Why marketing and advertising has a ‘women problem’

Tracy Brown
8 min readAug 13, 2017

It’s so easy to get really, really angry these days, particularly if you are directly impacted by a lack of diversity in your industry. We have always had good reason to be angry about the way our careers have been determined by so many things outside of our abilities and beyond our control, but these days the hits just keep on coming. The Google and Uber controversies highlighted what happens when cultures of inequality are allowed to fester until they explode into a public forum, both outraging anyone who cares about diversity and feeling woefully familiar to those of us who have been the victims of discriminatory cultures.

So how are women tracking in marketing and advertising? According to Cindy Gallop, not so well. She called out Leo Burnett in 2015 for making all-white all-male hires (proudly promoting the move instead of recognising the absurdity of it) as well as drawing attention to the lack of female voices and the awarding of sexist campaigns at Cannes in 2016. The Drum has been sharing stories of gender discrimination within the industry, all too recognisable to some and shocking to others.

So there is a problem. Although there appears to be a decent representation of women facilitating or managing the flow of work in many organisations, the same cannot be said for senior specialists who execute the work across the board; technologists, creatives, strategists — all key discipline leads. With this in mind, there is something uniquely disparaging about how marketing keeps misappropriating the word ‘diversity’ in a bid to improve the image of the industry. It is often accompanied by agencies publishing images of enthusiastic young women talking at ‘women’s events’, inadvertently celebrating segregation by giving them such a marginal platform, or declarations by business leaders, many of whom have never faced discrimination, somehow making the message all about themselves; it is rarely (never) accompanied by actual evidence that there is an equal playing field. You cannot begrudge these efforts, but they aren’t yet the real deal and we really need the real deal round about now.

In truth, our industry has a tendency to value dynamic words and appealing pictures over real action. We see it with the use of the word ‘innovation’ to describe mediocre changes, or ‘customer-centric’ to mean ‘we ran a workshop on what customers might like’. Often the word ‘diversity’, when used by marketing pundits, means ‘we would really like not to be sexist’, often not even used to include varied racial groups or religions or sexualities or abilities, turning the word into another marketing misnomer. And why should we be surprised? Many marketeers have had implicit agreements with one another for years that if we adopt the right buzzwords we don’t even have to deliver on anything meaningful.

So what does it take to move away from our old marketing ways? Well, for one, it’s accepting the awful truth that, contrary to what all the awards and job titles would have you believe, the marketing and advertising industry has been far more of a personality contest than a talent contest for quite some time. It’s all been in ‘the sell’ and the ‘narrative’ of a ‘big idea’. But many of those ‘big ideas’ were often just really good stories with no real impact; really pretty average ideas, when you think about it that way. And the ‘talent’ that won out was really just the kind of talent that excels at telling a good joke at the right time and the right place and in the right company; the kind that an observer may retell once or twice until they realise that the audience has changed and the moment has gone.

To understand how this applies to a lack of diversity, think about that dynamic. Think about who was selling those ideas and who was buying those ideas and how that played out in many organisations. If you can’t imagine it, think of a group of straight, white men, standing in a circle in a social context, loudly telling jokes and enjoying each other’s company. Imagine a solitary woman, for example, trying to join in. Imagine that she has something interesting and useful to say, on topic but not with the same style of delivery. Imagine how her comments are received in that robust dynamic. Imagine the group reaction towards her interruption, to her trying to have a voice in the conversation, imagine her being evaluated more on her attractiveness or her ability to laugh at the others or to be exactly like them. That’s how old marketing has felt for many women; those who didn’t want to transform themselves into something inauthentic were really never in on the joke. We failed that kind of personality contest, repeatedly, even if we were charismatic and capable; we just didn’t quite fit the group. There are a multitude of straight, white, able-bodied, middle class men who also failed the same personality test, have always felt uncomfortable with a lack of diversity in their offices, but they have also had an option we never did; to blend into the crowd, sometimes being (begrudgingly) complicit in order to survive.

The other awful truth is that marketing, or advertising, has worked primarily on creating desire, not responding to need; people who are convinced they need more to make them the best they can be will always buy products to improve themselves. Women, in particular, have been programmed to always chase perfection and never feel quite ‘right’. Marketing has recently tried to distance themselves from the damage this has done to female self esteem by making adverts that encourage ‘body confidence’. But by making a big song and dance about using real women, instead of treating normal looking women as if they are normal (without the big song and dance), they are merely exploiting women’s insecurities in another way to sell products. So women are still being objectified, made to feel they are all about how they look, with a ubiquitous, endless assault designed to turn all of us into reliable consumers. It’s no surprise that the key players in the industry are, more often than not, men.

So let’s talk about new marketing. New marketing is about making things that work for customers; useful or exciting things that fill a need, not just making things seem appealing. It’s about designing end-to-end, multiple touchpoint services and experiences (websites, communications, apps, retail stores, delivery services all working together), which is actually the biggest idea you can possibly have for your organisation. It isn’t an angle, or a tagline ‘big idea’. It is a highly complex piece of work that requires deep knowledge and an ability to unify the incredibly complex moving parts of people, processes and technology within an ecosystem while making it look ‘seamless’. This has meant the introduction of creative technology, data science and experience design into the marketing sphere and, with it, an entirely different set of requirements from its creative talent. Interestingly enough, women are gaining far more traction in the experience design field. I have heard people saying that this is because experience design involves empathy, which is gender mythology at it’s worst. Men and women are equally as capable at making empathetic decisions, but what works in our favour is that experience design is far less a personality contest than it is a talent contest, and talent is something women have in droves. Although female creative directors are still not being judged on their talent, and consequently averaging out at about 10% globally, according to Usertesting.com, UX designers are averaging out at 50% globally. Although the statistics are difficult to find for CX and service design practitioners, it’s rare to attend an international service design or CX conference where at least half of the speakers and attendees aren’t female. So new marketing is opening up more avenues for female influence and, while old marketing is trying to adopt the same capabilities, many are doing it by simply adopting all the right terminology, still failing woefully at the complex thinking required to deliver, using the same hiring practices and keeping the same culture. Old marketing is in trouble.

So whether you adopt new capabilities or not, if you are ‘old marketing’ and you want to really tackle your gender and diversity issues, there are a few new attitudes you could adopt:

1.Stop making it a personality contest. Firstly, stop promoting people who have a certain type of confidence over people who are capable, or people who pretend to have solutions to problems they don’t understand over people who raise problems they can fix through collaboration. Secondly, stop expecting diverse candidates to apply for ‘wishlist’ jobs, because there is evidence to show that less ‘entitled’ candidates are unlikely to put their hands up for things they can’t do perfectly, even when they are capable of learning fast, whereas more entitled candidates will just assume that 60% is enough and the rest they will figure out.

2. Stop paying women less than men. Just pay the same amount for the same job. Simple. Women are starting to recognise that consultancy rates are equal across gender and female entrepreneurs are performing exceptionally well, so if you want to keep your female talent, be competitive and ethical.

3. Stop exploiting women to sell more products. Just refuse to be a part of this damaging messaging anymore. If you think something may be offensive or biased, just test it properly with diverse customers, not just internal agency folk who are sometimes impelled to be ‘in on the joke.’

4. Stop designing your culture around male leisure and camaraderie. People should never have to feel like they have to be ‘one of the boys’ to bond with their co-workers. This means you should cater the event to the audience, understanding that if there is a mixed group, don’t only accommodate the dominant demographic.

5. Stop seeing talent as the way you talk about an idea instead of the ability to implement an idea. Talent is so much better and bigger than ‘the sell’, although while we still have to pitch for work instead of being awarded work based on precedence and discussion, this is a hard challenge to overcome. Pitches often penalise intelligent introverts, people who have English as their second language and those that don’t exude the right kind of showmanship. The outcome is also prone to unconscious bias from the audience, meaning it isn’t the fairest, smartest way for clients to choose the smartest, most capable people.

Another option is just to stop altogether. Transform into the kind of marketing organisation we need. Or don’t. But don’t expect ‘female leadership’ to come knocking on your door because, while you aren’t watching, a younger generation of women are winning real-life talent contests elsewhere and their personalities are fine just the way they are, particularly when they choose the right company.

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Tracy Brown

Experience strategist and author, using insights about human behaviour to fix broken experiences for customers and employees.