Would you cancel a pitch with a sexist client?
A view from Stephen Kenwright

Would you cancel a pitch with a sexist client?

Principles can sometimes cost jobs.

I’m sitting on a call with a prospective client, talking through their brief. It’s early 2018 and finding new business for a 450-strong digital agency, part of a global network, is my responsibility. On the other end of the phone is an international footwear brand turning over hundreds of millions each year and looking for help with something we do in our sleep. We even employ some of our contact’s former colleagues and, by all accounts, they got on famously.

Signing off a great call, the client mentions, as if doing us a favour, that our account team should include "pretty girls" because the director "likes eye candy". I recall that we’d been invited in after said director met our late-twenties, female account director at an industry event. 

More than a year later, I asked Twitter: what’s your reaction to that comment? Now I own an agency, I’d like to think I’d sit with the 59% who would call out the client. Cancel the meeting.

At the time, though, we’d just made a round of redundancies and were heading for another. Issued two profit warnings. Seen our share price tumble 60% in just a couple of years. How would I have this conversation with my boss?

Bill Bernbach said that a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something. A middle manager, I wasn’t in the firing line. My boss was. The latest round of hires were. Upholding that principle wouldn’t cost me anything.

Even so, I wouldn’t escalate it. I compromised. We pitched for the business with a team of four men and lost. We’d just appointed a new executive creative director from one of the best creative agencies in London and pitched some of our best-ever work, but the feedback was that we didn’t bring a team suitable for a "female-focused brand".

A friend from the successful (network) agency got in touch after seeing my tweet: "I assume you mean [this brand]." I was told there were more than a few instances where the client’s apparently throwaway comment about her boss manifested itself in extremely ugly ways and the agency eventually resigned the account due to the director’s conduct.

Two issues have dominated the pages of Campaign over the past few years: inequality in adland and the collapse of agency holding groups. These issues are linked. The sales targets are lofty by necessity and that breeds poor decision making on lots of levels. While the biggest agencies continue to struggle, every principle you uphold costs one of your colleagues.

I’ve never seen my former employers do anything but the right thing: they put equality and the welfare of everyone firmly on the radar. I strongly suspect my boss would have supported me if I’d pulled out of the pitch, regardless of the stress she was under. But, in that pressure cooker environment, how do you best support your colleagues? By trying to keep them away from badly behaved clients or trying to keep them in a job?

Stephen Kenwright is co-founder and technical director at Rise at Seven