Female leaders in advertising are more important than ever

Harpers Bazaar editorial feature marks our 100th year

The Women in Advertising and Communications Leadership group is advocating for gender parity at the highest echelons of the industry, hoping to change not just the way we consume – but the way we think and behave.

The detective novelist Dorothy L Sayers had a day job as an advertising copywriter. In 1937, she wrote an essay, titled ‘The Psychology of Advertising’, in which she explained what an advertiser needed to do, in order to be successful. “In a few hundred words, or perhaps in as few as fifty, he must arrest attention, hold interest, persuade,” she explained. “Every word must pull its weight and the smallest error is an expensive disaster.”

Sayers’ insight into the complex art of persuasive communication still stands – though today, the advertising industry is well on its way to shrugging off the ‘Mad Men’ reputation it had in Sayers’ time.

According to the Women in Advertising and Communications Leadership (WACL) association, which celebrates its centenary this year, 70 per cent of junior to manager positions in the sector are now filled by women; however, this dwindles to 37.5 per cent at C-suite level. To correct this imbalance, the group is campaigning to achieve gender parity in CEO roles by 2045 – an ambitious target that its most recent president, Rania Robinson, the CEO of Quiet Storm Advertising, believes is the key to accelerating progress. “We want women in the top jobs where they can have the most significant systemic impact,” she says.

Robinson says that the first step towards meeting WACL’s target is persuading companies to report on their progress (or lack thereof) more honestly. “Some are massaging their figures to paint a good picture,” she warns, pointing out that even the 37.5 per cent statistic may be an overestimate, given that some of the women included are non-executive directors with portfolio careers, who are therefore being counted multiple times. “A lack of transparency doesn’t help anyone, because actually, more equal representation delivers great business.”

“We want women in the top jobs where they can have the most significant systemic impact”

WACL has identified five ‘levers’ necessary for change, including updating the language of leadership, promoting for potential rather than experience, supporting female employees through health challenges, enabling flexible working and better representing women in advertising and media. This last area is a priority for the incoming president Nishma Robb, Google’s director of brand and reputation marketing, who is championing the group’s ‘Represent Me’ campaign. Featuring diverse faces and voices in adverts matters because, as Robb says, it “shapes the way we think, feel and dream as a society”, as well as driving economic benefits: women account for 80 per cent of purchasing decisions, so it makes commercial sense to ensure they see themselves reflected in marketing materials.

A century on from WACL’s establishment, there is more change on the horizon, with a proliferation of new media and the rise of generative AI – a development reflected in the group’s centenary shoot, which showcases eight female industry pioneers alongside an AI figure. For Robb, such cutting-edge technologies offer the potential to transform the communications sector for the better, by accelerating the automation of mundane tasks and leaving more time and space for creativity. “I hope it will enable us to reach more diverse communities with a wider range of niches or interests,” she says.

“If we want to improve the world, it is vital to have women in every place where there is power”

The industry’s embrace of modern technology illustrates just one of the ways in which it is, as it has always been, at the vanguard of social change. Hence the motivation for the eminent barrister Helena Kennedy to join WACL as a patron in honour of its 100th anniversary. “I believe that if we want to improve the world, it is vital to have women in every place where there is power. That has been at the heart of my own campaigns to get women of all backgrounds into senior positions in the judiciary, in legal practice, in international forums and into politics,” she explains. “The power of advertising and communication is huge – it affects societal attitudes and can perpetuate myths and stereotypes, influencing how men see women and how women perceive themselves.”

In this context, Sayers’ assertion in that 1937 essay that ‘every word must pull its weight’ takes on rather more significance. A well-written slogan can shift products from the shelves, certainly – but with the right thought behind it, it can also shift the way we think and behave. WACL’s role in challenging the old regime is therefore about far more than internal politics; rather, it is about ensuring that women occupy the place in society they deserve.

Portrait (top), patrons and members of WACL, left to right: Kate Mosse, novelist; Carol Reay, independent director, Quiet Storm; Helena Kennedy, barrister; Rania Robinson, CEO, Quiet Storm; Jackie Stevenson, chief growth officer, EMEA IPG; Oti Mabuse, broadcaster, TV personality and dancer; Nishma Patel Robb, senior director, marketing, Google UK; Kate Waters, director of client strategy and planning, ITV.

Watch the behind the scenes video too on HarpersBazaar.com

This article, written by Frances Hedges, appeared in the September issue of Harpers Bazaar and online on August 3rd 2023.

About the author

Lori Meakin
Lori Meakin
Founder & Chief Executive Office
The Others & Me; Author of No More Menemies

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