Thursday, July 17, 2008

Women on Top... Why not in Ad-Land?!

4Ps B&M's Monojit Lahiri probes this mysterious imbalance and tries to figure out where the problem lies... and why

Once upon a time, Advertising was considered an arty-farty, boutique biz – a cosmetic adjunct of the FMCG universe mostly illuminated by English-speaking, theatah-loving, culture-vultures… Even back then, it attracted women, some of whom were extremely gifted creatures who distinguished themselves and made a name. Nargis Wadia, Tara Sinha, Nuru Swaminathan and Sayeeda Imaam come to mind. Today, as ‘woman-power’ zooms ahead (with an over-the-top media tracking and celebrating the movers n’ shakers like there’s no tomorrow) it appears strange, odd and inconsistent when one sees hardly a single woman gracing the top slot (CEO, President, Chairperson) of any of the big ad agencies around. Clearly it’s not about talent, drive, creativity, intelligence, focus or dedication. Then what is it? Vertigo (read: fear of heights!) lack of ambition? Reluctance to reach the top at any cost? Gender bias? Or the age old hassle of having to balance a career with home and family, with no prizes for guessing which way the cookie finally crumbles for her …?

The iconic Helayne Spivak (the celebrated worldwide Creative Director & Chief Creative Director, North America, JWT in the early nineties) when asked about the shortage of women in top positions in adbiz had (famously) stated that “no matter what you do, how many clients you impress, accounts you help swing, awards you pick up and respect you garner from peers – there are still those groceries you gotta pick up, remember?!” Ms. Spivak then goes on to add that women don’t really seem to be welcome to the top ranks. “Otherwise there would be more help for us – like childcare, flexible hours, things that help us with our extra responsibilities. Ultimately it’s a juggling act. Its trying to keep everything up in the air and sometimes it falls… and what usually ends up falling is the family.”

Sayeeda Imaam, who brilliantly fronted the creative department of JWT (HTA), Clarion & Contract across the seventies, eighties and nineties (and now operates in Consultant mode) has a different take. She believes that enough women enter the field of advertising, marketing and media. They enjoy their work and even excel in it, with the newness, creativity and absence of monotony providing them a continuing high. “However seniority and hitting the top slot messes it up because it comes in the way of things that excited them – the ferment of cracking a problem and honing an idea. Suddenly delegation comes into play and there are fewer situations to go hands-on. This leads to a boring sameness”. The other reason is that there is nothing to prove in terms of scoring over a man. “Being better in the area of professional excellence is not a big deal any more. It’s happening around us, all the time (Lynne D’Souza of Lintas being the latest example), everywhere. Women basically come into the business for the joy of it. They quit when the joy has lost its edge – or has to be relegated to others as she (yawn) moves up!”
Grey Worldwide’s NCD Priti Nair comes next. The tattoo-flashing hottie, without fuss or frippery, comes straight to the point. “It’s a very personal, difficult and complex call that women have to take; men (usually) have no role in it. Whether the total priority is with the job, a balancing act of fifty-fifty or a part-time assignment is completely a woman’s call. Once the children come, it gets even more difficult.” Nair believes that advertising today is a hugely high-pressure profession with travel, late night shoots, deadlines and constantly having to deliver the goods in a frenetically competitive space, coming with the territory. In this kind of an environment, playing a caring wife, devoted mother and sharp ad-woman together can be mission impossible! So, sadly, there are dropouts. What about madam Nair, herself? She has survived seventeen years, even after marriage. “Sure, but I don’t have kids, no? If I did, I am sure I would have pulled out (pauses) and, gawd knows, made life hell for people in the house! C’mon yaar, after almost two decades of working in such a fast-paced, creative and exciting environment, sitting at home and changing nappies or – whatever – would definitely drive me nuts!”

The still-gorgeous Nargis Wadia, (who headed Interpub through the seventies, eighties, even nineties) and who turned a zillion heads during her hey days with her chutzpah, glamour and intelligence – rounds off this debate on a personal note. “Speaking for myself, although we did quite well, I could never step on the gas like, say a Tara Sinha, because I definitely lacked the killer instinct! Also (you’ll laugh) I frequently felt awful for the agency who’s business we took away!” The other reason was that most men who were bright and talented, refused to work in an agency where a woman was the Boss! “There was a definite gender bias with the result that we could only hire fresh talent. Has it changed? I don’t know … maybe a little, but …”

So what’s the score? A recent survey indicated that women make better leaders than men in strategic drive, risk-taking, people skills and innovation; where – alas – they lose out are command and control of management operations and focusing on financial returns. Women are bold, ambitious, mischievous, colourful and imaginative. They can also be competitive, visionary and have a strong presence. Men were seen to be more task-focused and concentrated on getting the job done rather than dealing with relationships. They believe that revenues, budgets and profits are the only game in town. Financial hits is what it’s all about. Hence, they are more comfortable with hierarchies; title silos and processes … touché!


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