What does the advertising industry need to do to have more women in leadership positions?

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What does the advertising industry need to do to have more women in leadership positions?

14 Aug, 2017 by admin

What does the advertising industry need to do to have more women in leadership positions?


Raji Ramaswamy’s appointment as the CEO of advertising agency Contract in May this year is probably a landmark event for an industry where we have not seen many - in fact any - women CEOs from the creative side. There are fewer women than men running creative agencies today. And there is no clear reason behind this. Perhaps it is because it has been a male-dominated industry and there has been an unconscious bias at play. Perhaps it is because the leadership roles have more stress and less reward than they ever did before. Perhaps it is because women are just smarter and figure out early that it’s better to leave the rat race and take on more independent, fulfilling creative roles outside of these environments.

Advertising as an industry does not generally leave room for too much else, for men or women. Each employee fights harder than mere mortals, to retain their sanity in the face of ferocious deadlines, demanding clients and in the case of creatives, the immense pressure of bringing the next great idea to life. If you’re a woman, multiply the complexity by a hundred – you also have obligations and expectations outside the office, to deal with.


Not to take anything away from men in advertising, who undoubtedly work hard, but for women, juggling a home and family, or any other pursuits in the face of ungodly working hours and a constant battle for relevance is not an easy task.

Everyone agrees that women are intuitive, committed, hard-working, nurturing and extremely dependable - the perfect recipe for a creative role, if the organization can make the circumstances amenable for them.

So, the question is why are these exceptional leaders still an exception? Why, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, do so few women make it to the top in creative agencies? And what can agencies do to clear their path to the C-Suite?



Women are joining the workforce in impressive numbers, according to industry reports  - at the entry level, the men to women ratio is its healthiest: 60:40, if not more. But as they move ahead in the career path, the gender gap in leadership positions becomes noticeable. According to The Boston Consulting Group’s study ‘Shattering the Glass Ceiling – An analytical approach to advancing women into leadership roles’, the average share of senior management jobs held by women is just 21% globally; just 9% of CEO positions are held by women. In South-east Asia’s economies, the number tilts towards 32% in senior management roles. However, out of this, if we look at the Advertising & Media industry, the number is likely to go down to around 3%, and even lower for the Creative agencies.

If we look at other sectors of the Indian economy like Banking and FMCG, we do see a reasonable representation of women in the top rungs; why then the gap in our industry? As an industry, are we equipped enough to hold good talent back?

Agency life is very consuming, and it has not created the environment by which it can work around a woman’s life after she has a child or other responsibilities in life, says Shweta Iyer, National Creative Head, Radio Mirchi who was Senior Creative Director at JWT when she took a break after giving birth to a child. She got back to work at the same agency within a year, but soon shifted to the Media industry.





Chairman & CEO - South Asia, Dentsu Aegis Network

It is not the question of leading a Creative or a Media agency. It is about consciously inculcating a culture of encouraging women and supporting them during tough times so that their career growth is not affected. The industry needs to come together on this issue and address it at the intrinsic cultural level.


CEO, Ogilvy & Mather India

Assigning current women leaders to mentor young stars would go a long way in giving young women a clear signal that the path to the top is open to everyone. Our businesses could also do with better HR and Talent Management resourcing and processes.


Chairman & Chief Creative Officer, Lowe Lintas
We need to change this perception about late hours and pressure job. In today’s technology age, I don’t think people need to work late, because they can work from anywhere. We need to create a happy cycle. If we have enough women leaders, they will inspire others to go along and reach there...and the industry is on the brink of this change.



Managing Director, Publicis Worldwide
A lot can be done. Flexi timings, working from home, creating creches/ baby care facilities. A lot of corporates are already doing it. Our industry hasn’t moved with the times. Some fundamental changes in this approach will only improve the balance exponentially.




Chief Strategy Officer, JWT India
Women are conscious of what they do, and constantly evaluate themselves, be it while constructing their family or career. Their approach to networking/ collaboration is all about building community. If community building can be nurtured and seen through the lens of women, it would help work towards a healthy gender-balance at the top.


I am a believer in women leaders. Tomorrow, if there are 80% rockstars who are women, then I am happy for them all to be leaders. There won’t be a number to it.


Executive Chairman and Creative Director, South Asia Ogilvy & Mather India, talking of Ogilvy & Mather’s global agenda of achieving 50:50 gender parity at the critical leadership level




The solution to attaining gender balance in the C-Suite does not lie in a motley mix of mentoring programmes and blue-sky quotas, says BCG’s report. “It’s not simply a matter of judiciously placing women in key positions on the board of directors and expecting that their seniority, coupled with their gender, will steadily transform the business into a more balanced one. Neither can employers expect their long-time ‘headhunters’ to redress the problem – the collective focus of recruiters is still shaped by their own cultural – and mostly male – biases,” explains the report. There are no overnight ‘fixes’, but need for a strategic, fact-based, and very systematic approach to diversity management.


Some measures that urgently need to taken are: 

RECOGNIZE: “The first step is to recognize that discrimination exists, to be conscious of discrimination of any kind, to look for it and address it through transparency and open conversation,” says Kunal Jeswani, CEO, Ogilvy & Mather India. “This would mean a quantitative and qualitative analysis of staff composition at three levels - recruiting, promotion and retention.”

The industry should also look at gender sensitization and unconscious bias seriously, and take remedial measures to set it right. “Companies need to be open to evolve their outdated and archaical policies and sometimes even make concessions to attract and retain talented women leaders,” says Roopa Badrinath, Chief Talent Officer, JWT South Asia.


TRAINING/SUPPORT: The next step is to track the women who have been identified as stars in the organization and give them the training, career counselling and support they need to grow in the organization. “Assigning current women leaders to mentor young stars would also go a long way in giving young women a clear signal that the path to the top is open to everyone,” says Kunal Jeswani.

In fact, Meenakshi Menon, Founder & Chairperson, Spatial Access Pvt Ltd. thinks that if women help each other out and share opportunities, we would have enough women leaders in the industry. “There are not enough women in the industry and unfortunately it’s because of women. Men have no qualms about getting other men and their friends to work with them. So the whole business of sharing opportunities is a very male thing, and women haven’t learnt how to do that. Women are too worried about recommending other women because they don’t want to be seen as being gender-oriented,” Menon says.


LEADERSHIP/MENTORING PROGRAMMES: Leadership development programmes and mentoring can help nurture more women leaders, says Savita Mathai, Chief Talent Officer, IPG Mediabrands India. “While I don’t believe leadership development programmes need to be different for men and women in terms of design, they need to ensure that there is equal participation. As for mentoring, women who have been there, done that can be a great inspiration to others. Providing a platform for such interactions to happen is another area where the industry and academia can come together,” says Mathai.

“There can be industry body (AAAI)-driven mentoring programmes where successful senior women leaders mentor other women from the industry.  Gender-reverse mentoring programmes can be another interesting concept,” says Badrinath of JWT.


CHANGE PERCEPTION: In this connected world, where one can manage work even from a beach in Goa, an agency’s perception of late hours and pressure job would need to change, says Arun Iyer, ?Chairman & Chief Creative Officer, Lowe Lintas. “Collectively, as an industry, we need to change this perception about late hours and pressure job. In today’s technology age, I don’t think people work late as they can work from anywhere,” he explains.

This perception will change only when agencies consciously work on inculcating a culture to ‘respect’ women. “First, we need to internalize that for the communication industry this is not a choice. We need women. Period. For a large part, we communicate and sell to women consumers, who are key consumers across product categories. For long, the communication narrative is one created by men. This narrative needs to change. Ideas created by women for women have another kind of sensibility and sensitivity. For example, we say we need young creative talent to write for the youth; we require cultural sensibility while catering to regional audiences. Why is this not true for women? Women creative leaders will bring in fresh narratives, and connect more deeply with their women target audiences,” says Sethi of JWT.


CHANGE INDIVIDUAL ATTITUDES: Regardless of corporate processes and policies, a big step towards more women leaders at the top will have to come at an individual level. Each woman has more power to change the equation than one thinks possible, only by dreaming big,  surrounding herself with people who believe in her even more than she believes in herself, and by embracing the power of the ‘and’ vs the tyranny of the ‘or’. Kirthiga Reddy, Global Client Partner & Emerging Markets Lead, Global Accounts, Facebook mentioned these points in her article on “What the Advertising industry must do to have more women leaders at the top” published in a special issue of IMPACT at the ‘50 Most Influential Women 2017’ event in March this year.

“Women have to be more ‘free’ in their head and in their beliefs to go out there and continue to pursue their career as opposed to giving it up. It is not wrong to want to do both – have a family and a full-fledged career. Once they overcome that inherent belief in their head, it is then simply a matter of meticulous planning to make both worlds co-exist. Also, when men do their part in the family and believe that a woman’s role is beyond that of family and kids, things will change. Relationships are a partnership of equals and when that comes to play, the ratios will also improve. We have seen the ratio improving in the past few years and it will only get better with time,” says Mathai of IPG Mediabrands India.



Savita Mathai

Chief Talent Officer, IPG Mediabrands

Not just policies that are womenfriendly and allow for work-life balance, we also need to ensure that women are encouraged and adequately equipped to want to stay and grow in their careers. Also mentoring and developmental inputs so that they are inspired, motivated and skilled to move to the top. These will make all the difference.

Roopa Badrinath
Chief Talent Officer, JWT South Asia

This year, J Walter Thompson will launch an all-women internship programme working closely with colleges. Also, there can be industry body-driven mentoring programmes where successful senior women leaders mentor other women. Companies need to evolve their outdated and archaical policies and even make concessions to attract and retain talented women leaders.

“Agency life is highly unplanned and chaotic to be able to work around a woman’s life after a child. I have noticed a lot of women drop out because they don’t have the option to do a great job at work, and still be able to take care of the child back home. I was lucky enough that JWT offered me a part-time option for a while. That kind of got me back into work very quickly after my son was born. But, that was with a limited shelf life. Personally, I knew that that was not a sustainable thing and I couldn’t see my growth beyond a certain point if I had to stick around advertising,” says Iyer.

She adds that companies like Unilever have a crèche on their premises, a work from home option or flexible option for work. That gives women the required boost to say, ‘No, there is absolutely no reason to quit my career’; whereas in advertising, that’s not at all in practice.

Bindu Sethi, Chief Strategy Officer, JWT India agrees, and says that as an industry, it is important to internalize and understand the needs of women at the workplace. “Working hours have been constructed according to what suits men. A typical day looks very different for a woman. Women need to have the liberty/flexibility to structure their day differently to make it most effective, accommodating all their needs. We need to identify the various unconscious biases that exist at the workplace, that need to change,” she affirms.

“We see women dropping out of their jobs. Some may have been made to feel redundant due to their pregnancy or not considered for projects assuming that they may not be able to handle them. Women’s approach to life is different; women want to build a family and community. More women in the workplace will automatically nurture a work-life approach in which women can thrive. The dominance of men in the creative space decided how that would function. Presence of more women (badly needed since most consumers are women) would change how creative departments can function with women,” Sethi adds.



Here’s what some of the industry’s most influential women leaders say...


Sunita Bangard

President - Marketing, Idea Cellular Ltd

There is a need for a mindset change at both ends - for women to believe that they can, and for men also to believe that they can. A lot of times, I feel that men are willing to take that jump, but women themselves are not sure. Just have the conviction, believe in yourself and go for it.


Meenakshi Menon
Founder & Chairperson, Spatial Access Pvt Ltd

There are not enough women in the industry and unfortunately it’s because of women. Men have no qualms about getting other men and their friends to work with them. So the whole business of sharing opportunities is a very male thing, and women haven’t learned how to do that. Women are too worried about recommending other women because they don’t want to be seen as being gender-oriented.


Rakhshin Patel

Managing Director - Pi Communications Pvt. Ltd.

It’s extremely sad, it’s not just in India, but the world over that only 3% of creative directors are women. Women get off the career path at the middle level to start a family. We need to recognize this and understand that we are losing 50% of the talent. These women need to be encouraged to stay back, by giving them longer maternity leave, support, flexi hours, work from home option... they can use the time when they are off work to upgrade their skills.


Anupriya Acharya

CEO, Publicis Media India

Talent has always been gender neutral. The more organizations move into performance-linked growth, the more women will come up automatically in leadership positions.


Anuradha Aggarwal
Chief Marketing Officer, Marico Limited

The industry definitely needs to encourage more women, both at recruitment levels, through life stages as well as when it’s making decisions for leadership.


Ashwini Deshpande
Co-founder, Director, Elephant Design

What is needed is more empathy towards women. Women can help more women, so I think that also needs to increase.


Gunjan Soni
CMO and Head, International Brands Business, Myntra and Head of Jabong

We simply need to start recognizing merit, and that alone I believe is enough because women have the ability to shine through.


Preethi Herman
Country Director, Change.org

What the industry needs to do is to not think of women as a category but become inclusive. That’s the only way we are going to get to a place of equality, otherwise it will just be a special category.


Preeti Reddy

President of Kantar IMRB & CEO of Kantar Insights, South Asia for Kantar’s insights agencies – Kantar TNS, Kantar Millward Brown and Kantar IMRB

If more businesses could recognize that not only women but even men today need to balance work and life, and allow them the opportunity to do that, we would have more women leaders and more empathetic men leaders in every industry.


Hephzibah Pathak
Global Brand Director, Ogilvy & Mather, India

All agencies should have a conscious diversity and gender programme where all are given equal opportunity, and there is a check on any unconscious bias in the system.


Malini Agarwal
Founder & Creative Director, MissMalini Entertainment

The main thing is to not have any discrimination - be it a man or a woman - with opportunities or in the salary scale. Let the best woman or man for the job do the job.


Sonali Dhawan
Brand Director, Procter & Gamble

We need to keep an open mind, give ideas a chance and really celebrate merit where it exists, whether it’s a man or woman. I truly don’t think gender matters, but we have to give merit its due.


Sapna Chadha
Head of Marketing, Google Southeast Asia and India

We need more coaches and mentors. Ultimately it all comes from coaching, mentorship, and confidence. That confidence can only come if we women support each other, which we don’t do as much as we need to.


Divya Karani
CEO, Dentsu Media

There is perhaps far more pressure on the female gender than the male gender in society, in our industry as well. So, a little more leeway with no apologies and compassion would help.



@ FEEDBACK dipali.banka@exchange4media.com

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