Have agencies really moved on from the Mad Men years?

With young white men still in abundance, the industry is not all that different from the days of Don Draper, Andrew Cracknell says.

Have agencies really moved on from the Mad Men years?

Roger Sterling and Don Draper are sitting at a bar. Sterling says: "BBDO have just hired their first Negro. What do you think of that?" Draper replies: "I think I wouldn't want to be that Negro." I met "that Negro" and wrote of him in The Real Mad Men. His name is Doug Alligood. He joined BBDO Detroit in 1962 and transferred to New York in 1964. He's still there. On race, he says the series is spot on: "Like Sterling Cooper, if you'd let off a shotgun in the offices, then you sure wouldn't have hit any black people."

Peggy Olson might have added: "You wouldn't have hurt too many women in the creative department either." Perhaps a few female writers struggling on against casual sexism, pay differentials and limited career potential.

My, how far we've come. There's women all over TV production, planning and account service now. And with relief all round, the "Sals" are now out of the closet. But that's more to do with society than the advertising business. And according to the latest IPA figures, there are still almost no blacks or Asians, 80 per cent of creative staff are male, just one in five top management are women and you need only one hand to count the female creative directors. Now Bert Cooper has been added to the endangered species list, as less than 5 per cent of all agency staff survive over 50 - and that includes admin and janitorial.

Premier League lessons

"With the growth of the web, everything has changed in advertising. It's not the place for old guys any more," I was told recently. Not only is that a massive non sequitur, it's not even true on at least two counts. You're talking to an increasingly older market who have cornered all the dosh, and while the web changes how you do things, what you do remains exactly the same. That's precisely the mistake the bankrupt first wave of dot-commers made at the turn of the millennium.

And if the job is to manage, motivate and lead a bunch of highly paid, individualistic, competitive young men, some poorly educated, and all often highly self-centred, we assume we need someone youthful who can "get down" with them. Lead by example, someone they'd recognise as part of their world.

I give you Sir Alex Ferguson, 70. The average age of a Premier League manager is 51. Curious how the most physically demanding and rapidly changing world of sport manages to avoid a youth fixation and applauds experience when it comes to leadership.

What almost all agency management will tell you, particularly creative, is that they can only employ from those who turn up for jobs. And, they say, racial and ethnic minorities don't apply to agencies, give or take an upturn in Asians in digital agencies, and few women seem interested in creative jobs.

Theories are thrown around. Fifty years ago, Alligood wanted to get into the business precisely because it reflected so little of the world as a young black man saw it. That may have changed in the content - but, for racial minorities and women, what of the atmosphere and diversity within the business?

The rigours of the repulsive placement system are said to deter women, who quite rightly decide that six months of living in squalor is more than enough to devote to getting a questionable job, and drift off to a less macho career. What do the proponents of the infantile notion that you should suffer to get a job in a creative department think this is - the Special Boat Service? Work hard, yes; sleep under your desks, no.

But in the wider context, when a leading male executive creative director said "It doesn't matter anyway. I've never come across or heard of a really good female creative team", he raises two crucial and interlinked points. It is difficult to find female teams who meet the conventional view of "good" - but maybe because he and his peers think "it doesn't matter anyway".

Hard drinking and Knob gags

At a recent Women of the World forum, Helena Kennedy QC said: "We currently have systems where people are promoted on 'merit', but who decides what the criteria are? Merit is not a neutral term. It has context and the current context is one in which men are in power and make decisions."

That was never truer than in the creative department. "Good" is filtered by males and fits male criteria, consciously or not. So, because "good" is "male", departments must, of necessity, be male. But as our ECD says, does it matter?

Gail Parminter started Madwomen, an agency run by and specialising in advertising to women, because she believes the force majeure of testosterone in the creative department perverts the way women think and behave, and thus devalues the unique potential of their offering. They have to satisfy male creative directors and they have to live in that department. Time and again, women told me the same story.

"Simply to get by, I had to tell my share of knob jokes, drink more than I wanted, pretend I wasn't who I was," Parminter says. "It changed the way I worked." But Parminter and plenty of women creatives will accept that hopelessly inappropriate work can be done by females as much as males. So what is that "unique offering" of the female creative?

Laura Jordan Bambach, who runs the UK end of an international support group for women creatives, SheSays, suggests: "A woman's view is likely to be more empathetic, a little less of the one-liners and jokey stuff - and I certainly don't want to be typecast into a ghetto of 'women's' products just because I'm a woman."

Jude Kelly, the artistic director of the Southbank Centre, admits it's difficult to qualify: "But I do know that when a man creates something, even when it's autobiographical, it's seen to be universal. When Tracey Emin does something autobiographical, it's personal - a woman thing. And for many people, subliminally, just the sight of a woman doing the art seems to demean the art."

This point is backed by fact. Kelly tells of a fascinating development in the auditioning for some of the world's leading symphony orchestras through which women rarely passed. When they were conducted with the musician behind a screen, the chances of a woman succeeding increased by up to 50 per cent.

Moving on from the mad men era

That's why it matters; the filter of white male youth through which the world is seen from the advertising agency brings a desperate myopia to its practices. As Nicola Mendelsohn says in her capacity as the IPA president: "We see ourselves as cool innovators, but we're not. We're behind even politicians on so many employment issues."

Little, if anything, is being done about the race issue, or the self-image-driven ageism. Slowly, women are creeping into the boardroom and, meanwhile, Wacl, Nabs, SheSays and Bloom (an account service and planning parallel to SheSays) are all offering mentoring and advice at different levels to give women mutual support. But until the young white men recognise that there is a problem stretching across age, race and gender that makes the business so hopelessly unrepresentative of the people it is supposed to be understanding and addressing, the world in their offices is going to remain much like that of Don Draper's 50 years ago.

And what does that say about us?

The Real Mad Men by Andrew Cracknell is published by Quercus Books


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