French’s outburst triggers fresh debate on sexism

Outrageous comments are nothing new to WPP creative guru Neil French, who resigned last week after labelling women creative directors “crap” and saying they are more concerned with raising families than being committed to work. But whether or not the 61-year-old’s outburst was a headline-grabbing rant, rather than an error of judgement, he has thrown the spotlight on equality in the industry.

French’s diatribe at a discussion evening in Canada was seized upon by the media as a sign of rampant sexism in advertising. Yet even critics seem pleased the issue has arisen. Writing an online reply, Nancy Vonk, co-chief creative officer at WPP-owned Ogilvy Toronto, states: “We genuinely like French and have became dulled to his frequently outrageous comments long ago. What struck me about his description of a group that will inevitably ‘wimp out’ of advertising was that he was voicing the inner thoughts of legions of men in our senior ranks. If they are persuading girls they’re not cut out for this, how far can they get?”

The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) says that overall there is an equal gender split at UK agencies. Yet women account for less than 20 per cent of art directors and copywriters.

French tendered his resignation from what a WPP spokeswoman described as a “part-time consultancy” role. The group has yet to publicly confirm this has been accepted.

WPP is not averse to handing women senior roles, albeit generally in management. Tamara Ingram became chairman of Grey London this year (MW May 19), for instance, and Shelly Lazarus is chief executive of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide.

But some regard French’s comments as plain unhelpful. Proximity London creative director Caitlin Ryan, who returned to the top job after maternity leave, says: “Many men making decisions have a certain perspective of women – that they should be looking after the kids. It is possible to juggle work and organise your life, rather than leave the industry. But not many men in the boardroom are prepared to alter the structure.” She suggests clients and consumers are missing out on women’s vital knowledge of the purchasing decisions of other women. “Clients tell me it’s great to have that insight – and the majority of those are men,” she says.

IPA employment affairs director Mary Bard says: “The creative placement system forces people to work for virtually nothing and sleep on friends’ floors, and women are less prepared to rough it. I understand that creative directors want to see people ‘in action’ but we need a more controlled recruitment system.”

Saatchi & Saatchi executive creative director Kate Stanners is an example of what women – and those with families – can achieve. She says: “I don’t think French’s views help. The most depressing thing is that he has reached the top and says there is no role for women. There are few enough in the first place, and bawdy comments like this set the industry back another ten years.”

Advertising and marketing charity NABS (the National Advertising Benevolent Society) reports a 25 per cent drop over the past three years in calls for advice from women who have encountered discrimination after returning from maternity leave. This implies that agencies are responding more positively to requests for flexible working hours. Despite French’s comments, some women in advertising may finally be getting more sympathetic support from their employers.

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