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How the ad industry can nurture more women in leadership

How the ad industry can nurture more women in leadership

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A recent survey of over 120 women leaders across Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the United Kingdom (UK) found that a majority (79%) say that having more women as leaders enhances decision-making. This was also said to contribute to policies that reflect diversity and inclusion.

These were the findings of the Women in Governance survey, conducted by global consultancy R3. However, 40% of respondents felt that policies to encourage more women in leadership are falling short.

The survey also found that having women in governance goes beyond the C-suite, affecting the rest of the organisation. These female leaders can drive organisations to communicate diversity and inclusion policies more effectively, while demanding organisations’ accountability. To do so, it noted that women must take the lead in shaping and enforcing these policies to bring about measurable changes.

Don’t miss: A majority of Asian women feel unrepresented in ads, how can adland lend its support? 

Discussing the survey results during a closed-door lunch hosted by R3 involving senior leaders in the marketing and advertising industry, industry players agreed that more can be done to keep women in leadership positions. This is especially so in the agency world, where many high-level executives from C-suite and creative teams are often men.

This was also echoed in R3’s Diversity: From Agency to Ads report in 2021, which found that 55% of senior leadership teams in Southeast Asian agencies identified as men, outweighing the 45% that identified as women.

Yet, women are typically the decision makers when it comes to purchases for the family and households in Asia. According to Forbes, as women form the majority of primary caregivers for both children and the elderly, they often buy on behalf of everyone in their households. A January 2023 report by Bankrate also found that 80% of purchases and purchase influence are made by women. This trend points towards their stronger buying power and influence as compared to their male counterparts.

This begs the question: Are ads pushing women to buy generally created by men?

According to Rebecca Nadilo, managing director at global integrated marketing agency, Iris Worldwide, often, this is the case. She argues that a majority of women in Asia do not see themselves reflected in advertisements because they are often not included in the ideation process. Therefore, she stressed that it is critical to include more female creatives in the conversations that create advertisements for women.

“I used to create ads for infant formula brands, and now that I’ve had a baby, been through the colic and breastfeeding, I look back on the work and think, I would do that so differently,” she said. She highlighted from that experience that while empathy is necessary, experience is another ball game. Including the female voices in the creative process is necessary to create more authentic work for women.

Looking at the industry from a departmental standpoint, Mandy Wong, president of Omnicom Group’s TBWA\Group Singapore, agreed that the ratio of men to women is still not balanced in areas such as that of the creatives. Female leadership appears to remain relatively low in this regard, especially with Singapore’s historically patriarchal society. To her, more needs to be done to understand why the industry has not reached the desired balance.

Adding to the view, Tan Ai-lin, senior creative director at Wunderman Thompson said that while men can create good advertisements for women and vice versa, it is varying perspectives which become the secret sauce to great pieces of content and communication - that resonate with communities.

However, since there are generally more men in advertising, she acknowledged that the likelihood of men creating advertisements for women and women’s products will be higher.

Why are we losing women in the creative ad industry?

Tan also highlighted that while there are definitely now more women creatives in agencies, often they don’t hold senior positions due to a range of reasons ranging from difficulty in climbing the career ladder to choosing their family over their profession.

In Southeast Asia, this is particularly prevalent given women are generally the primary caregivers to children and aged parents at home, requiring them to devote a lot of time to looking after their charges. Faced with these time-intensive commitments, she explained that women often need to sacrifice their careers. “As hours are typically long in advertising, we see many women choosing either to take a permanent break, go the freelance route, or take lesser roles that don’t require such demanding hours,” Tan explained.

Consequently, the advertising industry is experiencing a bleed in female talent. According to Goh Shufen, co-founder and principal at R3, women are leaving the advertising industry because of a lack of flexibility and support in the workplace.

Rather than a lack of opportunity for progression, the industry often does not afford women the flexibility to concurrently accommodate their responsibilities at work and at home.

“Economics aside, sometimes what a person needs is time and mental and emotional space to manage life’s commitments,” she said.

Progress is on-going

TBWA’s Wong also added that there has been progress in the industry over the past 10 to 15 years with greater representation of women in leadership positions across the region. Echoing her sentiments, the Women in Governance survey also found that 71% of women agreed that they are provided with a clear pathway to leadership roles.

One example of how progress can be made, is through mentorship, agreed industry players in the room. For example, 82% of respondents on R3’s Women in Governance survey expressed that mentorship should be included in programmes to empower women leaders.

“There is always more that can be done to push forward to open pathways and create pipelines for future generations of female leadership to grow and develop,” Wong said.

What can the marketing industry do to influence change?

In markets such as the US, often marketers are demanding diversity from their agency partners, not just in gender, but also in ethnic representation.

For example, McDonald’s pledged in 2021 to accelerate its US investments in diverse-owned media companies, production houses, and content creators. In particular, it sought to more than double its advertising spend in Black, Hispanic, Asian Pacific American, women, and LGBTQ-owned platforms from 2021 to 2024. Spend with Black-owned properties, specifically, was set to increase from 2% to 5% of national advertising spend over the same period.

Foo Siew Ting, global head of brand and insights at global technology company, HP, also said that Key Performance Indicators for gender representation in agencies and partners a brand chooses to work with can be a way to enforce change. She added that having diversity in leadership is important for fair representation and better helps to reflect the customers that brands are talking to.

She emphasised that having cross-cultural truth through diversity within agencies is critical to get underneath the human insight. Only through these diverse voices can a brand bring alive its marketing craft, she added.

Aside from the choice of partners and collaborators, brands can also create work that drives the diversity of voices. Foo cited a past project that amplified the experiences of a Japanese woman returning to work, challenging stereotypes in Japan. Works that represent women embracing their full potential should be championed, she said.

On the consultancy front, Goh added that revised standard requirements to include agency ethnicity and gender ratios is also recommended. At their discretion, some marketers even take these requirements further by turning Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) initiatives into a defined KPI. These measures serve to ensure that marketers select agencies that have fair hiring and people management practices.

Related articles:
Hard to believe, but study says women in SG are trailing behind in digital marketing
How can agency leads promote gender diversity among adland creatives?
Study: As brands champion gender representation, male voices still lead ad narratives  


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