Back in February this year the 30 Club, the oldest of the members-only dining clubs that include senior figures from advertising, voted to end nearly 100 years of tradition and allow women members.
The decision was made by a secret ballot, with a two thirds majority needed to secure success. For the modernisers among the 30 Club's membership, led by Nigel Bogle, joint chief executive of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, and Rupert Howell, director of HHCL & Partners, it was a culmination of three years of effort. The previous ballot had failed by just one vote.
Change is not a word often associated with the industry's dining clubs.
The exclusive members-only groups frequented by those in the upper echelons of advertising and communications remain immersed in tradition. Membership is by invitation only, with prospects often needing to be nominated by two existing members. The dress code is formal and in several clubs it is the policy to say grace before the meal and to toast the Queen at the end. All have strict rules on secrecy - nothing said by a member of the club, a guest or a speaker is allowed to be repeated beyond the four walls.
Although the clubs remains highly distinct from each other by virtue of their membership criteria and their attitudes, all club evenings follow a similar format.
The location is usually a room in one of London's most exclusive hotels.
Drinks are served until 7.30pm, dinner lasts until about 9.30pm. After dinner there is a guest speaker who is usually either from the world of business, politics or sport. At the end of the talk there may be a question and answer session. By 11pm most people are on their way home.
Yet do not be deceived. While such an agenda may not, on the surface, sound like the hottest invitation in adland, those admitted to these inner circles are enthusiastic as to the benefits of membership. 'My view of a club,' says Martin George, the marketing director of British Airways and deputy chairman of the Marketing Group of Great Britain, 'is that it has got to be fun or to help me do my job more effectively. This does both.'
Meanwhile, David Kershaw, president of the Solus Club, says: 'It is about enjoying yourself with people with whom you share a common interest. It is not earth-shatteringly important, but it is fun. We're in a social business and the line between work and play is more blurred than in some industries, which is probably why we've grown these clubs.'
Christine Walker, chairman of Walker Media, is a member of WACL and was one of the first women members to be voted into the 30 Club: 'Clubs are terrific forums for meeting people you might not otherwise have met,' she says. 'It is primarily about networking, but through networking you get business insights.'
And though many of the rules and criteria may sound a little stuffy to younger members of the industry, many old club hands stress that the clubs' traditions go a long way towards contributing to their success. By limiting the membership to those at the top of their professions, and by creating an atmosphere in which both members and guest speakers can talk off-the-record, people end up speaking more freely than they might otherwise.
As a result, the evening can be both entertaining and informative and the clubs maintain their momentum and appeal. As one industry insider admits: 'The elitism is a fundamental aspect of it.'
Yet at the beginning of the 21st century, the elitist nature of these institutions, with membership dependent on who you know, the old-age profiles of many members and the level of formality does raise eyebrows among some in the business. Are these clubs really representative of the communications industries in 2000?
The answer, in most cases, is probably not. But there is a growing awareness among those at their helms that they need to take this issue seriously.
In his letter to the members of the 30 Club proposing the club take in women members, Rupert Howell described it as 'untenable' that the club should continue as it was. The argument centred on the fact that the club had gone beyond being just a social dining club, to being a body that had influence within the industry, yet it could not continue to have this role if it excluded some of the most successful people within the industry by virtue merely of their sex.
His argument worked and the club now has six female members, including Barbara Cassani, chief executive of Go, MT Rainey, managing director of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R and Helen Alexander, the chief executive of The Economist. Meanwhile, insiders suggest that, had the vote gone the other way, the club would have lost several of its more high-profile members.
This is not a concern that has swayed the members of the most traditional of the four big clubs, the Solus Club, whose members opt to continue as a male-only stronghold. It is also not a subject welcomed by the club's president-elect Kershaw who, when asked how the club can continue to justify its position replies: 'I am not in the business of justifying. It is decided by the members.'
To others it remains a problem: 'In the year 2000, how can you possibly have a club that excludes women,' asks Martin Bowley, chief executive of Carlton Sales. Meanwhile a former member of the Solus Club, who opts not to reveal his identity, remembers 'being endlessly stuck next to deaf old fools' and 'dull speakers'.
So how can dining clubs limit the influence of older, more traditional members who hinder progress? WACL president, Carol Fisher, believes that its system of hiving off older members to become 'associate members' to allow in new young blood works well. This, she believes, helps to ensure the club remains relevant and up-to-date and continues to appeal to its new members.
It is a policy which appears to have worked well at WACL, which one insider suggests has had 'a terrific few years'.
But Martin George at the MGGB believes the pressure on clubs to be relevant is likely to increase: 'As people become more time pressured, I think they will be increasingly asking themselves what the benefits of membership are,' he says. 'Groups have to be clear about what their roles are and there has to be a compelling proposition.'
As befits a group of senior marketing professionals, the MGGB's response to this challenge has been to research the opinions of its members. 'One thing that has changed is that we are now very open to membership and speakers from new industries,' says the MGGB's chairman Sue Farr. 'The membership also made it clear that when it comes to speakers they prefer news-makers to well-known speech-makers.' This is a common theme among all the clubs. Kershaw at the Solus Club reports: 'We have new media people on the list to be discussed.'
In addition, the 30 Club's chairman, Sir Dominic Cadbury, says: 'If we don't make it appealing and see that the people who come in reflect the industry in its changing form, then people won't be interested in joining.'
This does not appear to be a problem yet. One characteristic that seems to unite people who work in advertising is that they are generally sociable.
Indeed, some suggest that much of the criticism against members clubs is motivated by sour grapes at being left out.
The sociable nature of those in the industry does not only benefit the established dining clubs, it has also led to the growth of a spate of alternative groups, whose agendas range from the semi-serious to the seriously tongue-in-cheek. These include Data Anonymous, set up by the Billett Consultancy's chairman John Billett, in a bid to further the cooperation between those in the market research industry, and Blakes 7, a egalitarian lunch group formed by Carlton's Bowley.
At the beginning of the 1990s, in a bid to combat the recession, a club named the Fat Boys was set up by, among others, Rupert Howell. Its mission was to eat good food and remember what it was like to have fun. Now that business is booming again the club has been disbanded. The most light-hearted of the recent launches is the JB Club - membership is limited to those with the initials JB.
People may try to deny it, but it seems to be human nature to want to be part of the inner sanctum. This means that even if you reject the establishment and rant against formality convention, the chances are there is a club somewhere that appeals.
For example, a straw poll of the new-media agencies reveals that while First Tuesday and Net Night have declined in popularity as has WebGirls, a club for women in new-media, and its sister organisation Boob Night, the members-only ICA Club, the Light Bar in Hoxton and a certain illegal Spanish bar close to the West End - you have to know which doorbell to ring - are currently in vogue.
And it is probably only a question of time before some of today's hip new-media 20-year-olds are signed up members of tomorrow's establishment clubs.
A GUIDE TO ADLAND'S CLUBS: The Establishment
THE SOLUS CLUB
The membership: Senior industry figures, no women allowed. About 80 members.
The venue: The Dorchester, the third Thursday of every month except August.
Dress code: Black tie (members wear a club bow tie).
Members include: David Kershaw of M&C Saatchi (president-elect), John Banks of Banks Hoggins O'Shea/ FCB, Mike Moran of Toyota, Mick Desmond of Granada, Mark Lund of Delaney Lund Knox Warren.
The scene: The most traditional of adland's clubs and the only one to retain an exclusively male membership. Famous for its lively AGM - last year ISBA director-general John Hooper was 'guillotined' by club secretary Clive Turner.
The focus, say members, is less on networking and more on enjoyment.
Guest speakers have included John Major, Murray Walker and Max Clifford.
THE THIRTY CLUB
The membership: Traditionally 30 senior industry figures, ten from the client side, ten from advertising and ten from the media industry. Actual membership is closer to 50.
The venue: Claridges, on Tuesday evening eight times a year.
Dress code: Black tie.
Members include: Sir Dominic Cadbury of the Wellcome Trust (president), Conrad Black of The Telegraph, Martin Sorrell of WPP, Charles Dunstone of Carphone Warehouse, Christine Walker of Walker Media.
The scene: The doyen of advertising dining clubs, its members represent the most important people in advertising and media. It abandoned tradition and voted to allow women members at the beginning of the year. Past speakers have included John Stalker, Jack Straw and Salman Rushdie.
WACL (Women in Advertising and Communications, London)
The membership: Senior women in advertising, media and marketing. 120 full members and 60 associate members.
The venue: The Savoy, on the second Tuesday of the month between October to May.
Dress code: Black tie.
Members include: Carol Fisher, chief executive of COI Communications (president), Cilla Snowball of Abbot Mead Vickers BBDO, Rita Clifton of Interbrand Newell & Sorrell, Christine Walker of Walker Media.
The scene: Formed to further the cause of senior women in advertising, its members run an annual forum for women in middle management alongside the dinner club. Continues to operate a women-only membership policy because 'we feel there is a lot more to be done'. However, all but two club nights allow male guests. Guest speakers have included David Abbott, Nicolas Coleridge of Conde Nast and Trevor McDonald.
THE MARKETING GROUP OF GREAT BRITAIN
Launched: About 1975
The membership: Marketing directors and above from blue-chip companies plus agency chief executives. Around 150 in all.
The venue: Claridges on Wednesday evenings, eight times a year.
Dress code: Black tie.
Members include: Sue Farr (chair), Martin George of British Airways, Andrew Robertson, chief executive of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, Jan Hall of Spencer Stuart.
The scene: A client-based dining club which bills itself as providing a contemporary atmosphere in which senior industry figures can network and gain business insights from industry speakers. These have included William Hague, Piers Morgan, Kelvin MacKenzie and Luc Vandenvelde of Marks & Spencer.
The membership: Senior advertising and media players. Seven of both sex.
The venue: Various, monthly.
Dress code: Anything but black tie.
Members include: Martin Bowley of Carlton (founder), Jim Hytner of Channel 5, David Kershaw of M&C Saatchi, Martina King of Yahoo!, Amanda Walsh of Walsh Trott Chick Smith.
The scene: A lunch rather than dinner club. Launched as a backlash against the formality of the established industry clubs. Modern outlook summed up by 'speakers' who have included Lee Chapman, Leslie Ash and Kirsty Young and her partner.
The membership: Senior figures in media research, about 24 in total.
The venue: Various, five times a year.
Dress code: None
Members include: John Billett of the Billett Consultancy (founder), Hugh Johnson at Channel 4, Sue Read at Granada Media, Richard Bedwell at BMRB, Neil Shepherd-Smith at Telmar, John Stockley at Rajar.
The scene: A dinner club with a serious agenda - to encourage non-confrontational discussions about media research. Informal, jacket-off atmosphere, with a guest research specialist.
THE JB CLUB
The membership: Industry figures with the initials JB, about 14 in total.
The venue: Various, twice a year.
Dress code: None.
Members include: John Billett of the Billett Consultancy (co-founder), sports consultant John Bromley (co-founder), John Banks of Banks Hoggins O'Shea/FCB, James Best of BMP, John Bartle of BBH, Jeremy Bullmore of WPP.
The scene: Totally tongue-in-cheek lunch group which describes its rational as 'world domination by JBs'. Membership by invitation only - John Birt notably absent. Has a patron saint, John the Baptist, and describes its co-founders as joint chiefs of staff.