Only a fraction of women hold leadership roles in ad agencies and achieving gender equality is a challenge for the industry, so DDB Mudra’s Vanaja Pillai makes the case for diversity in advertising.

A couple of years ago, when a senior leader was leaving our agency to set up an independent creative hot shop, I gave him some unsolicited advice – please make sure that you have a woman in your founding team. That would be my advice to every business leader, always.

Having spent over 20 years in the advertising business, my love for the profession hasn’t waned. As someone who started as an intern in one of the largest agencies in the world, to heading up another now, I am aware of the challenges we face and conscious of how advertising as a business has probably taken the longest to change and adapt. The reasons are many and much discussed. In my view, embracing diversity and practising inclusion are key solves for the challenges we have ahead of us.

Gender is the starting point for any conversation on diversity because women are the largest visible minority. Advertising has had a good representation of women through the years but not in leadership or influential positions. Globally, the 3% Movement, an organisation that advocates for gender equality in advertising, found that women hold only 29% of leadership roles in advertising agencies. 

Advertising as a business is being expected to change rapidly, while many advertising companies are standing still. The relevance and role of the business are being questioned. And while there is no doubt in my mind that there is a definite and influential role that agencies need to play in the lives of brands, businesses and marketeers, the willingness to accept and facilitate this change is very slow in coming. Brands too, need to think beyond the next quarter and take some chances to push the best levers to enable the new league of extraordinary agencies that deliver the next level of impactful work.

And perhaps that’s the case for diversity in advertising. Maybe it is time a new breed of people took over the reins. Start thinking long-term investments versus immediate returns, talent versus resources, client solutions versus agency strengths and impact versus delivery. 

There are many reasons why women will play a crucial role in this journey and here are some: 

1. The woman’s eye on consumer, business and creative

For far too long, advertising like every other platform has suffered from the limited lens of men and most often a very privileged sub-section of men. According to a report by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and Jigsaw Research, only 10% of Indian ads feature women in professional roles, while 62% of ads feature women in traditional roles such as homemakers. The same report found that women are portrayed as passive and subservient in Indian ads, with only 4% of ads showing women as authoritative. A survey by Kantar found that 73% of Indian women believe that ads show outdated gender stereotypes.

As the world of our brands expands to target unfamiliar territories, markets, audiences and even products and services, it becomes imperative for agencies to have talent capable of empathy, tolerance, absorption and change – perceived as feminine traits that until recently were not valued in the corporate world or seen as advantages.

The unique perspectives of women across the supply chain of the advertising development process leaves us, richer, more insightful and self-aware. Add to that, as a minority themselves, the ability to be more inclusive and sensitive to under-represented groups who will now find their way into cultural narratives.

2. Women and creativity

There is a lot of research that confirms the inherent bias against women in creative roles. It is illogical, unsubstantiated and deep-rooted, like most things bias inspires. According to the Cannes Lions Global Creativity Report, only 11% of creative directors in advertising are women.

For example, research published in Gender and the Economy finds that creativity itself is more strongly associated with stereotypically masculine characteristics and that a man’s work is more likely to be deemed creative. In particular, supervisors assess their female employees as less creative – even when they are exhibiting more of the stereotypically masculine behaviours associated with creativity. Research in the Journal of Applied Psychology also suggests that while men are generally perceived to be more creative than women, this is probably not the case from an empirical standpoint. The report also suggests that although other people’s biased ratings of women’s creative performance did exist, the biases women held against themselves appeared stronger.

The recognition and correction of this bias could lead to the confident ascent of a new generation of creative leaders, who happen to be women. We have deprived ourselves of the incredible value and power of the female creative mind and the rise of women in all aspects of creative – advertising, production, direction, storytelling – will unleash untapped potential.

3. Women in leadership and impact on culture

A Forbes article in 2020 beautifully captures the four phases of careers with a focus on women and how the biological clock clashes with the traditional career cycle. The piece argues that the traditional career cycle was designed by men for other men, with non-working wives, and pits the time for nesting (for both men and women) against the time for career risks and leaps.

This is slowly but surely changing at many levels. The fad of the “30 under 30s”, and “40 under 40s”, will soon fade to allow people to select life choices that make the most sense for their individual journeys, instead of adhering to unrealistic and external benchmarks. Conscious efforts to retain and grow women up the corporate ladder with the right tools and enablement will allow younger women to see and believe in the possibilities that exist for them. 

Misplaced ideas of leadership are being challenged and replaced by more contemporary ideas of empathetic, competence-based and diverse leadership styles. While a lot still needs to improve in the world’s comprehension of confidence versus competence and the metrics of success, women have an increasingly larger influence on the standards of leadership and the process of culture-building.

But companies need to work deliberately to build this valuable competitive advantage and make their worlds look a little bit more like women. In our experience with the Phyllis India Project, DDB’s women’s leadership development program, here are the essential steps to make this happen:

  1. Ensuring a disproportionate focus on hiring women talent. Areas and functions where young women naturally do well and outshine their male counterparts are not the benchmarks. To out-damage centuries of patriarchy, an incredible amount of effort needs to go into looking for, enabling, strengthening women talent across the board. And that starts with a disproportionate hiring goal. Look for and encourage women talent in media, technology, creative leadership and the boards of agencies. 
  2. Sponsoring women into leadership. The chances of strong, talented and successful women staying on in advertising heavily depends on them being able to see role models in their workplace. There needs to be concerted effort to train, prepare, support and promote women into influential positions. The biggest payoff I have ever received in my career is hearing young women tell me that watching me run a business and take those decisions gave them hope and an ambition. Succession planning to proactively change the gender ratios in leadership is critical.
  3. The right kind of mentorship. Mentorship needs to be addressed holistically. What’s the plan for when an unexpected personal situation creeps into someone’s career trajectory? How is your program geared to meet an individual’s personal needs and gaps? How do we help women tackle the challenges of multiple life stage changes that seem to impact women more than men? I feel the burden of this because I have been an exception to the rule – born in a family of three girls, with access to the best education, marriage at 35, no children, a naturally supportive partner and family – is what dreams are made of for most women. It is that place of privilege that makes me passionate about the subject.
  4. Changing the codes for our leadership styles and work environments. While we consciously bring more women into the workplace and strengthen their chances of growth and success, our environments also need a change. There are many kinds of people and perspectives that weigh into the diversity equation:
    • Seemingly evolved men, who are handicapped by their immediate world and ignorant of male entitlement, through their narrow rose-tinted glasses. Look beyond your equal partner, your successful mother or ambitious friend.
    • Women, at the other extreme, who expect unfair privileges.
    • Leaders who are too focused on their immediate goals to give the time of day to diversity as a priority.
    • People who still believe that the only code for leadership and success are masculine.

All of these people will play a role in the success of your gender diversity program. Therefore, there is a great deal of education and eye-opening needed to make sure that diversity efforts are supported and understood by them, and the context is provided to all kinds of mindsets. Start with putting hard data on the table, help with unconscious bias workshops and incentivise with social payoffs and value.

The acute identity and values crisis the advertising business is going through will be solved only by getting diverse and new thinking into the mix and at the tables that truly matter. But, I say from experience, the most delightful sign of all will be the heightening of the presence and voice of women in the advertising corridors. That is truly the most heartwarming and inspiring outcome.