How Can the Ad Industry Deal With Sexism From the C-Suite?

How Can the Ad Industry Deal With Sexism From the C-Suite?

Saatchi & Saatchi executive chairman Kevin Roberts is in trouble after telling Business Insider in an interview that he thinks the debate over gender equality in advertising is “over” and that the reason there are so few women in leadership positions in the industry is that women’s ambition “is not a vertical ambition, it’s this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy.” Publicis Groupe, the Paris-based holding company that owns Saatchi & Saatchi, has forced Roberts to take a leave of absence while its supervisory board decides on his future with the company, Shereen Pathak reports at Digiday:

Publicis CEO Maurice Levy sent an internal memo to employees to “reiterate the Groupe’s no-tolerance policy toward behavior or commentary counter to the spirit of Publicis Groupe and its celebration of difference.” Roberts is a high-ranking Publicis official, serving on its top executive management unit. … After he made the comments, industry activist Cindy Gallop, who was accused by Roberts of fueling the issue just to raise her profile, asked the industry to tweet what they thought at Roberts. Plenty did, including Pepsi exec Brad Jakeman and Taco Bell CMO Marisa Thalberg. …

Sources said that Publicis Communications CEO Arthur Sadoun also sent a memo to employees following Roberts’ comments that said, in part, that he found Roberts’ remarks offensive and that this behavior was not acceptable within the Groupe. “I am sorry that the comments made by Kevin have reflected poorly upon the Groupe and our culture,” he wrote.

The agency itself has quickly moved to condemn the executive chairman’s remarks, Stephen Lepitak adds at the Drum, putting out a statement from its CEO to defend his agency’s approach to diversity and gender equality, while acknowledging that the industry still has a lot of work to do in that department:

Meanwhile, in a statement released by Saatchi & Saatchi, Robert Senior, worldwide CEO of the agency added: “Kevin has given what are his personal views on the subject of gender diversity. However, those views are not mine, and nor are they the position of the agency.

“Saatchi & Saatchi is, and has always been, a meritocracy. We live and die by our people, our talent, and it makes no difference to us whether that talent is male or female. Indeed, I’m very proud to be able to say that 65 per cent of our staff are female, and it is to our great benefit that we have women in senior leadership roles across our business. However, the issue of gender diversity is not in any way over for our industry. It is live, emotive and vital for the communications business that we continue to insist that the best people, whatever their gender, are able to achieve their potential. This is what we strive for at Saatchi & Saatchi, and is what we will continue to strive for alongside all of the best agencies in our industry.”

This is not the advertising industry’s first, or worst, scandal this year involving a senior executive making offensive remarks. Gustavo Martinez, the worldwide chairman and CEO of JWT, resigned in March after being hit with a lawsuit alleging that he had made disparaging comments about women and minorities.

When an executive is found to hold toxic views that stand to damage their organization, getting rid of that executive and condemning their offensive statements are sensible first steps, but may not be sufficient. A Stanford study conducted earlier this year found that CEO scandals affect a company’s reputation among investors for an average of five years after the incident that precipitated the scandal, and firing the CEO in question doesn’t make much difference. CEB’s employee engagement research suggests that engagement dips after scandals and doesn’t return to normal for almost two years.

For the advertising business, scandals like these serve only to reinforce its image as an industry stuck in the Mad Men era, struggling (or worse, not even trying) to be more inclusive, particularly of women. Publicis CEO Maurice Levy caught some flak back in March when he responded to the JWT scandal by describing Martinez as “one man” and downplaying the broader prevalence of racism and sexism in his field. But as most of Levy’s colleagues readily acknowledged, Mad Men is fictional but advertising’s negative image isn’t, and getting rid of the bad apples may not be enough to save the batch.

In a feature for the New York Times in May, Sydney Ember talked to a number of high-placed women in advertising who confirmed that sexism remains a real problem in their industry, and it’s not always so blatant:

Advertising is far from the only industry that has struggled with issues of sexist behavior and gender bias through the years. But in interviews with more than a dozen women, mostly executives, who work in advertising, many said they found it hard to believe how much their particular business still remained a white man’s world. Although some women said they had never personally experienced gender discrimination and referred to it as a thing of the past, many said they repeatedly felt ignored or dismissed by male colleagues and left out socially. They recalled times when they were the only woman in meetings with both co-workers and clients. Some pointed to the ads themselves as examples of how the industry’s sexism manifested itself beyond office walls.

“Yes, there is the rapey talk and the grabby hands, but it’s that subtle stuff that’s chronic and can be more damaging,” said Jean Batthany, the executive creative director at DDB Chicago. …

Megan Pagliuca, the global chief executive of Omnicom’s Accuen agency, said sexism revealed itself in the prevalence of social events like golf outings and drinking events being used for business purposes, a sentiment echoed by several other women interviewed. Women, she said, feel pressure to learn to play golf or to generally act more like their male counterparts or risk missing out on establishing important relationships.