NEW YORK For those attending the now-infamous Oct. 6 Neil French event in Toronto, their first glimpse of the setting might have suggested what was about to transpire: The stage of the John Bassett Theatre was set up as a kind of Canadian hunting cabin, complete with a stuffed beaver, moose antlers, oil lamps, duck decoys—the kind of place where men will be men, and French's maid, with long legs, tiny skirt and a subservient lace apron, knew when to serve them more drinks.
Astonishingly, this scene was underwritten, in part, by Ogilvy & Mather, one of the sponsors of the evening and the agency where French became worldwide creative director in 1997 before taking on a larger global role with Ogilvy parent WPP Group in 2002.
As is well-known now, the chummy session, which included Rick Boyko, former creative director of Ogilvy in New York, would alienate some in the audience that night, when French explained that there aren't more female creative directors because they're "crap." (Two global WPP agencies, Ogilvy & Mather and Young & Rubicam, however, have female CEOs.)
French resigned last week after the incident, though he stands by his remarks, which were in response to a question from an audience member. (Even in apparent retreat, French was true to his bombastic reputation, saying he didn't want WPP and CEO Martin Sorrell—who he described as the "little chap" and "poor devil"—to be burdened with the controversy surrounding his remarks.)
While WPP had previously trumpeted French's accomplishments, it distanced itself last week, characterizing him as a part-time consultant. The Internet and the general media have sizzled over French's non-PC stance all last week, but it took WPP until last Friday to disavow his view as being "inconsistent" with company policy in a statement it issued.
Still, industry observers welcomed French's unleashing of another round of debate about sexism in advertising. Despite his delivery, the reality is that there is still a glass ceiling for women in the business, in particular in the creative departments.
"It's a very complicated subject," said Joyce King Thomas, chief creative officer of McCann Erickson, New York. "There is still sexism in the business, [in part] because the popular voice of advertising is masculine. The most-awarded voice is masculine. Men, at one point, had the purchasing power and it evolved that men spoke to men."
Although the creative ranks are becoming more gender-balanced, of the 33 nationally ranked agencies, only four have women running the creative departments of flagship offices: IPG's McCann (King Thomas) and Deutsch (Kathy Delaney); Publicis' Leo Burnett (Cheryl Berman) and The Kaplan Thaler Group (Linda Kaplan Thaler).
Women are also scarce when it comes to recognition. This week, Diane Rothschild will be the fourth woman inducted into The One Club Hall of Fame since its inception in 1961, and the first female since 1974, when it honored Shirley Polykoff. The latter also holds the dubious distinction of being the only woman of 49 people inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame.
But those numbers are "a reflection of the reality of the industry, not the [clubs]," Rothschild said last week.
Many industry executives consider French a dinosaur in today's business world, but said he unwittingly shined a spotlight on a recurring issue that still needs to be addressed.
Some say (as French did, albeit crudely) that women are more tethered by the demands of child-rearing than men, and that's what holds them back.
Others, such as Marcio Moreira, a former worldwide creative director who now runs HR for McCann, said women are rising in creative departments at a pace consistent with changing social mores. Twenty-five years ago, when women married or gave birth, "they dropped the job," and co-workers expected as much, he said. Now, companies are working to accommodate the needs of employees with children, he said.
Boyko is a close friend of French's and was onstage during his comments. He described the incident as "Neil doing what he does," but as the father of three daughters, Boyko remains concerned about the lack of female creative leaders and of ethnic diversity in the industry. "Neil's answer may have been inappropriate," he said, "but in the end, the problem is there."
He expressed optimism that the situation may get better based on the number of women who enrolled this year at VCU Adcenter, where he is managing director. Boyko said 49 percent of the students this year are women.
Deutsch chairman Donny Deutsch said that the reason so few women ascend in the creative ranks is very simple: "There's still a lot of sexism in advertising." If agencies would just "run meritocracies, everything will take care of itself," he said.
Berman agreed, saying many shops simply aren't willing to give women as much of a chance as they do men. "The whole business needs to look at itself," she said. "Women are making 85 percent of all purchase decisions. I'm finding more of our clients are women. I think the agencies are behind on this."
King Thomas, 49, who succeeded Nina DiSesa as chief creative of McCann New York last year, has two teenagers and returned to work just weeks after each one's birth. She said many agencies are already meritocracies, pointing out that women make up more than 40 percent of her department. She got the top job after 10 years at the agency, she said, because "I worked my ass off."
Carol Evans, board president of Advertising Women of New York, said the organization is analyzing a survey it conducted of 1,000 ad professionals regarding all of these issues because the AWNY still sees "major barriers in our industry for women getting ahead and for mothers getting ahead."
"The creative area is very tough, and it's been very tough," Evans said. "I don't know why that is, but I know that it's not because of talent."
Ann Hayden, worldwide cd on General Mills at Publicis' Saatchi & Saatchi in New York, was one of just four female judges among 20 on the Cannes film jury this year. Yet she was encouraged by the diversity of the approaches that won awards. "That ad-guy sensibility," which she described as a masculine tonality, is "not there in the same way it used to be."
The silver lining of French's comments is that it "forces people to talk about stuff like this," she said. After 20 years in the industry, "you get tired of talking about it, but it's important."
—with Adweek staff reports