit any more pitching into their schedule?

The hope is that production companies will stock this new market by finding and signing new female talent. With more chances to get on pitches, a more diverse roster has business advantages. We’re already seeing this take effect in Swedish production companies, who have known about the guideline’s introduction for months and responded by signing women to their directing rosters. “It’s a good opportunity to secure producers’ position of investing in talent,” says Henrik. “Suddenly producers are thinking ‘if I don’t have a female on my roster I won’t see some of the work in the business.’”

The obvious criticism here is that, again, those women are just tokens, signed on the basis of their gender rather than on merit. That’s true, and many of them will lack the talent to win jobs. As a production company owner, Joi accepts this risk. “That’s a responsibility that the production companies and agencies have to take,” he says. “We have to do it, as I see it.” Some producers will learn the hard way that quality still counts.

“Personally I wouldn’t want to be the nominal women that gets the job just because she’s a woman,” says director at Teepee Productions Nicole Volavka. “But putting someone on a pitch isn’t giving them the job. It’s just giving them a chance. A lot of the time I don’t think women are getting those chances.

“I think if you started to allow more women onto the pitches through positive discrimination, you might find that there’s a whole army of women who want that job very much more than the guys and will go all out and deliver a phenomenal pitch.” It feels likely that the quality will eventually come through as the new system stabilises.

Eventually. That’s the key to the One of Three philosophy. The change will cause problems and difficulties, but the need for gender equality is so deep that the Swedish ad industry is willing to work with them. These are all short-term problems set against a sexist tradition that predates advertising and a more equal, stimulating future.

Vicki recognises the trouble of strong-arming equality, but believes it will ultimately achieve a new, better equilibrium. “Once you’ve forced women into those jobs or at least got that balance right, then like any industry the good stay and the bad drop out. So first of all it’s good for gender and then it’s good for the industry.”

Once a proper gender balance is achieved we shouldn’t need guidelines like this. By the law of averages, more women pitching should translate into more directing ads. And not only for tampons and dresses, but for sports brands, cars and alcohol. “There will be a number of jobs where it was always going to go to Ringan [Ledwidge] and the other people are just pitch fodder,” Lindsey admits. “But there are the ones where they totally expect it to go to Ringan, but then suddenly they get a leftfield, completely different treatment that they weren’t expecting and it really suits them. They get a really good vibe from that partnership and [the female director will] get it.” That should help women build more interesting reels, which will bring them further success. And eventually, eventually, we should have prominent female role models for aspiring directors to admire. Then there should be more female directors.

Of course all this is hypothetical. My interviewees consistently expressed an interest in what kind of effect this change will have. Advertising will be watching the Swedish market closely, because whatever happens, the industry can learn from it.

Daniel is fascinated to see the outcome. “If exposed well and supported by agencies accepting scripts – from sport, automotive, and alcoholic beverages to fashion, music and luxury – then there is no reason why the balance between male and female directors going for roles for any brand cannot be achieved. If it is going to help drive change and impact on a global level, the initiative needs high exposure.”

Henrik believes this could be the beginning of a global shift towards equality in advertising. “If it becomes bigger than this, I think it can start a change, he says. “Not only in Sweden. I think we can improve other countries.”

A short recommendation in a regulatory document isn’t a revolution by itself, and the ad industry won’t reach its gender diversity promised land for many years. But having spoken to a cross-section of its professional population, one thing is clear – everyone is glad we’re talking about female directors. And they’re keen to make sure the conversation continues. After all, as one (obviously male) copywriter once wrote for his client, it’s good to talk.

Comments (1)

  • It’s good to talk.
    Yes… but that depends on whether people are being honest or saying what they want people to hear them saying.
    As a human being, I would have thought the only way to fundamentally improve this situation is from grass roots up, encourage more women early on in all areas, including press/pr to comment, and to completely support them when having familes. Then maybe by the next generation there will be meaningful change. Not just meaningful agreements, meaningful talk.
    Chris Stevenson - yes, a male Director.

    by Chris Stevenson on 2015 03 13

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