Saatchi chief’s comments on ‘unambitious’ women come under fire from ad execs


Campaigner Cindy Gallop says women ‘don’t want to work in an industry dominated by men’

Senior figures from across the advertising industry have clamoured to speak out against gender discrimination in the sector after Saatchi & Saatchi’s executive chairman, Kevin Roberts, was suspended for making controversial remarks about women in the workforce.

In an interview with Business Insider, Roberts, who is also head coach at Publicis – the agency’s French parent company – said the debate about gender bias was “all over” and people are “debating an issue that isn’t really there”.

Roberts remarks were quickly refuted by Publicis Groupe’s chairman and CEO, Maurice Lévy: “Promoting gender equality starts at the top and the Groupe will not tolerate anyone speaking for our organisation who does not value the importance of inclusion.”

Cindy Gallop, a prominent campaigner for equal gender representation in the industry and former chair of the US branch of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, told People Management that women aren’t prepared to put up with gender discrimination any more. “There are a lot of women who haven’t yet realised how much this is holding them back, but a lot who simply do not want to accept the industry the way it is, and we are now doing something about it,” she said.

“I know many women who are ferociously ambitious – but women don’t want to have to work in the way you have to at the top of an industry that is dominated by white men. That’s the reason women are dropping out and, if you want to prevent that, open your business up to being redesigned by women just as much as men.”

In the interview, Roberts said he doesn’t spend “any time” on supposed gender issues at his agencies because the issue is “way worse” in sectors such as financial services, where there are “problems left, right and centre”. About 65 per cent of Saatchi & Saatchi’s staff are women, compared with a 50/50 gender split at parent company Publicis.

He also said that women lack “vertical ambition” and that Gallop “[is] making up a lot of the stuff to create a profile, and to take applause, and to get on a soap[box]”.

“The comments are down right stupid,” Andrew Dimitriou, president at marketing and communications company Y&R Europe, told Campaign magazine. “We have a lot of work to do in our industry for gender equality and, more broadly, diversity. The fact is our society as a whole has a huge task ahead of us and to trivialise this with schoolboy comments sets us back.”

Juliet Haygarth, CEO at creative agency BMB, agreed. “To make wholesale generalisations about women and what ‘they’ want from their career development is daft,” she said. “His comments certainly don’t resonate with me. With big issues such as the gender pay gap alive and well, and a lack of diversity across senior positions in the industry and beyond, we shouldn’t make assumptions. We need more practical solutions in place vs older, white men telling us what they think.”

The chief executives of all the six big advertising agencies’ holding companies are men. A 2015 diversity survey of the industry, carried out by Campaign and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, found there are very few women in senior creative roles and at CEO level. Women account for 56 per cent of junior agency roles, but only 39 per cent of heads of departments, and hold just 30 per cent of leadership positions.

“Sadly, the facts speak for themselves: the majority of graduates that come into the industry are female, but only between a quarter and a third of the industry’s most senior people are women, so yes I think we still have a serious equality issue and unlike Kevin Roberts I don’t think it’s because most women have ‘circular’ ambition rather than ‘vertical’ ambition,” said Kate Waters, executive member of Women in Advertising and Communications London (WACL).

“In my opinion there is still a high degree of unconscious bias within the industry, which makes it harder for women to rise to the very top of our industry. What I will say is that I think we have made some progress on the issue. I suspect that even only a few years ago there would have been little said in response to Roberts’ comments, but the fact that the industry has responded as strongly as it has done is pleasing evidence of a shift in attitude. I think Publicist are to be applauded for the swift and decisive action they have taken.”

Gallop said that all industry players have a duty to call out sexism in the workplace: “The onus is not on women to change this. The onus is on the white men at the top. And they’re sowing the seeds of their own destruction if they don’t act to embrace gender equality, diversity and equal leadership opportunities for all.”

Helen Calcraft, founding partner at advertising agency Lucky Generals, said Roberts’ comments would be laughable if they weren’t so damaging. “Sadly, they are all-too typical of some of the traditional network agencies, which appear increasingly out of touch with the modern world – whether that’s in relation to issues of equality (as here) or embracing new thinking generally.”

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