CAMPAIGN FOR BEGINNERS: LADIES WHO PUNCH - It takes balls to be an advertising creative

Literally. While in most agency departments, such as planning, women are equally represented, only 18 per cent of UK creatives are female, as John Tylee reports.

Almost two years after entering the ad business, Eloise Smith is looking like high-rise material. An Oxford English grad, she's feisty and unafraid to speak her mind. Those who trained her praise her commitment and capability.

There's just one drawback. Smith is neither an aspiring account director nor a wannabe planning chief. She's a creative. And, if the latest statistics are any indication, her chances of making creative director are somewhere between slim and none.

This is brutally backed up not only by new research showing that just 16 per cent of art directors and 22 per cent of copywriters are women but the anecdotal evidence that the majority remain in relatively junior roles.

For all the fine words about achieving a better balance in creative departments, progress has been very slow. While planning departments have an almost equal balance and almost six out of ten account handlers are women, they make up just 18 per cent of creatives.

The resignation in March of Kate Stanners as the deputy chairman of St Luke's means there is now no female creative at senior management level in any of Britain's top 30 agencies.

Sixty per cent of all advertising is aimed at women. Yet you'd never know it from the testosterone-driven mentality prevailing in most creative departments.

In many other countries, the number of women creatives far outnumber those in the UK. In Spain, almost a quarter of creative staff are women. In the US, the figure is estimated to be as high as 50 per cent.

During their spells on placement Smith and her creative partner, Natalie Ranger, now permanent fixtures at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, have direct knowledge of what it's like being women in a men's world.

And, at times, it's been far from pleasant.

Their experience is of creative departments defined by a pool-table-and-pub-lunch culture; of women creatives patronisingly referred to as "the girls" and hired in the hope of attracting favourable trade press coverage; of being sidelined on ads for pantie liners.

Many smell the whiff of hypocrisy in the industry's attitude to women creatives. Andrew Cracknell, the Bates UK executive creative director, not only questions the received wisdom that creative department training regimes have to be so tough that they're anathema to women -"We're not training SAS commandos, for God's sake" - but points out that the heavy-lunching fat cats who advocate it are having it anything but tough themselves.

Not that young female creatives take kindly to accusations that they can't cope with the Pot Noodle-eating Spartan lifestyle. "That's total bollocks," Smith fumes. "None of the women I know have given up for that reason."

Just why creative departments evolved into such male bastions isn't easy to explain. One theory is that, in the days before art colleges, agencies recruited almost exclusively from Oxbridge, where women were in the minority, and those who produced the Footlights revues and edited the Varsity magazines were mainly men.

Another is that the style and tone of the trend-setting work produced by Doyle Dane Bernbach and Collett Dickenson Pearce in the 60s and 70s was very masculine and that male creative culture has become self-perpetuating. "Creativity is a 'male display' thing," a former agency boss claims. "It's peacock plumage."

For their part, creative directors deny sexual bias but insist their room for manoeuvre is limited. Banks Hoggins O'Shea/FCB has no female creatives. But Rob Fletcher, the creative department's joint head, says: "We can only hire what comes through the door."

The industry has collectively tried to improve matters. The failure of women to break through the creative barricades has featured in two IPA reports over the space of ten years. Indeed, since the last report, produced by Debbie Klein, the WCRS head of planning, in 2000, the number of female copywriters has increased, while the number of women creatives sitting on D&AD juries is at an all-time high.

Earlier this year, the IPA teamed up with D&AD to launch Women's Work, a traveling exhibition that showcases the work of the UK's most talented female creatives and attempts to dispel the perception that women can only do "girly" ads.

D&AD is also producing a careers pack video featuring a series of women creative "talking heads" for distribution to careers advisors, art schools, colleges and universities in an effort to add to the desperately small number of female role models. And Women in Advertising and Communications London is pushing the bandwagon by getting its marketing director members to pressure their agencies to take the issue more seriously.

Reform of the much-criticised placement system that has condemned so many tyro creatives to live in near poverty may help speed the pace of change.

So too may the new Employment Act, which came into force in April and bestows new rights on parents to request employers to allow them to work more flexibly. The hope is that this will encourage those women who make it into creative departments to remain there.

All well and good. But some fundamental and almost taboo questions remain to be answered. One is whether there are so few women creatives simply because they're not cut out for it. Klein says: "There's plenty of scientific evidence that women's and men's brains are different, that we think in different ways and use different parts of our brain more often."

Rosie Arnold, the Bartle Bogle Hegarty creative director, bears out the notion. "We like things peaceful and nice," she explains. "Good creatives are supposed to fight for their work and that's hard for women. I don't have the confidence in myself and my work that men do."

This may explain why so many women turn their backs on advertising for the gentler worlds of design and illustration. Of the 24 students on the course for advertising creatives at West Herts College, only four are women. Tony Cullingham, who runs the course, says: "Men are better at taking the knocks and climbing off the canvas."

Alex Taylor, a group creative director at Publicis and a former Saatchi & Saatchi head of art, concedes that the prevailing culture puts the onus on women to adapt to it. "You have to know when to be a bit 'lagerish' and not be afraid of blokes," she advises.

Others, though, suggest the lot of women creatives in advertising, particularly their promotion prospects, won't improve unless more female copywriters can be found. To that end, the IPA has begun a project involving a number of leading UK universities to persuade more female English graduates to consider careers as creatives.

Of course, the biggest question of all is whether any of this matters.

Would it make much difference if agency creative departments were bursting with female talent?

The fact that 80 per cent of purchasing decisions are made by women is reason enough, Klein answers. "It's self-evident that women should be writing ads - to better reflect the society they're written for."

JOANNA WENLEY - ART DIRECTOR, BMP DDB

I'd like to say that my entry into the world of advertising was carefully planned and executed with a clear vision, but it wouldn't be true. I arrived in Manchester to do a BA honours degree in graphic design, imagining that illustration might be my forte. It wasn't and, since the advertising group looked more exciting, I swapped.

At the time, Manchester was one of the few advertising courses in the country and part of its success was due to an annual week-long visit made to London agencies and the way it encouraged students to do work placements. It was experiencing the real thing that got me hooked.

After college, I got a job at BMP DDB and I've been there ever since. I've worked with six writers (all men), to nine creative directors (all men) and the agency has always been one of the best.

At BMP, there are seven women in a creative department of 39 and that's an all-time high. It's hard to know why there aren't more and what makes some women better cut out to succeed. In some ways, it makes no sense to ask the survivors because they're the ones who haven't found the problems insurmountable. But they're all I have to ask.

The consensus is that a thick skin is a prerequisite, as is having the confidence and being competitive. Given all that, you'll still feel like a woman turning up at a stag party.

MARY WEAR - COPYWRITER, ABBOTT MEAD VICKERS BBDO

A woman getting a job in a creative department? No different from a bloke, surely, I thought.

Certainly, I've never found myself treated any differently from my male partners. Then a quick straw poll among my female peers produced shocking results.

All over adland women were being thrust into broom cupboards, dismissed as dumb blondes, told to go home and look after their children, having their boobs variously squeezed, discussed, criticised, assessed and, in one extreme case, promoted above them.

I, together with my boobs, have obviously been doing it all wrong. Or, more likely, the three of us have been very lucky.

But, for what it's worth, here is my personal guide to a long and happy career.

First, find a loyal partner. Someone who's going to feel enriched by your joint success, not impoverished by having to share the praise.

Next, find a team whose work and attitude you admire and do a Night of the Living Dead on them viz suck their brains dry.

When you've got your first job, take comfort from the fact that there is no problem you have - lack of money/insecurity about talent/unpopularity/big arse - that can't be solved by doing a really, really good ad. OK, all except the last one. You've just got to be less shallow.

Keep your heroes. Find new ones. Authors. Film-makers. Designers. Architects. Keep looking. Keep learning.

Finally, try not to turn into a freak. There are children to have, holidays to be taken, friends and lovers to be enjoyed. They make you better, not worse, at your job.

Wishing you all the breast ...

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