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Redrawing the lines

The founders of SheSays Dubai tell Eleanor Dickinson why it’s time for adland to have its own chat about ‘locker room banter’.

I remember once going into a room with two guys I was leading and the manager of the company walked straight past me and shook their hands,” says Elizabeth Dewar, of an especially awkward client meeting. “This was even though it was me who had been communicating on email, so he should have been looking for a woman. It actually happened to me twice with the same company. It goes to show you just how much people listen,” she adds, grimacing slightly.

Dewar, a creative at Ogilvy Dubai, is sitting opposite me in Vapiano, Media City, late after office hours. Beside her is Amelia Richardson-Smith, senior account manager at branding agency StartJG. And next to me is former art director Dina Faour, who has long-since swapped adland for academia and now teaches advertising at the American University in Dubai. Together they have set up SheSays Dubai, part of a global network aimed at empowering women in creative disciplines to reach their potential; empowering them to become leaders in an industry and region where the upper echelons remain the preserve of men; and empowering them to deal with the kind attitudes and behaviour one would expect to see on Mad Men and not in a 21st-century agency.

“One of things our industry is bad with is that you need to have these jokes and this ‘banter’. And you need these conversations because that’s how you find these lines, these visuals,” Dewar explains. “And sometimes it’s hard to know where the boundary is; I don’t know where it is. What I do know is there have been situations that have been uncomfortable when the line is crossed, but then the line changes all the time.”

The advertising industry is well known for thriving in a swirl of furious brainstorming sessions, long working weeks and early hours pitch presentations. It’s an environment that puts people together in small rooms for long, intense periods for which the remedy is most often take-out food and a healthy injection of humour. But when those office-cool barriers break down, so too can the boundaries of appropriateness. Faour remembers a particularly lewd incident at her former Dubai agency that resulted in a young Emirati intern hiding under the table.

“It’s an environment where it’s not always easy to stay professional,” she admits. “People spend a lot of time together; they’re brainstorming, they want to say whatever they want – but then sometimes it gets a little bit weird. Advertising is not an excuse, but it’s an industry of freedom and it’s so difficult to ask everyone to be politically correct all the time.”

Richardson-Smith says even she has been subject to inappropriate comments in meetings. She adds: “There is a bit of a grey area. When guys get together, especially in advertising, there’s a lot of banter, a lot of back-and-forth. And don’t get me wrong, the girls do get involved, but between men and women – whatever industry you’re in – there’s always a line.”

No period in 2016 has called this line into question quite like the recent furore surrounding Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. It was only weeks ago that his grotesque remarks detailing how his celebrity position allowed him to “do anything” to women resurfaced from 2005. Appalling as his now-infamous comments were, perhaps what was more shocking was his line of defence dismissing the comments as just ‘locker room talk’. In other words, testosterone-driven machismo that is the by-product of energetic, male-dominated scenarios, including, traditionally, the advertising industry.

But the days of male-only agencies are long past; a leaf through the pages of Campaign’s recent Graduate issue reveals an abundance of young female talent in the Middle East. At StartJG, all of Richardson-Smith’s client-servicing team are women, and there are twice as many female creatives at Ogilvy as when Dewar started four years ago. And one need look no further than Faour’s classroom, which is almost universally female, for a glimpse into the industry’s future. But as Dewar points out, none of the female creatives in her department is in a senior management position. And therein lies another boundary shift. Given the regional industry’s overwhelming male presence at upper and senior levels, what happens when the inappropriate comment comes from your boss?

Though Richardson-Smith feels she has reached a level of confidence to “stand up, turn around and ‘say that’s not OK’” when it comes to unpalatable behaviour, for young junior executives it can become a deeply damaging experience. “When you are in a position or when you are seen or held in high regard in someone’s eye, you influence a lot of people,” she says. “If an [account] executive said such-and-such about someone in the office, it may or may not get brushed under the rug, but if it comes from senior management you are a role model to a lot of these people. You can’t be saying things like that because people learn from you.”

“If there’s a female executive fresh out of university and someone says something
really inappropriate to her, that’s not OK
because you are going to make her very uncomfortable. That’s going to set the scene that she has to respect this man and deal with this situation. And I have been in that situation quite a few times.”

But when the incident involves a client, however, things admittedly become much more complex. Though Richardson-Smith says she would raise concerns “internally” if such incidents repeated themselves, but unsurprisingly would not publicly call them out. But if the other, more senior men, join in and laugh, it becomes a “double blow”.

And that’s the mentality that needs to end throughout the industry’s upper ranks, adds Dewar. “Role plays a huge part in what you should communicate. There’s a difference between playing a joke and using your position in a way that can be construed as trying to dominate a situation,” she says.

“But society is done with, for example, the ‘Trump thing’. Society’s rebuttal to that was a big hit. Some of America’s top sportsmen saying that’s not locker room banter was a big rejection of it. That was a bunch of very influential men. And my advice to all men in the industry would be to be like that hashtag [#NotInMyLockerRoom].

“If someone says something to another woman in the room, it doesn’t help anyone if you go home and tell your girlfriend you didn’t like it. You say it in the room, you draw the lines for other men and you will be much more respected.”

She adds: “When someone else of the same gender says, ‘Hey, that joke wasn’t funny and I’m the same gender as you,’ it really changes the tone. It makes
it different.”

For all three SheSays founders, changing the tone isn’t just key to improving women’s lives within an agency, but crucial for saving the industry from itself. Faour may teach classes composed almost entirely of women, but, as she admits, none of them wants to work in an agency. Either freelancing or setting up their own enterprises appeal more to them due to a number of factors, agency culture among them.

And this is how Dewar, Richardson-Smith and Faour hope SheSays will make a difference: far from intending to attack the industry’s men, the founders instead hope to encourage the few senior women to use their experiences and inspire the next generation.

“If we can inspire one person to think, ‘Cool; I’m going to fight for that,’ or if the women in senior management become mentors then they become part of the process of educating and helping, and then that gets transferred into the work place,” says Richardson-Smith.

“I don’t care if there’s just, say, 11 women in the Middle East in senior management who turn up and help,” adds Dewar.  “Because without them being the voice, it feels like we’re going to be tailing behind. Whereas if it is them who are leading the way, leading the conversation, we are going to take leaps ahead. And we have got a lot of catching up, so they had better hurry up.”