Are Agencies Finally Ready to Confront the ‘Rot at the Top of the Industry’?

Diversity advocates hope we've reached a tipping point

The advertising industry's top women are done mincing words.

"A cancer" is how 4A's President Nancy Hill describes the agency world's lingering gender bias and racial insensitivity. 

"The industry has a huge diversity problem," says veteran creative Nancy Vonk.

There is "a rot at the top of the industry spreading and still spreading in the most appalling way, and that is what needs to be stopped in its tracks," says diversity advocate Cindy Gallop.

Their comments come not after the ouster of one major agency executive, but after the high-profile firings or resignations of no less than four top execs in 2016: Campbell-Ewald's Jim Palmer, JWT's Gustavo Martinez, RAPP U.S.' Alexei Orlov and, most recently, Saatchi & Saatchi's Kevin Roberts.

Roberts' resignation amid backlash over his dismissive comments about gender balance seems to be, for many in the industry, a tipping point that is forcing the industry to confront its homogeneity and stubbornly enduring chauvinism. 

So is the agency world truly ready to confront its own demons rather than dismissing each ham-tongued CEO's firing as an "isolated incident"?

Dragging the debate into the light

"I do believe I've seen that there has been a more concerted effort to root out all of the cancer and root it out faster, but it's going to take a while," said Hill, who as president of the 4A's represents the interests of agencies across America. "The dominant gender and skin color has been white male for the bulk of this industry's history."

There is also, diversity advocates believe, a benefit to having high-profile agency PR disasters like Saatchi chairman Kevin Roberts recently declaring that the gender debate is "over" and saying women are often more content with lower-ranking roles because they lack the "vertical ambition" of men.

This kind of incident sparks global debate and "makes it impossible to ignore that the industry has a huge diversity problem," says Vonk, who runs Toronto creative leadership consultancy Swim and previously served as creative chief for Ogilvy Toronto.

But even if the industry agrees that it has a problem, what can agencies do in the short term to address it?

How conversation may stave off crisis

If agencies can begin having candid, self-aware discussions about race and gender, it could prevent a disastrous moment of cringeworthy leadership.

Media training on the topic is, while not a solution to the core problem, at least one way of helping executives think more carefully about how they phrase their opinions in public and with their staff.

One female agency executive, who asked to remain anonymous, said she believes Saatchi's Roberts was largely pilloried because of how he phrased his comments (such as saying "the fucking debate is all over" when asked about gender balance), when he could have found a more reasoned way of explaining how agencies can rethink the way they help female employees with career advancement.

"I feel bad for Kevin," she said. "One of the main reasons I don't like to talk about it is that there's such a good chance that your words will be misconstrued."

In the end, she said, Saatchi's parent company had little choice but to disown Roberts, given the industry's ongoing reputation for insensitivity toward diversity issues.

"He could be a scapegoat, but Publicis can't afford to piss off so many clients and employees," the executive said. "What did JWT gain from backing Gustavo Martinez initially? Not a whole lot."

Media training or sensitivity training won't solve everything, though.

To Vonk and diversity watchdog Cindy Gallop, Roberts' ouster was less about poor phrasing than about a clear example of gender bias. The best solution, they argue, is to continue building more diverse leadership teams. 

"Kevin Roberts' belief that women don't have 'vertical ambition' is about ignorance, willful blindness and yes, gender bias," Vonk said. "And he's not unique—it's a view among many older white men at the top who aren't keeping up with the tour. These leaders will keep putting people that look like themselves into top jobs because that's their comfort level."

One of the agency world's best-known female leaders, 360i CEO Sarah Hofstetter, agrees: