Agencies still lack female creatives

'The house I live in/I've bought it/The car I'm driving/I've bought it/I depend on me,' goes a song by that bootylicious trio Destiny's Child. Written for the Charlie's Angels soundtrack in 2000, 'Independent Women' is light years away from Madonna's 18-year-old smash hit 'Material Girl,' in which the now-more-maternal pop star divulged her propensity for gold digging. There's a new generation of women now - those who not only determine which diamonds suit their well-manicured hands, but also have enough cash in the bank to pay for them.

‘The house I live in/I’ve bought it/The car I’m driving/I’ve bought it/I depend on me,’ goes a song by that bootylicious trio Destiny’s Child. Written for the Charlie’s Angels soundtrack in 2000, ‘Independent Women’ is light years away from Madonna’s 18-year-old smash hit ‘Material Girl,’ in which the now-more-maternal pop star divulged her propensity for gold digging. There’s a new generation of women now – those who not only determine which diamonds suit their well-manicured hands, but also have enough cash in the bank to pay for them.

And we’re not talking just the Bridget Joneses of the world either. Even within the conventional two-kids-and-a white-picket-fence scenarios, it’s the females who are the heavyweight decision-makers when it comes to purchasing anything from soap to vehicles and, sometimes, believe it or not, even beer.

In fact, a two-year-old study from Toronto-based DoubleClick Canada disclosed that women influence more than 75% of all household purchases. In the U.S. last year, the Washington, D.C.-based Recording Industry Association of America found that even when it comes to traditional male-oriented consumer goods, women are gaining ground.

For example, 44% of American motorcycle owners are female, and women own 48% of trucks and SUVs. As well, women contribute to half of all music sales. Moreover, Leslie Danis, managing partner at GenderMark, a Toronto-based firm that consults on marketing to women, reports that 22% of all beer in Canada is bought by the fair sex, while 45% enjoy a cold one regularly.

Yet somehow this evolution is in stark contrast to the gender makeup of most advertising agency creative departments, where the female contingent is still largely under-represented. And some experts question whether or not brands aspiring to reach the coveted female demographic can do so efficaciously as a result.

In the U.K., the sad news is there are fewer females in management roles at ad agencies today than five years ago, according to the London-based Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA). In 2001, only 11% of chairpersons, CEOs or managing directors were women, compared to 17% in 1996. No such report exists in Canada, but an informal glance at the top 50 agencies of last year shows that only four women have earned the title of president or chairperson.

‘The situation has not advanced at all,’ confirms Elspeth Lynn, a co-CD at Toronto agency Zig. ‘If you look at awards books, like the One Show, you’d be hard-pressed to find women creative in them. Ninety-five per cent are men.’

The million-dollar question, of course, is why. Andrea Southcott, president and COO at Vancouver-based agency Bryant, Fulton & Shee, says it still boils down to women making concessions in their careers to raise kids. ‘It’s the tradeoff you make when you have a family,’ she admits, adding that being part of the creative crew often means long days. ‘It’s hard to commit the time.’

Frank Palmer, CEO of Palmer Jarvis DDB, Vancouver, agrees with this line of reasoning. Still, he insists women have equal opportunities today. ‘If you look at media and services, they are made up by 60% to 70% women,’ he says; however, he acknowledges that, ‘in creative there aren’t as many.’

Palmer implies that women flee the creative field because of personality discrepancies with their male counterparts, since some guys never grow up. ‘The creative process is, for the most part, done by men, because they continue to play longer, and creative probably fits that kind of person,’ he says.

‘Women may not fit as well, because they grow up more mature…. They move into more controlled areas.’ And regardless of the fact that more females manage the family purse strings today, Palmer believes the dearth of women in creative posts has ‘no impact on the creative work’ that targets the demographic.

Of course, from a philosophical perspective, sex shouldn’t make a difference when it comes to the production of an ad campaign. And many agency representatives – men and women alike – swear up and down that creatives should be able to step into the shoes of either sex, in order to comprehend the complexities of even the most extreme gender-specific occurrences like menstruation or jock itch. Plus, there are always focus groups and other research methods to catch any grave misrepresentations.

For her part, Karen Howe, CD of Due North Communications in Toronto, believes that in most cases sex doesn’t matter. However, she can think of at least one case where it did. She points to a Carlsberg beer spot, produced by Toronto shop Ammirati Puris, while still under the tutelage of chair and CD Doug Robinson. In the ad, which was the handiwork of creative team Angus Tucker and Steve Jurisic, three women eagerly chat about the fact that one of their boyfriends performs oral sex without being asked. They use a strange hand gesture to express the unspoken act.

‘I’ve always been a big proponent that it doesn’t matter if the CD is male or female – women can write about beer, as men can write about tampons,’ says Howe. ‘I don’t know if the [Carlsberg] commercial is just an aberration to the usual argument I would make…[but] no woman in this great nation of ours has ever used that hand gesture to symbolize oral sex. And I remember thinking that it had to be written by men, because it doesn’t ring true. I found out it had been after the fact.’

Janet Kestin, co-CD of Ogilvy & Mather, Toronto, concurs that while CDs should be able to ‘play-act,’ meaning they could slip into the role of a 12-year-old girl if necessary, male CDs may not always recognize when they hit a false note. ‘Men write just as well, but…there can be differences between how men and women write women,’ she says. ‘Men think they are more true than they are sometimes.’

Indeed, being a woman has helped Zig’s Lynn, along with her partner Lorraine Tao, strike a chord with Canadian women on various occasions for several big-name brands, including Fruit of the Loom, Kellogg and the Breast Cancer Society. Lynn’s gender allows her to ‘know when it feels right.’

‘For a long time, part of the problem with advertising was that a lot of ads were directed at women, yet they were in male voices,’ she says, adding that this issue is still evident in some categories, such as in banal executions for household cleaning products, where a member of the fair sex is often portrayed sweeping floors. ‘You need many things to get to a solution for an ad project, and intuition has to be one of them.’

If that’s true, then a connection with the female psyche may not come as easily for all-male agencies, like Grip, the Toronto-based shop recently established by Labatt Brewing. While the agency’s creative composition might be considered ideal for reaching the mostly male Labatt Blue drinker, the agency has also picked up the Parmalat Canada yogurt account and is hoping for others to join its client roster. ‘The bottom line is they are all talented guys, but it will be interesting to see if that amount of talent leads to diverse work,’ says Lynn. ‘Does it become one-dimensional?’ (Calls to Bob Shanks, partner in business at Grip, went unreturned.)

Mark Childs, VP of marketing for Kellogg Canada, believes Lynn and Tao did bring a certain female perspective to the Special K brand’s groundbreaking and longstanding ‘Look good on your own terms’ campaign. ‘Certainly some of the magic of that campaign came from the creative team,’ he says. ‘It was their fresh insight that brought that to life.’

However, in mid-March Kellogg unveiled a new effort for the cereal brand, dished up by Toronto agency J. Walter Thompson and its male creatives CD Rick Kemp, copywriter Don Saynor and art director Fred Roberts.

While it may not be as hardhitting as ‘Look good on your own terms,’ ‘Keep it Simple’ pokes fun at the hordes of silly diet plans and exercise regimes out there, and is more in touch with today’s society, according to Childs. ‘As we closed out the 1990s and came into 2000, we started to see more marketers talking from the platform of ‘it’s ok to be who you are’…. Wanting to be leading edge, we asked ourselves if things were changing somewhat in terms of how women think about themselves and how they’re staying in shape and staying healthy.’

The result was ‘Old Friends,’ starring a woman who runs into an acquaintance at a boutique – a rather irritating, fashion-obsessed diva type – who compliments the main character’s physique and attempts to guess what latest miracle fad diet she’s on. She just happens to be eating well.

While conceived by guys, Childs points out that women have been engaged in the creative process. ‘In touching base with consumers, women have been involved, because it’s absolutely critical that when you try to make a connection with any target audience, you understand where they’re coming from.’

But GenderMark’s Leslie Danis, for one, cautions against leaning too heavily on research, because females tend to think too much in focus groups, while in reality they react intuitively.

Male creatives, she believes, simply cannot reach the demo as effectively. ‘Men don’t think like women and vice versa. We can learn, but it takes a lot of indepth work to stand in the other person’s shoes. And you can still do that and never really get it. Men will never understand what having a period is like.’ On the other hand, their female peers are more likely to speak to women in their own language. ‘It’s hard to market to women, because so much of their reaction is intuitive.’

For Susan Schaefer, VP marketing at Corus Entertainment in Toronto, hiring women like Elaine Cantwell of L.A.-based broadcast design and marketing group Spark, as well as Lynn and Tao from Zig, was a no-brainer when it came to re-branding WTN, now known simply as W (see ‘Corus research culminates in younger, bolder WTN,’ p. 1). ‘I think it helps that they’re within the demographic,’ she says. ‘There are nuances and subtleties and I think they’d be the first to say that being female helps a great deal with [understanding] them.’