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Women are making advertising funnier, smarter, and way less sexist

Carnival revellers participate in an afternoon parade in Ipanema neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro
Reuters/Jorge Silva
Writing their own jokes.
  • Cassie Werber
By Cassie Werber

Cassie writes about the world of work.

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Humor is a subtle weapon.

In sharing a joke, or laughing along with something we find amusing, few of us would imagine we’re using a weapon at all. But when you start digging into the ways in which opportunity gaps develop in creative and other industries, these moments—a shared joke; a person wondering silently why everyone else is laughing at something they find offensive—hold a power that’s all the more potent because it’s hard to pin down.

Christina Knight, creative director at Swedish agency The Amazing Society, has seen a lot of these moments over her 33 years in the advertising industry. She characterizes advertising as deeply proud of its cutting-edge status, and at the same time woefully slow to recognize the ways in which it’s stymied its own creative breadth by preventing a diversity of ideas being heard. Mad Men-era Madison Avenue–male-dominated, white, fueled by whisky and cigarettes and long hours—created the blueprint for the way advertising (and subsequently PR and marketing) developed, she says. Change has been achingly slow.

Knight has powerful memories of watching male colleagues share jokes, calling one another over to gather around a screen and gaffaw at some supposedly hilarious line or image. “I’ve been on the outer circle, and…thought: ‘What the hell is so funny?’” Knight says. “If I don’t laugh, then that means I have no sense of humor, and I’m obviously not creative, because I don’t understand what great creativity is all about.”

“I’ve been on the outer circle, and…thought: ‘What the hell is so funny?’”

Professionally, Knight is by no means part of an “outer circle.” Alongside her work as one of Sweden’s very few female creative directors—only about 15% of creative directors worldwide are female—she’s written two books on the role of women in the industry.

Advertising, PR, and marketing aren’t unique in being structured around white, male norms—since they entered the workplace en masse in the 1950s women have been running into similar problems across manifold careers that prohibit flexibility and reward gendered ways of being, looking, and even feeling. But ads, by their nature, are meant to appeal to diverse people. Some brands, like Verizon in the US, have begun to put pressure on ad agencies to hire teams that are more representative of the population they want to sell to—in part because that should make for better work, and in part, perhaps, to avoid catastrophic marketing missteps.

Ads, at their best, are meant to move us:  To find a way through the noise and into our hearts. Often they use humor, or emotion, or identification, to do so. But historically, they’ve done that from just one viewpoint.

By the numbers

Experiences like the one related by Knight haven’t kept enterprising, determined women—or people of color, or other minority groups—out of the industry. But what they have done, she suggests, is made them less comfortable, and pressured them to adapt to a curtailed, acceptable kind of creativity, in order to survive.

“I had to disassociate my mind from my gender and I think it was a loss.”

Colleen DeCourcy, co-president and chief creative officer at US agency Wieden + Kennedy, notes that in building her career, she tried to build an identity composed of her own tastes. But she also writes: “I didn’t sleep my way to the top. I smoked, drank, workaholic’d and off-colorjoked my way there. Talent and a good book weren’t enough. You had to have talent and be one of the boys.” Reflecting on the choices later in a company blog, she writes: “I had to disassociate my mind from my gender and I think it was a loss.”

When it comes to hard data, actually nailing down the discrimination women and people of minority groups suffer in creative industries is tricky. This year, Glassdoor, a company that collects employee-submitted pay data, broke down its annual report on the gender pay gap (pdf) by industry for the first time. It also crunched the numbers to create a like-for-like comparison that takes into account things like job title and seniority. Business services, a broad segment that includes advertising and plenty of other industries, had a 4.2% “adjusted pay gap,” Glassdoor found. Not as bad as some—both media and retail had 6.4% gaps—but not perfect.

The PR-focused Holmes Report surveyed over 5,500 PR professionals in North America in 2017, and found that white men made about 10% more money than white women. Non-white men were paid less again, and non-white women even less.

Neither pay nor leadership numbers address the disparity of opportunity—what jobs, accounts, or key pitches go to whom; whose ideas get listened to.

A large chunk of this pay disparity is down to a lack of women in leadership roles: The Holmes Report noted that while women make up 70% of the industry, they only accounted in 2015 for 30% of its CEOs. The report’s comparison of leadership at the US’s ten biggest agencies is instructive. Weber Shandwick and FleischmanHillard had more women than men in top leadership roles in both 2015 and 2017. Two firms, Ogilvy PR and Blue Focus, had no women at all in their top leadership teams in 2015. By 2017, that had dramatically changed, to 25% and 50% respectively.

But neither pay, nor leadership numbers, really address the disparity of opportunity—what jobs, accounts, or key pitches go to whom; whose ideas get listened to; whose work gets credit. For that, you need to hear what women are saying–and it’s not easy listening.

So sad so sexist

In April, the Guardian’s Rachel Cooke thoroughly examined sexism in advertising, finding numerous examples of egregious behavior, discrimination, downright assault, and cover-ups, often involving NDAs. There are plenty of good intentions, Cooke found, but diversity programs and women’s networks coexist with a culture that’s still built around long hours, and cultivating personal relationships: The kind of environment where laughing at the right jokes, and keeping quiet about off-key comments, is rewarded.

Cindy Gallop, who founded the US wing of international agency BBH and chaired its board, told Cooke she believes sexual assault is “systemic” in the advertising industry. She had hoped women would feel empowered to name and shame perpetuators of the industry’s worst aggressions in the wake of #MeToo wave. They didn’t. “No one will go on the record. The powerful men run everything, and [the victims] are scared shitless,” Gallop said.

Of course, women have long suffered both from exclusion and harassment, and from lower pay and status, across most industries. Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at Glassdoor, noted that as recently as his mother’s generation it was usual for job ads to target men and women separately. Some industries have been slower to change than others: Finance is often cited as being one of the industries with highest gender inequality.

But banks and financial advisors are beginning to realize they’re missing out on a huge market —potentially half of all adults—by only targeting their products at men. Advertisers are arguably missing out on an even bigger share: Forbes reported in 2018 that women are involved in as much as 80% of purchasing decisions. Agencies that employ more of them are more likely to hit the mark when it comes to working out what will sell, and what will turn potential customers off.

“The advertising industry has always patted itself on the back for being this modern, cutting edge, pioneering industry, but it’s one of the most conservative and male-dominated I know.”

There are meaningful efforts to change the structures that stops businesses diversifying. Ogilvy, the Holmes Report noted, was one of the firms to radically to readjust its leadership numbers. In 2015, the company’s global PR business was headed up by a four-person, all-male team. By 2017, that number had grown to 28, of which 14 were women. (The overarching Ogilvy site for all its businesses lists 32 leaders currently, ten of whom are female.) The change is part of wide-reaching reforms aimed at opening up opportunities to people who are not male, white, and from a certain social class, says Helen Matthews, chief people officer at Ogilvy UK.

When Michael Frohlich took over as Ogilvy UK’s CEO last year, one of his first actions was to start inviting about 15 different employees to breakfast every month, listening to their concerns and ideas. Matthews says that gender pay comes up every single month. In 2018, the UK enacted a law that requires all companies with over 250 staff to report its gender pay gap: Ogilvy’s mean gap was 21% in 2018 (pdf), mainly because of the preponderance of men in senior roles. That law, Matthews says, has likely had a part in the changes that are taking place, purely because of the focus it gives to the issue.

“I think there’s an energy and a commitment to changing and challenging ourselves and nurturing different voices,” she said.

The great joke shift

It’s “embarrassing,” says Christina Knight, that “the advertising industry has always patted itself on the back for being this modern, cutting edge, pioneering industry, but it’s one of the most conservative and male-dominated I know. It becomes ridiculous that we’ve been so slow. We like to think we’re innovative, but obviously we’re not when it comes to this.” Knight pointed to the 2014 “Like a Girl” campaign run by sanitary pad-maker Always as an award-winning example of the way in which stereotypes can be flipped to deliver a message about female power.

In the last six years, she says, she’s seen more of these shifts. When Knight’s first book, Mad Women, came out in 2013, she expected a backlash. The book contained interviews with a set of advertising’s most powerful women describing their journeys to success, and the difficulties they faced, in a conscious attempt to provide some role models for young female hopefuls. She was old enough, and had been around long enough, to “take the beating” she expected would result from raising her voice against an industry in which women were trained to stay silent and adapt. But the beating never came.

Brilliant female humor is becoming, if not the “norm,” then at least no longer niche.

Knight’s interpretation is that the book came at a moment when the industry was finally ready to hear its message. The #MeToo movement, which really caught momentum in 2017, is part of a wave of vocal, female-led protest of the status quo sweeping though industries and geographies. One part of that is a somewhat newfound freedom among women to be hilarious. It’s impossible to nail down a cultural moment, to say what changed what. But the last years have also seen a proliferation of high-profile female talent, especially in comedy: From Girls to Veep, Amy Schumer to Amy Poehler, brilliant female humor is becoming, if not the “norm,” then at least no longer niche.

Knight also quotes Cindy Gallop, and her assertion that “women question the status quo because we are never it.”

Since its inception, the ad industry has been telling women, “You are not the norm,” Knight says. “So if you’re going to be here at all, you’re going to have to adjust. You have to try and adjust your sense of humor, try and adjust to what is considered creativity.”

For years that oversight funneled the industry’s makeup, and its output, into one narrow channel. Perhaps the unforgivably gendered industry characterized by Cooke is at last in its endgame, struggling to throw off the past, and, finally, having to admit that no one group gets to tell the rest of the world what’s funny. 

Progress on the gender pay gap has been excruciatingly slow. Quartz is digging into the cultural and structural issues that make reaching gender pay parity harder in major industries. How does the big-picture impression of a field differ from women’s experience on the ground? Who is making progress, and how? Read our previous piece on law here. 

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