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"A myopic visiting Martian could hardly have failed to notice that any gathering of senior agency people would be anything from 95 per cent to 100 per cent male." In the introduction to the 1990 IPA Women in Advertising report, the then president, Winston Fletcher, laid out the challenge facing the industry in remarkably straightforward terms.
A year later, a Campaign feature posed the question "Are women making their mark?", focusing on the author of the report, Marilyn Baxter, Saatchi & Saatchi’s joint planning director. As one of the earliest senior female employees at the world's most famous ad agency, Baxter was – and is – a unique voice.
The article lamented the fact that the proportion of female board directors in agencies has crept up from 16% to 18% in the 12 months since Baxter’s report was published. This glacial pace of change was highlighted by Colette Campbell, the writer of that Campaign feature, who wrote: "Cynics point out that last year's redundancy programme cleared out so-called dead wood – much of which will have been male. Perhaps the statistics merely reflect the same number of token female board directors in a smaller industry."
A long shadow
The fact that Baxter’s report is still relevant today is testament to a career that is equal parts groundbreaking and far-reaching. It may have been 28 years since the publication of the report, but the fact that we are still in effect posing the same question today reflects not just the industry’s static approach to equality, but also Baxter’s clarity of thinking.
In many ways, her response to the challenges facing women in advertising appear to be more firmly rooted in tangible action than many of the initiatives we see today.
Women in Advertising was unflinching in its assessment of the challenges faced by women, particularly mothers. As the research noted: "Successful advertising mums appeared to have retained their commitment by spending most of their earnings paying for substitutes for themselves: housekeepers, gardeners, nannies, back-ups for the nannies, back-ups for the nannies’ back-ups, and so on. That way they virtually never allow the family to interrupt their work."
As Baxter noted, with reference to the long-hours culture that didn't fit with the lives of women with children: "It would seem to be the case that at that time if women want it all, they have to make arrangements to do it all."
A state of play which perhaps undepinned the response of one Saatchi planner cited in the research to the question of why their aren't more women at the top of agencies. "Women are far too sensible to want to run advertising agencies," she quipped.
Following Baxter’s report, the IPA commissioned a feasibility study into an all-agency creche in central London – a solution that was ultimately found to be untenable. "We found the costs would be prohibitive and, because of the hours many people in the industry work, the creche would have to be open until about 10pm. For most people, it would mean extra travelling time and not many women would relish travelling into town with a small child every day," Veronica Wheatley, then head of training and administration at the IPA, said at the time.
Yet, while the industry’s long-hours culture is now more publicly in the firing line, many structural challenges remain.
Baxter was well ahead of her time in recognising the biggest stumbling block is the nature of agency work: "There is a big disconnect between what it is agencies do, which is highly creative and strives for originality, and they way they work – which isn’t.i
"In 30 years, it has changed only superficially. Agencies are very dynamic in what they do, but not open to changing the way they work. You would think they would have found lots of creative and different ways to work that would help women participate, but the disconnect remains."
Making her mark
Compiling Women in Advertising was a significant investment of time and effort and Baxter cites her motivation as her experience as a woman in a male-dominated industry. "I was the only female on the board at the time and there was a very macho culture in agencies. BBH was much more civilised, but they were the exception," she explains. Not having a group of women she could talk to encouraged Baxter to extend her impact across the industry to not just connect with other women, but also challenge the assumptions and barriers that led to the deficit of female leaders in the first place.
"I was a feminist from an early age," Baxter says, sharing the fact that when she went to university, there were 60 women to 1500 men. "I got used to being a minority. When I started work there were so few professional women; I went to several conferences where I was the only woman there. I’ve always had a very professional attitude to how I worked. It didn’t deter me.
"It seems very trivial and outdated now, but I remember a very senior woman saying to me: 'If you are the only woman in these organisations where there is a sea of men, wear red – be memorable.' It was about making your mark."
Baxter not only made that mark, but used her voice to push for an industry where other women would be free to make their mark on their own terms.
What women want
Despite the fact that almost three decades have passed, Baxter recalls the report as if she had completed it yesterday. "When Winston raised the question, it wasn’t on everyone's lips at the time. In fact, at the time, a lot of people thought it was not an issue," she says. When the report – the first of its kind – was published, it garnered significant national media coverage. "It was an idea whose time had come," Baxter explains. "It did challenge a lot of thinking."
The report brought to light many of the challenges still faced by women in the creative industries today. Sexual harassment, for example, was highlighted as one of the factors pushing women out of the sector. Two respondents to the research recalled having been taken off accounts when they refused a client’s advances.
A hyper-masculine culture was also singled out as an issue, as one female creative from a top 10 agency told Baxter: "The culture of a creative department is intensely masculine, very aggressive and very unco-operative. A beer ad sums up the whole thing. It is about self-promotion, self-publicity. All the things that men are are magnified in the creative department. Women become more and more alienated, and less and less likely to succeed – no matter how talented they are."
Deeds, not words
Fast-forward to the present day and the response to these challenges – both from an industry and an individual level – has changed irrevocably. The original report noted that "no militant feminists were encountered" and highlighted how sensitive women are to the dangers of being branded a feminist in their agencies. It's a state of play that made it difficult to raise issues surrounding sexism and gender stereotyping.
At that point, Baxter says that Wacl, for example was not a campaigning organisation, unlike today: "There wasn’t a huge amount of women’s collectives impacting business then, but that is changing now. There has been a positive shift, with the focus on the gender pay gap and unconscious bias training and harrassment in the workplace."
There's also a progressive shift in what constitutes success. "One of the things I wrote in the report, which was very controversial at the time, was that not all women want to run an advertising agency," Baxter recalls. "I remember at the first presentation of the report, there was a lot of anger that I was claiming women weren’t necessarily motivated enough."
But Baxter was reflecting on something more nuanced. "Their whole lives were not about their career progression and that has got lost in the current assumptions surrounding ambition," she says. "That basic assumption that people in agencies want to get to the top at all costs, when it is not the be-all and end-all for everyone."
Certainly, the idea of looking beyond ambition as a single-minded race to the top is one that is gaining traction. Ambition might not mean setting your sights on the C-suite, but instead might mean seeking challenging, rewarding, flexible work, freelance opportunities and control over your own destiny. As Baxter’s report noted at the time: "Women are not unambitious – they are ambitious for different things."
How do you solve a problem like advertising?
Baxter’s own ambitions were both multifaceted and often of her own creation. She had no second thoughts about quitting advertising to sail around the world; she resigned from McCann Erickson to pursue her passion for sailing before returning to dry land at Saatchi & Saatchi.
So what enticed her to return to the industry? "The variety was incredibly interesting. Every week, you had a different problem to solve and my brain was always ready to work on the next one," Baxter explains. "I’d previously been a market researcher, but advertising was so dynamic when I started at Saatchi & Saatchi, I thought I had died and gone to heaven."
Baxter eventually left Saatchi & Saatchi in her early fifties to become chairman of brand consultancy Hall & Partners. When she left the agency, she was "the oldest woman there". She says: "I’ve never said this out loud before, but I think I left advertising because I felt I was too old relative to my colleagues, and a certain distance."
It is difficult not to see a red thread between the advertising industry’s ageism problem and a failure to build critical momentum towards a more inclusive and equal culture in which women’s careers can thrive. "Not all women want to start out on their own or run an agency, and it is a huge weakness of the business to not see the value of all that accumulated wisdom, experience and craft skills," Baxter points out, adding that ageism remains a "significant issue" impacting women more than men.
Reflecting on almost three decades since the publication of Women In Advertising, Baxter remains disappointed that some of the more radical suggestions have not been taken up.
In retrospect, she felt the report placed too much responsibility on women – who were both subjected to the negative impact of inequality and held solely responsible for fixing the problem. "A lot of that change never came about. Certainly, in terms of numbers [of women in leadership positions], progress has been disappointingly slow. I'm now more optimistic than ever before that real change will happen now." she reflects.
It is thanks to Baxter's commitment, courage and clarity of thinking that women in advertising today can build something different – an industry built not on shrinking female ambition but on a future in which everyone can thrive.
Over the next five weeks, Campaign will be digging into its archives to rewrite the stories of some of the most trailblazing women in the industry successfully changing the narrative and achieving success on their own terms. Read more about #TellHerStory here.