Why adland needs to get in touch with its feminine side

Improved working conditions and a culture of respect may encourage women to choose and stick with a career in advertising, Damon Collins says.

Damon Collins
Damon Collins

There are two questions that get asked perennially in advertising: Why aren't there many women working in creative departments? And how can we redress the balance?

At Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, we seem to have an unfair share of the female advertising workforce - 11 women - but that's still nowhere near a 50/50 ratio. While the (mostly male) creative community bemoans the dearth of female creatives, in truth, they're not doing much to change the situation.

This may be because, in their heart of hearts, they believe you don't need to be a woman to "get" women. And, it's true, there are men who are intuitively "in touch with their feminine side" and know women better than they know themselves. The fashion business is stuffed with them. The ad business less so.

Conventional wisdom and the research companies would have us believe that focus groups can tell us all that we need to know to make us experts in what women want. If only it was as simple as chucking money at the problem.

Personally, I love working with women. I spent 15 years working with Mary Wear, one of the best writers in the business and one of the smartest women I have ever met. And she helped me create work that I would not have made had I been working with a man.

We once worked on a campaign for Tampax aimed at teenage girls. Never having been a teenage girl, I found this a fascinating learning experience. (I confess that my prior knowledge of the target audience had sod-all to do with worrying about their "emotional needs, wants and desires".) However, having lived through that maelstrom of a life stage herself, Wear was the best research group you could ask for, there in the room. And at no extra cost to the client. Added value.

During our extensive "insight mining" (chatting), I'd ask Wear whether a 16-year-old girl would think something-or-other. Her reply would often be: "Would they, bollocks." Invaluable. Wear would always say women could tell an ad aimed at them that had been written by a man. As an example of what not to do, she would quote the copy of a Tampax ad she once saw that started: "If you're a woman or a girl who has periods ..."

You don't need girls to do work aimed at girls, and you don't need to be a woman to get inside a woman's mind. But the truth is that work produced by the target audience can offer a powerful mixture of insight linked to creativity. And you don't get that from research groups.

I have a lot of time for mixed-sex teams because of those 15 years working with Wear. They add balance. They prevent blokes from being too blokey and mitigate against girls being too girly.

But what about the numbers of women wanting to enter the business? Why aren't they greater? Though not as tough or sexist as it may have been in the past, the advertising business doesn't take any prisoners. And creative departments are especially high-pressure environments; it's painful having your ideas smashed to shreds by clients and creative directors.

Then there's having to deal with competitive colleagues, all playing mind games and desperate to outdo each other. In Dave Trott's book Creative Mischief, he talks about why women steer clear of creative jobs. He rightly describes creative departments as playgrounds, full of boisterous piss-taking and gags. Playgrounds can be fun, but they are also places where bullying can happen.

Not only do we need to entice smart women into the business, it's imperative that we give them a reason to come back from maternity leave after they start a family. And if we're to do that, perhaps we need to look to ourselves to change rather than asking them to.

The answer, despite what some practitioners may think, is providing a nurturing and caring working environment. A support culture rather than a blame culture that offers encouragement and positive feedback rather than sarcastic sniping, and that bakes the freedom to fail into the culture. I'm not saying the industry should treat women differently to men. I'm saying: why not treat everyone decently?

Yes, it takes more effort, and that might be a stumbling block for some. But it's a simple equation: 85 per cent of purchasing decisions are made by women.

We need clever women to help us do our jobs well. If we don't treat them with respect, they'll sod off and go and do something else. And, gentlemen, that certainly won't help the end-of-year numbers.

Damon Collins is the executive creative director at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R.