The Blog

Seeing the World a Woman's Way

Time and again, the creative industries have tried to encourage more women to join but nothing sticks because there are, in all honesty, deep-rooted institutional factors repelling them. Charity has three practical steps she suggests can help:

Female sensibilities are the future of advertising and the sooner we embrace this, the better off we'll all be.

The way a woman's eyelid closes is bewitching. It shuts with a slight horizontal movement rather than a sharp vertical movement. It's probably something you think you've seen a million times before, and you probably have. But have you really seen it? Have you really recognized and registered exactly how it happens rather than how the world has been showing you, over and over again, how it happens.

Female film directors and female creative directors tend to notice these things; they observe these tiny, telling things and bring them to our attention, especially in their creation of short-form content.

I recently spoke with Charity Charity, who is Group Creative Director across all titles at Hearst magazines in the UK and co-founder of an innovative agency called the Ideas Motel. We chatted about an advertising awards evening that had been held the night before, and agreed that amongst the best work awarded was the BA's 'the magic of flying' campaign created by Ogilvy. The conversation was revealing because the BA campaign had been bough to life by a female creative and a female director.

According to Charity, during the creative process there was a debate over the age of the small child used in the ad. The anecdote goes that the director, Patricia Murphy, was adamant that the little boy needed to be as young as two years old. Now, anyone in advertising knows that this is fraught with tension, anxiety and extra shooting costs because a little boy that young can't easily take direction, perform to camera and possibly can't even balance himself whilst standing up. On the other hand, a boy of say six or seven years who could fulfill that brief, does not express the same kind of wonder about the world around him; he's just that little bit more knowing and more wise and therefore less authentic in the role that this campaign was asking him to play. The end result of using a smaller child is a more engaging, more spontaneous, more charming work of art than the alternative. If your aim is to connect with people at a human level, this is the stuff that is essential and never replicable.

That is why female sensibilities, whether they be about eyelids, or two year olds, or any other manner of life's incidentals, are paramount in the job of communications. So, where are all the women in the creative industries? Why are only 3% of those responsible for creating this world of communications, women?

Nowhere is this more of an anathema than on the front covers of magazines. We won't have noticed this but we always see a woman's face staring out at us from a press title. As Charity says 'women are the sex that is looked at. Male faces don't go on the cover, men are the ones looking, not being looked at'. And this is true. For decades we have been presented with an advertising world view of women seen through the eyes of men. It is commonplace for advertising to depict a woman presenting herself to camera, in a very knowing way adjusting herself to the way she wants to be seen, resulting in either one of only two possible expressions: simpering, or coy. Men often depict women like this because they themselves think this is how women present themselves to the world, rather than how a woman really is.

Charity showed me a host of ads from the 1940's and 1950's that depicted women living full, rich, interesting lives in amongst which a product or brand played a role. These women weren't dependent upon these products for their daily happiness; they were already happy and then they chose these products to enhance their lives even more. She then contrasted this with some advertising examples from the 1970's depicting women using the advertised products but in ways in which the woman was either isolated or alone, with the brand held up as the heroic savior to her life of drudgery, servitude or undesirability. "What kind of life would she be living if she didn't have this solution to make her happy?", seems to be the implication.

Without women behind the camera, or originating the creative idea, we will only ever be presented with one way of seeing the world. However, as Patricia Murphy's insistence on the two year old child demonstrated, there are other ways of seeing - what the two year old sees as opposed to what the seven year old sees, can literally be worlds apart.

So what are we to do?

Time and again, the creative industries have tried to encourage more women to join but nothing sticks because there are, in all honesty, deep-rooted institutional factors repelling them. Charity has three practical steps she suggests can help:

1. Experiment with female-only awards juries

Her idea is to create a woman-only awards jury. This experiment would therefore truly represent and award the kinds of communications that women found most motivating. It is true that hair and beauty categories are very rarely awarded in advertising; it's what makes Dove the singular exception. Work that is most often awarded tends to be related to sport, automotive, music and beer - categories of interest to men. It would be a pioneering experiment to put the work through a female jury and compare the results.

2. Change the culture and working conditions

The advertising industry is indeed industrious. People work late into the night, often over weekends, pitching is relentless and the creative development process often protracted and highly pressurised. But there is also part of the culture of agency life that demands, with futility, that one is seen to be working late into the night. Flexible working has helped a little, but there is still pressure on individuals not to be seen leaving the office at 5.30pm: those who do can be considered 'part-timers'. Contrast that with other areas of the creative industries such as publishing, where the proportion of females in senior management is higher. In those businesses it is much more accepted that whilst you might leave the office at 5.30pm - and many do - one goes home, has dinner and puts the children to bed, and then resumes work remotely from home later on in the evening. Or, one uses that time to feed the creative juices and refresh one's eye by going to the theatre, discovering new restaurants, attending concerts, book readings, art galleries, whatever it may be. It is a thoroughly essential practice to engage in the culture around you, if you want to preserve your creativity. And women like doing this. They like to develop broad interests and engage in culture in order to inspire themselves. The advantages of an agency adopting this kind of culture are obvious, as Charity says: 'this encourages more women: it tells them they are welcome, that there is a place for them here'.

3. Idea worship replaces ego worship

Much of the bitter competitiveness that emerges over who originated the idea can be off-putting to many women who would like to work in creative departments. Many prefer a more collaborative style of creative development, whereas the modus operandum of most agencies insists we adopt one of brutal competition. At the Ideas Motel, founded by Charity and Mark, briefs are worked on by virtual teams who do not know with whom they are in competition. When an idea is chosen by a client, to be progressed into a full campaign, that idea could be given to any of the teams in the network. Regardless of who originated the idea, those teams then work it up as if it where their own. The focus is on building up the quality of the idea, not building up an individual ego. In effect, one has dispensed with the creative department, in order to elevate creativity.

These ideas are could be seen as controversial but what choice does a creative industry have if it wants to reinvent itself and remain relevant to the next generation? It is high time that we saw more ways of seeing things, and that those ways were brought to us by women. Perhaps then we wouldn't have 70% of women around the world saying that they don't recognize themselves in any of the advertising they ever see.