Saatchi sexism row: The f***ing gender debate has only just begun

It's not women's lack of ambition that's holding them back, it's misguided men like Kevin Roberts.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 24 Jan 2017

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Roberts), the shamed Saatchi & Saatchi boss who has now resigned over his gender comments.

How could a man with a sparkling 40-year career in advertising, running one of the world’s top creative organisations, have been so... foolish?

In an interview with Business Insider on Friday, Roberts claimed that the f***ing [gender] debate is over. In the same breath, he said he doesn't spend ‘any time’ on supposed gender issues at his agencies at all. In other words, his opinion about gender equality is based on zero interest and zero information.

Well, here are a few stats for you, Kev. In UK advertising, women make up more than half of junior agency roles, but this drops to 30% for women in leadership positions, according to data from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA). Only 11.5% of creative ad directors are female. As Cindy Gallop, former chair of BBH New York (who Roberts also happened to slag off), points out, in the upper echelons of adland 'there’s a closed loop of white guys, talking to white guys, about other white guys’. 

This dearth of female leaders in the ad industry isn’t because women don’t want to ‘manage a piece of business and people’. And no, Kevin, it isn’t because they have a ‘circular’ womb-shaped ambition to be happy and spend their time skipping through meadows.

Late nights and long hours are perceived as standard in creative departments; it’s a seriously tricky career to sustain with a young family. And discrimination in the industry is still rife. Witness the recent lawsuit against Gustavo Martinez, former CEO of ad agency J Walter Thomson.

Admittedly, for a man who spends 250 nights a year in luxury hotels and says he doesn't give a hoot about work/life balance, that’s hard to understand.

I have a friend who used to work at M&C Saatchi, the advertising agency set up by brothers Maurice and Charles Saatchi after they were ousted from Saatchi & Saatchi. The culture at the two companies is very similar (probably because Maurice poached a load of Saatchi & Saatchi’s staff). She was a high-flying account director but, as one of only two working mums in the company, she was met with ‘utter disapproval’ every time she left the office at 5pm to pick up her son, which meant she felt barred from applying for promotions and pay-rises. ‘I logged on every evening and I worked harder than everyone else to prove myself but there was a massive culture of presenteeism. It was ruthless,’ she says. She left in 2012 to set up her own agency ­because, shock horror, she’s ambitious. 

Yes, things are changing. Cilla Snowball, group chairman and group chief executive of advertising giant AMV BBDO, and chair of the Women's Business Council, says adland is pushing the gender diversity agenda hard to increase the number of women in senior positions: ‘A lot of good progress has been made and targets set for continued improvement, especially in management and creative leadership.’

But only when agencies provide proper flexible working conditions, job shares and ‘returnships’; only when you have 50% or more women on your board, on your leadership team, and at the head of your creative department; and only when you get rid of  ‘idiotic dinosaur-like men’ can you say the ‘f***ing debate' is all over.

Do you think Roberts should have been put on leave over his comments? Share your views below and on Twitter.

Looking to super-charge your career? Come to our Inspiring Women conference on 16 November. Guest speakers include TalkTalk CEO Dido Harding, Clydesdale Bank COO Debbie Crosbie and top chef Angela Hartnett. Check out the programme here.


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