They don’t make Mad Men like they used to…

… but grey suits still abound, writes Frances Valerie Bonifacio, director of strategy at Serviceplan Group Middle East

Unfortunately, top men in advertising these days are a lot less chauvinistic and self-absorbed than they used to be. Gone are the Mad Men days of pompous egos and flannel suits, of dry witticisms and cynical arrogance oozing from the Roger Sterlings and the Don Drapers of this world. Instead, we see ad men strutting around with undeniable charisma and sensible charms, making it all the more difficult for women to break the proverbial glass ceiling as men continue to dominate the industry’s ruling seats.

Indeed, there is much talk about gender diversity in advertising, about empowering women to take control of the helms; but, truth is, there is hardly any effort and scarcely any evidence of progress in this topic. Women continue to be relegated to positions – albeit high enough in the corporate ladder – still subordinate to male leadership. It is as if women have the power to create, to curate, to cast visions and to launch the brightest of ideas, but men must have the final signature that seals the deal on the much-coveted dotted lines.

If anything, it’s a classic fairy tale retold in the language of today’s social world. The knights in shining armour go out to conquer the lands, while the all too capable damsels are left “protected” within the castle walls, abuzz with their crafts but far from the battles that make and break kings and fiefdoms.

Top roles in advertising are no different. You see a throng of men charging into client boardrooms, flanked by a handful of women who will eventually find themselves positioned a few seats down the round as the men embark on their pitch rhetoric. At the end of the session, you would have heard much from the men, but very little from the women, who are merely there to hold the fort, to ensure that all of the client’s feedback and verbatim comments are taken into full account and addressed in painstaking detail back on the drawing boards.

Whether we like it or not, we must admit that such is the blatant and pathetic case still running the rounds in client and agency boardrooms these days. I should know; and I can definitely recount those pivotal instances when I would get quizzical stares from both men and women across the room as I would take control of a front seat, and later engage the audience with a piece of my mind.

While I would see my audience eventually warming up in the end, I would often leave such boardrooms with a desolate feeling inside.

For the rest of the crew, the battle is definitely centred on getting the agency’s product and ideas bought, but for a woman like me the battle is to get heard and taken seriously in the first place. Again, it doesn’t help that the men in my team are sensible and charismatic in their own right, effortlessly winning clients with a genuine passion for their craft. My battle is psychological.

If we are to truly take women’s empowerment in advertising seriously, I say it should start with a change of perspective, both within agency ranks and within client circles. Ad agencies should start recognising that the industry is now being shaped by the amount of relevant creative content our highly social, always-on audiences are clamouring for.

Women are the best creators of such content. They are insightful bloggers, they write a whole lot and articulate themselves well. They are a lot more engaged, creating and curating content, and interacting with other created and curated content. Advertising today is no longer about pushing out ads in a Mad Men fashion; it is
a lot more about how content is effortlessly crafted and where content is seamlessly served to which audiences.

Women are natural at this, so much so that agencies who recognise that advertising has shifted from ad views to content consumption are those that would eventually put women at the helm, knowing that women are at home in such a habitat.

Clients should look beyond Mad Men charms and start recognising high-heeled substance. Women are creators in as much as they are orators. They too can brandish flags as they charge on to battle in the front lines. If at all, they are quick to make critical decisions on the fly.

In this region’s game of thrones, I believe women in advertising are being defined less and less by the titles they wield, but more and more by the weight of their more substantial words in a boardroom full of grey suits.