If Advertising Week 2019 offered a spyglass from which to scope out the state of our industry and the role of women in it, those who looked within discovered a complex picture. Serious issues remain, but our fight for fair representation continues with more drive than ever.
Panels and talks throughout the event carried banners such as "The Future is Female" and celebrated the "Fearless Female Voices Reshaping Media and Impacting the World.”
As in Cannes a few months before, the fight for women's representation in the industry joined ranks with calls for greater diversity and stronger brand purpose in advertising. These ideas have become as important to the core of our business as innovation in technology and media.
Most Advertising Week attendees, as well as many agency leaders and employees across the world, have a genuine interest in promoting these values and in encouraging a march forward toward their realization.
That's why — for many of us who followed the show through its ending, whether on the ground in New York City or watching from afar — the conclusion to the event was disappointing and demoralizing.
On the main stage, Pitbull (who now has literal stakes in the advertising world) put on a blundering performance that was immediately chastised online.
Full of outdated power dynamics, objectifying lyrics and gestures, it was a stark contradiction to many of the thoughtful discussions that had taken place in the days before about the role of women in advertising.
It brought the urgency of the issue back into focus.
Women, as well as minorities, deal with two critical issues of representation.
The first is our representation in the workforce — both in overall numbers and in positions of power.
The advertising world has been keen on improving these figures, and has succeeded best when discussions on equal pay and hiring practices are manifested in actual corporate policies.
In our own agency, changing attitudes encouraged us to be more aware and conscious of our own behaviors and biases. Over the past year and a half, our initiative helped us grow representation of ethnically diverse team members by 300%, and today our agency leadership is 70% female.
But the other kind of representation is that which can't be measured in numbers. It's how women and minorities are represented in advertising and media, and it involves the day-to-day creative communications work we do.
Panels, discussions, and even inclusive policies can do a lot of good — but as Pitbull's performance shows, what our industry puts out to represent itself can unmask more deep-set prejudices about how we view and represent women. These biases can only be overcome through a deliberate application of inclusive values to each and every touchpoint and program we produce and endorse.
As advertising professionals, we understand best the power of images and messaging to communicate culture and politics — and to influence people's perceptions of brands, products, and causes.
In this way, we should realize that everything we do — even the entertainment at our industry events — speaks for who we are and how we think. As we challenge ourselves to consider what kind of advertising and communications are fair to women and diverse audiences in our work for clients, should we bring this into consideration when representing our businesses, our brands, and our industry?
The final performance at Advertising Week communicated how far we still have to go to fully realize these goals. But one performance, one event, is no match for the dozens of women who took the stage beforehand to envision a better future for women in advertising, and to recount the progress we have made so far.
They are the inspiration for the next generation of female professionals, who will hopefully be able to participate in events like Advertising Week without reminders of the biases and prejudices that still linger in the industry.