“Mad Women: A Herstory of Advertising” – #BWCBend Keynote 1

October 14th, 2013

Bend WebCAM logoGood morning from Bend WebCAM! Virginia Nussey here, your week’s guide to the Bend WebCAM conference — live! A quick definition: liveblogging is reporting the happenings of an event and publishing in near-real-time. That’s what you’ll get on the Bend WebCAM blog as me and two cohorts post liveblog coverage over the course of this two-day creative marketing conference.

On day 1 we’ve got a line-up of keynotes from an accomplished group of experts — not necessarily marketers, but people who will be sharing stories and insights about people, how they work, make decisions, are motivated and persuaded. So let’s start the keynotes.

Women in Advertising

Christina Knight, @knightan, leads by saying she’s going to disappoint us. She’s from Sweden, but she’s not blonde or blue eyed. And her last name is Knight because her father is from England. She’s not the woman  you may have expected from a Swede. In the Summer of 1976 she decided she wanted to be a writer. She studied American Lit, and she wanted to be a literary critic and write about books. But as it happened, she became a copywriter. Today she’s a creative director at an ad agency of 60 people.

Christina Knight

Christina Knight

An image of the Mad Men TV show cast is up on the screen. Christina recounts a story of a seemingly awkward conversation once had in a conference room 20 years ago where she was the only woman in the room with 14 men, and she was sharing what it’s like to have a bag of tampons with you, and how it’s embarrassing if the bag falls out of your purse on the bus. A man clears his throat and asks her to explain the difference of absorption.

It was a few years later that she first heard the phrase the “pink ghetto” — when women get lower pay and lower status and are stuck in tasks and assignments that don’t contribute to the bottom line. She says that the ad industry is luckily not one she feels she’s been relegated to the pink ghetto. She’s had an abundance of variation in assignments, tasks and clients.

But something else is missing. There has been a lack of female role models. She’s longed for more female role models throughout her career.

In ad school there were equal numbers men and women in the classroom, and yet not one female teacher. Everything signaled she was in a time of equality, but that’s not true, as she was the only woman in the creative team of the first agency she went to.

When you’re not part of the norm, when you’re not defined by the norm, you start questioning yourself instead of the norm. You start adapting and trying to be part of the norm. Or… you start believing you have something unique to contribute. She says that’s the only way forward.

Being the first woman in Swedish advertising means she got a lot of positive attention, was invited to speak on all panels and juries for her industry. But she had to ask why she became the symbolic woman. Where did the women she went to school with go?

In the summer of 2010 she was struck by the idea that all the key books about advertising, like those by David Ogilvy, those books she had cut her teeth on, were written by men. That’s when she started writing her book, interviewing inspiring women in the industry — CEOs, creatives, “whatever”. This is her contribution to the industry, and her way to help along her wish for their to be more female role models.

Does it matter that herstory has not been told? I think it matters because every time she teaches at an ad school, she gets the same questions about “what’s it like” being a woman in the industry? She was asked these questions in the 90s, the 00s and still today. She’s tried to mentor the ambitious women in the industry, those asking how do we tackle not being listened to. This book, if she’s done her job, will inspire more women to continually tell their own story.

So, What Is Herstory?

Themes reoccur. The experience of women in advertising are alike. Those themes: Equality and Quality.

Equality is about having your voice heard. There was pressure on one woman in the book to make crisp, immediate contributions, and she’s has pushed to give herself time and allowance to think out loud. Good enough is just that.

“It’s not really an equal playground until we too can be mediocre and get away with it like the guys can.”

Some advice for women: at the beginning of your career, act and say that you can do something and then wing it. Then, as you gain experience you can be more direct in explaining where you can best contribute. Think of a common male behavior — they just show up and ramble on (i.e., talk like they know what they’re talking about). Women need encouragement to network more, ask when you need help. Women need to promote each other and recruit each other.

It also requires a redoing of some unproductive ways of thinking. For instance, don’t think in terms of “sexism” — think in terms of politeness. If someone is rolling their eyes at you when you’re speaking to a group, that person may not be sexist, but rather just rude.

Quality is the other theme, and she says the quality of the work from the ad industry will benefit from a more nuanced view, communication of other experiences, other values, other structures and other agency cultures. There’s a longing for the expression and representation of another norm. Without this balance, the creative work won’t resonate as well with consumers.

Mary Wells Lawrence was the woman Christina interviewed that has stayed with her the longest. Mary authored A Big Life in Advertising. Christina wondered why this book was never recommended to her, when Mary was once the highest paid executive in the industry.

Christina and Mary met in Geneva. Mary worked as a copywriter for decades, and in 1966, after being promised to be promoted but let down, she moved on to start and run her own agency.  In her book, Mary recounts the story of how she wasn’t made president of the agency, but was told that she should be happy for all she’d done to make the agency successful — just without the credit and title. She was turned down because she was told they wouldn’t get any clients with a female president.

“It’s an ideal business for women, it’s made for women. It needs women’s intuition; it needs women’s thinking.”

While Christina says this book is a gift for women in the industry, it’s also a gift for men to better know their counterparts and provide much needed balance that grows nuance and understanding.

Who’s In Charge of Driving the Change?

You. Demand more women in your agency’s rank. Not because it’s the right thing to do for women, but because it’s in the interest of the work. It’s going to improve the work for clients.

It’s also up to the schools. They must recruit and consciously encourage a balanced student group, and provide support for all. Since publishing her book she’s gotten a lot of media attention, signaling that the movement for change is boiling. The book inspired an inquiry in the leading trade press Resume and it started a survey of agencies in the country, showing pay and women in positions. The survey found women make 80% of the pay, are underrepresented in creative and executive positions.

She intended to inspire change, men and women, addressing equality and the larger perspective of quality, what the industry produces and how it affects our view of people and society. No society is all male, white and middle class. Modern society is characterized by multitude and diversity. Agencies need to be as inclusive to be relevant and interesting.


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