Being The Change, Seeing The Change -- And Not Shutting Up

These days, ad people like to think that things are pretty gender-neutral in advertising city. It goes along the lines of “So stop your yapping about that whole gender gap-flap already. It hardly matters which bathroom you use. Just do the work. The work is all that counts.”

On the creative side, that’s a great motto for a very young work force. Many women will admit that it’s fun and even flattering to be a part of a happy, gender-fluid, youthy family at the office, enjoying midnight naps on bosses’ couches after 12-hour days, and calling in free pizza deliveries on the weekends.

Sure, it’s all fun and games until notorious biological time-keeper (and party pooper) Madame Uterus starts making her status updates known -- about 10 years in. Then the platters of stale mini-muffins and bagels at the office start to seem a lot less appealing. And things like access to reasonable maternity and paternity leave, workable hours, affordable child care and a decent home become actual issues, for both men and women.

Because this is not a female issue -- it’s a human one.

That’s also when it becomes clear the leadership model in many agencies, still loosely based on a 1950s' concept of a male wage earner with a wife at home, is painfully broken -- for everyone.

Even the perk of social engineering through egg freezing -- which I discussed last week -- doesn’t hold up as any sort of solution. Because you’re just kicking the whole work/life balance problem, like a can, down the road.

So other than moving to Sweden, a Valhalla of parental leave and free child care for life, what’s an ad person to do?

Enter “Darling, You Can’t Do Both: And Other Noise to Ignore on Your Way Up,” a book just published in the U.S., by Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk, the creative team behind the groundbreaking work on the Dove: Real Beauty campaign. They shared the title of Chief Creative Officer at Ogilvy/Toronto for 13 years. Just as they shared a "big job,” which allowed each one time for a family (sort of), their book is a gold mine of counterintuitive wisdom about how to have a life in advertising.

Indeed, Kestin and Vonk have walked the walk, backwards and in high heels, or stomping along in army boots -- whatever it took.

The premise of the book is that there are invisible (or not-so-invisible) rules of working that women need to retire in order to succeed in their jobs. Some of them seem really obvious and ancient at this point, like “You’re not worth as much as a man,” and “Be a pleaser. Say yes.”

But sadly, there is still a major wage gap for women, and a confidence gap as well, even among millennials. (The book mentions “second-generation gender bias.”)

The authors also recount what coaches and recruiters have told them: When women are suggested for big jobs, the women tend to hesitate, thinking that they have to tick off every box in order to qualify, while the men forge ahead, even if their experience covers 30% of the qualifications.

But the central whopper that needs to be stomped on is the notion alluded to in the title: “Big career or family: Pick one.”  Actually, the “Darling, You Can’t Do Both,” line is a direct quotation from Nancy’s boss, who, while offering her the top job some 20 years ago, added the caveat that she should not have children. (Meanwhile, he was a father of three.)

She is candid and brave enough to reveal in the book that she immediately went home and had a “revenge pregnancy.” Well, not really. She and her husband had been thinking about it. And she was getting into her late 30s.

In what followed, she discovered the last rule to be broken: “Ambition is a straight line to the top.”

“Darling” maintains that it’s not, and the Kestin/Vonk advice applies to both genders: “Consider ignoring the ladder. Take the lily pad approach instead. Jump from smaller to larger to smaller to much larger, according to the life you're reaching for.

Meanwhile, the line about not being able to do both was not the only dubious advice the authors got from well-meaning bosses.

Kestin tells the story of requesting to work on a beer account when she was a young copywriter. She was told by the account director: “You can no more understand beer than I can understand tampons.”

Somehow, without a sex change or a Ph.D. in beer, she managed to get on the account and write some work that sold, although she wasn’t allowed to be in the room to present it to the client.

In Vonk’s case, although she came across sexism during the course of her career, she managed to look the other way for a good long time. “I didn't feel a gender penalty, and sometimes, being female was a benefit. For instance, there are so few women in senior jobs in ad agency creative departments, I was frequently invited to be on awards show juries and to speak at events where I’d ‘represent the women.’ "

That was until 2005, when Neil French, the widely admired, Hemingway-esque, international creative director who previously had been something of a mentor to Vonk, went off the rails at an industry event in Toronto and announced, with venom in his voice, that "Women don't make it to the top because they don't deserve to. They're crap.” To put a fine point on it, he added, “They won’t commit. They’ll just run off and suckle something if you give them a chance.”

“I suddenly saw gender bias in a different light,” Vonk writes. “And I saw myself as part of the problem -- someone who had always turned a blind eye. I owned up to that when I wrote an essay online that challenged what was said that night. That piece got a lot of attention around the world. And although there was a great deal of support for the pushback, the many thousands of misogynistic comments within the 60,000 or so on the site where it was posted said a lot about how far we hadn’t come. “

French later complained of “death by Internet” and resigned from his job.

Are things better today? In some ways they are, because with all of the nonstop talk for women to “be the change,” people are forced to listen. (Think about the pushback that the CEO of Microsoft got for his advice to women to not ask for raises.)

More directly, One Club has initiated an annual Women’s Creative Leadership series (Full disclosure: I moderated a One Club panel this week with Vonk) and “The 3% Conference,” taking place next week in San Francisco, (named for the shameful percentage of female creative directors.) According to the latest figures available, it should actually be renamed “The 11% Conference.”

Is that progress? Well, it’s gonna take a whole lot more attention to “You can’t be the change until you see the change” from everyone. Even the sometime sucklers.

Actually, I like what Elizabeth Warren has to say about the gender disparity in the Senate, and the need for female role models: “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.” 

13 comments about "Being The Change, Seeing The Change -- And Not Shutting Up".
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  1. Anne Ross from Anne H Ross Executive Search, October 23, 2014 at 10:18 p.m.

    Be the change--absolutely. And never shut up. (You know I don't!)

  2. Gerard Corbett from Redphlag LLC, October 23, 2014 at 10:23 p.m.

    Well said! But that said, the gender issue is a large one. And it goes from C to shining Z. It is particularly evident in Sillycon Valley where the diversity numbers are abominable. Unless and until the masses protest with their wallets and ballots, nothing will change.

  3. Barbara Lippert from, October 23, 2014 at 10:30 p.m.

    Very true about Silicon Valley, Gerard.

  4. Jo Duran from BOM, October 23, 2014 at 10:53 p.m.

    Women in the biz spend little to no time investing in each other/mentoring. That's also bad. When I started in the biz, I had a woman for a boss. She was the one and only boss who said, "I'm going to teach you everything I know. You've got to be good and you've got to want my job." One mentor is better than none. Men mentor each other right off and more often. Come on ladies!

  5. Barbara Lippert from, October 23, 2014 at 11:13 p.m.

    yes, Jo-- that's also mentioned in the book. Women have to help other women. Mentoring is key.

  6. Jo Duran from BOM, October 23, 2014 at 11:37 p.m.

    Mentoring has a positive domino effect that benefits everyone and it would be amazing to have an ad agency designed for such mentoring. I've heard there is a newspaper in Keene, NH designed/structured to mentor their reports with the purpose of launching their careers in the right direction. Every business should try it.

  7. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, October 24, 2014 at 8:28 a.m.

    Advertising was one of the first businesses that women truly succeeded in, bigtime. The copy chief of the most breakthrough agency of the post war (II, of course) years, DDB, was a woman. During its true halcyon days (to be halcyon it had to be a long time ago), a woman co-ran J Walter Thompson. The first agency to profitably go public, go private, and eventually sell at a great price to a holding company was Wells, run by Wells. The copywriter of the headline of the century (20th) "Lemon" was a woman, Rita Selden. I could go on and with listings, but have to go make breakfast.

  8. Barbara Lippert from, October 24, 2014 at 9:08 a.m.

    Tom--that is true. Mary Wells was sui generis. And in most of the other cases, it was ONE leading woman (or maybe two) at the agency at the time.

  9. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, October 24, 2014 at 12:22 p.m.

    That is true, too. When we (our agency) was listed in Crain's business's top 20 billing agencies, we were the only one with a woman in the nameplate. But, on the other, hand most of the men on doors in Crains's list were dead. Two weeks ago, the NY Times book review was so full of women's books reviewed by women authors that I hypothesized that in the future the Mary Anne Evans>>>George Eliot route might be taken in reverse by a male serious writer of fiction. A professor I knew told me to duck if I said that in public, but I haven't found that to be the case. Yet.

  10. George Parker from Parker Consultants, October 24, 2014 at 9:30 p.m.

    @Tom & Barbara... I was lucky enough to work with Mary. She had bigger balls than any man I've ever worked with. She could also turn on the feminine charm in spades. She was a pisser... And talking of feminine charm, layer that with a veneer of southern charm and you got Charlotte Beers. Another pisser... Then there's you, Barbara, but I know, you are too modest to talk about it.

  11. Jill Montaigne from Original Spark, October 24, 2014 at 9:51 p.m.

    As the former chair of AWNY's Impact Awards for five years, where senior women were asked to honor a significant mentor in the lives, they almost always selected a man. There were exceptions, but those were rare. Women need to feel obligated to help women coming up the ladder behind them. A small step we can take is to refuse to be the token woman on a conference or judging panel (giving tacit approval to an organization aiming to 'check the female box'). Insist other women be seated alongside you. It's small, yes, but incremental change is better than no change at all.

  12. John Grono from GAP Research, October 24, 2014 at 11:55 p.m.

    Barbara, one question. Do you think that when the female Apple employees retrieve their eggs in a decades time, that they will still be backwardly compatible and not need the latest version of the i-umbilical cord?

  13. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, October 25, 2014 at 11:09 a.m.

    I don't agree that any woman needs to "feel obligated to help women coming up behind them." That is, at its heart, a sexist notion. Defining sexism here as using someone's sex as an evaluation tool. If anyone is "obligated" to help someone, it would be to recognize competence and reward it. It is odd that Ms. Montaigne laments that women asked to name a mentor named a man instead of a woman (womentors, one might say if one was into that sort of thing). It must say something about the judgment of the man recognizing talent. As for me, I only had one woman mentor, but she taught me to read, write, add, and subtract and after that what else did I need?

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