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MAD MEN Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss)

It's 2010. Do you know where your female advertising executives are?

Tonight, Advertising Week will wrap up with a hot gala fundraiser hosted by the networking organization Ad Women of Toronto (AWT). While their goal for the event is admirable - support of the volunteer group Dress for Success - I can't help but think it's sort of dispiriting that the organization exists.

Every so often, a friend will ask me what the industry is like; almost invariably, what they really mean is that they want to hear stories about contemporary Mad Men. That's absurd, of course: Ask any industry veteran and they'll tell you those days are long gone. But if the racism, homophobia, and heavy drinking has been banished, we're still dealing with another hangover of that era.

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Born only last year, AWT was inspired by Ad Women of New York, which was founded in 1912 - eight years before an amendment to the U.S. Constitution officially enshrined female suffrage. And yet here we are, still creating new organizations to deal with the fact that the industry has an uneven playing field.

To be sure, it's hard to get a clear picture of the place of women in advertising. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that of 426,200 people employed in the broad category of advertising as of June, 2009, 56 per cent were women. The split was similar in agencies themselves, where 54.2 per cent of the 167,300 employees were female. Numbers from Statistics Canada suggest the gender split north of the border is roughly even.

But neither country seems to have hard numbers on the seniority levels of women, nor on their roles within the organizations, and anecdotal evidence continues to point to an industry where female executives have not made the sort of strides we should expect. The bulk are in client service rather than leading creative positions or heading agencies.

This is why it's a problem for the industry, and for any marketing company: Roughly 70 per cent of household spending is driven by women. The raison d'être of the advertising industry is to sell products, services and ideas: Wouldn't you think having women in positions of power, who are intuitively equipped to understand female consumers on a level that's deeper than any research can convey, would be the sine qua non of that undertaking?

On Wednesday, only minutes after Apple unveiled its iPad, women took to Twitter and elsewhere to complain about the tone-deaf nature of the name, saying it reminded them of sanitary napkins. Others quickly noted the lack of women on Apple's management team.

"As in most other businesses, when you get to the more senior ranks, you really see something's going on that's just not a level playing field with the men," says Nancy Vonk, the co-chief creative officer (with her long-time partner, Janet Kestin) at the Toronto office of Ogilvy & Mather.

While Ms. Vonk says she's seeing an encouraging mass of women at schools and in the junior ranks of agencies, "nothing much has changed in my career. As far as numbers go of women at the very top, that's not moving.

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"Business was created by men for men," she adds. "There's no big conspiracy against women or anything, but businesses weren't created for the success of women."

In the fall of 2005, Ms. Vonk was in the audience when Neil French, the worldwide creative director of Ogilvy's parent, WPP Group PLC, declared during a speech in Toronto that women had only themselves to blame for their lack of advancement because motherly duties too often took precedence.

Many women said Mr. French did them all a favour by articulating a belief that quietly lingers in the executive suites and still influences decisions.

"There was sexism I ran into in my career that I didn't even know what it was at the time because I always assumed it's a thing of the past and it isn't," agreed Karen Howe, senior vice-president and creative director of Due North Communications in Toronto. While she insists things are getting better (she notes that about three-quarters of Due North's management team are women), "I recalled being told overtly that I was not being considered for a promotion because they figured I was at child-bearing age and I was going to be running off and having kids."

Grace Kong is bumping up against that perception now. An art director with experience at the Toronto offices of Ogilvy & Mather, Bates and Saatchi & Saatchi, she took a break from the industry at the end of 2006 to give birth to twins. Now, aiming to get back in the game at full throttle, she has been knocking on doors lately but not hearing much encouraging news. And while this may be in part because of the parlous state of the industry, she suspects there's another dynamic at play.

Art directors work in partnerships with copywriters, many of whom are men. "I've had male writers say, 'I'm not looking for a female partner,'" she says.

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Justin Kingsley, an executive with Montreal-based agency bleublancrouge, said: "I hate Mad Men because it reminds me of some of the things I see in the agency world. It's not a big stretch of the imagination." (He stressed that he was not referring to his current workplace.)

"If you only have one profile of person running companies whose mandate it is to reach all profiles of people, how can you be truly representative?" Mr. Kingsley asked. "I'm not trying to say you need a woman to talk to a woman, you need an Asian man to talk to an Asian man. But at the same time, the more profiles there are on any given team, the stronger that team is," he added.

"If you look and all you have is guys who play golf and drive the same car and go to the same clubs, are you being as productive and strategic as you can be?"

To be sure, some of the sexism comes from clients: about a decade ago, Ms. Howe recalls being told by a client at a large brewery that he didn't want women to work on the account because he didn't believe they understood beer.

Lori Senecal is a Canadian-born executive whose career has been spent mainly in the United States. Last summer, she was recruited from her position as head of McCann-Erickson's New York office, in part by the promise of having her name on the door at the newly rechristened Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners in New York.

She says it's the role of any creative person to understand others' experiences: Great ads for women can come from men, and vice versa. And with the industry upheaval, there's no telling who will be calling the shots a few years from now.

"Over the past decade, I've seen an increasing number of women executives that have come up through the ranks," Ms. Senecal said. "I really believe there's probably no better time than right now. Any time an industry is experiencing a high degree of change, it represents an opportunity. It's a whole new ball game. It's anyone's race."

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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