The Future's Bright For White Men in Advertising

March 8, 2020

Robyn Frost

Undeterred by the polar vortex, in early 2019 Robyn hopped on a plane and flew 4,000 miles from London to the Windy City, joining FCB Chicago as an art director and writer (yes, both). She works as part of FCB’s experiential arm, FCBX, as well as the wider agency, creating bold above-the-line and digital campaigns for some of their biggest clients.

Back in London, she was a creative at Poke (Publicis), where she crafted award-winning campaigns for Heineken, EE, Google and Garnier.

Her words are just as likely to be found in Campaign opinion pieces, Forbes and Buzzfeed as they are in ads. In August 2019, she co-created “Untold Stories,” a column in partnership with Campaign, which invites anonymous stories about the “we know it's there, but we won't talk about it” topics in the advertising industry.

Most recently, she was named one of The Dots’ 100 Trailblazers redefining the creative industry.

This one goes out to the guys. 

Yes, you – who’s about to click around and open another tab.

Maybe you’re thinking, ‘hey, not all men.’ And you’re right – just the white ones, for now. 

‘Not all white men.’ No, not all – but some of the ones in our industry. 

This piece is for you. Please, have a read, because it’s important. If you feel uncomfortable because you’re being addressed directly, think you know what’s coming, or sense the urge to crack a joke, then keep going. If you’re one of the guys who routinely scrolls past Cindy’s LinkedIn posts thinking ‘this isn’t for me,’ think again. This is about how we’re all going to get rich, famous, and happy, so read on if you’d like the insider info. 

Putting your head down and ‘being known for [your] work’ just won’t cut the mustard, because shooting a cool ad isn’t going to leave the industry better than you found it. You might want to leave with a six-figure pay packet and a Lion you can use as a doorstop, but please think of all the people who you could put forward for opportunities, stick up for, speak out against, and make a real impact on. 

Cindy’s talk, ‘The Future For White Men In Advertising,’ was an eye-opening cross-examination of what we can expect when power is evenly distributed and the issues that plague our industry are addressed once and for all. I wish more agencies had sent their people to 3% – it was a live mapping of the future right there and then. 

It was about your future in our industry. ‘When I say our, I mean everybody who is other – women, black women, black men, everyone of color, LGBTQ, the disabled – we’re reinventing and rebuilding it.’

Gallop reinforces this through the first of many brilliant quotes, ‘Equal opportunity for others doesn’t mean less opportunity for you. It’s not pie. Equal opportunity for us means more opportunity for you.’

So, here’s what to expect when we’re running the show. Settle in. 

1. You’ll be able to make jokes about sex in the office

I mean it when I say I can’t bloody wait for this one. Too many times at previous agencies I’ve sat in meetings as the only woman, an often silent witness to truly un-funny jokes. ‘Haha, yeah, then after the end card our hero bends her over and fucks her.’ How about no, James, because that’s not funny. We can make sex jokes that aren’t at the expense of other people though – when the power dynamic dramatically shifts. 

Cindy recalls being at an industry dinner with some colleagues. ‘One woman was saying how, at a business meeting, the senior client walked in and happened to be an extremely attractive man. She turned to her friend and said ‘Wow, I’d do that.’” A male colleague later turned to Cindy, saying ‘If I’d said that about a female client, everyone would have been offended.’ Gallop responded, ‘It’s not about sex, it’s about power. There is no such thing as reverse objectification, just as there is no such thing as reverse sexism or reverse racism.’ 

A 2016 article by Lindy West explores ‘Three Things That Need To Happen Before I Defend Men From Olympic Sexism’ and can just as easily be applied to our industry.

  • ‘Sexualized analysis of men’s bodies begins to obscure their achievements and negatively affect their careers.
  • Objectification of men's bodies begins to make their lives unsafe.
  • Men bring up their own objectification as anything other than a disingenuous attempt to undermine women advocating for themselves.’

Need we say more?

2. You’ll be able to be vulnerable and be appreciated for it

Ask your doctor if toxic masculinity is right for you. They’ll likely say no. 

Liz Plank’s book, ‘For The Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity’ is a must-read. It covers the way in which you, white men, have trapped yourselves in this construct. It’s vital we break this construct of what men can and cannot do or say. Gallop recalls putting her call out for names when #metoo garnered major media attention – and she heard from many men who had been harassed and bullied by powerful gay men in the industry. Many of them had PTSD because of how broken down they were by the abuse. A man admitting to this ‘does not accord with our societal construct of masculinity,’ Gallop says, so it’s no surprise that they were unable to speak up in their agencies, let alone in the public eye.

Cindy holding up the book for the love of men

Gallop cites a Google study that examined the characteristics of successful, high-performing teams. The single most important thing was psychological safety – for every team member to be able to make themselves vulnerable and know that their team has their backs. It’s vital that we work to reshape what being vulnerable means and looks like, and ensure that there’s no shame in admitting you’ve been impacted. 

3. You’ll be valued for qualities you didn’t know you had

Cindy spoke of the tragic news that last September, Huw Griffith, longtime CEO of M&C Saatchi LA, and friend of Cindy, tragically died. She said ‘separate to the enormous grief that we all feel about Huw’s death, M&C Saatchi LA has been left without a CEO.’ Kate Bristow, CSO of M&C Saatchi LA, and Huw’s wife, turned down the opportunity to become CEO. Instead, MD Rebecca McGough, CCO Maria Smith, and Kate, have collectively taken on the role of CEO and all run the agency together. ‘I cannot think of any three men who would agree to do that,’ Cindy continued. ‘Men need female leadership role models as much as women do. “You cannot be what you cannot see” applies just as much to men.’ 

If you’re someone who already works with lots of other female leaders, then picture your current situation but better. Pretty great. If not, the day will come where you look around and see that you’re surrounded by models of female leadership. ‘They’ll deploy qualities that have never been valued before in our industry and you will find those qualities in yourself,’ Cindy says.

My talk notes for this section were ‘Women solve shit, and women run shit,’ in case you’re after a one line take away. 

4. You’ll be surrounded by people who deserve to be there

Take the recent G/O Media catastrophe as a shitshow example of what happens when you cut and paste a slew of white men into high-powered roles. ‘Jim Spanfeller fired 25 people across the 400 person company, including Susie Banikarim – widely-respected editorial director and the only person of color on the executive leadership team,’ Laura Wagner reported in Deadspin shortly after. ‘Spanfeller hired a stable of white men to fill executive positions overseeing nearly every facet of the company.’ This isn’t progress. This isn’t securing a company’s future. It’s narcissism and fear banded together, neither of which belong in a should-be progressive industry. But it doesn’t have to be this way – take this snippet of ‘The View From A White Guy In Adland,’ shared by Dear Adland. ‘Time after time, I saw many women put their hands up for new assignments. They were eager for promotion, and deserved it… I wish I had turned down work so people in the shadows could take it.’ When you take a step back, we can move forward. 

Cindy says, ‘there’s nothing more demoralizing than being passionate about the job you do, working your guts out to do your very best work, creating brilliant innovative disruptive ideas, while at the same time in the very same agency, you are surrounded by people who are not doing the same thing, but are doing just fine, and in fact doing a great deal better than you are.’ 

On this note, let’s figuratively hop over to London where, quite recently, a friend of mine was let go and replaced by a white man, hired by his white male equivalent. The new hire had the same qualifications as her. Same number of years experience. But where she was made redundant, he was made Director. Touting ‘progressive’ leadership quite frankly means fuck all if this kind of thing is happening under their watchful gaze. 

’There is no denying that women’s path to leadership is paved with many barriers. But the much bigger problem is the lack of obstacles for incompetent men,’ Cindy says, quoting Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s ‘Why do so many incompetent men become leaders?’

5. You will be safer

In healthcare, just as in our industry, sexual harassment is forcing women out. ‘Imagine how much better patients would do if women didn’t have to combat daily harassment,’ said Dr Arghavan Salles to Scientific American. ’One study suggested that 30,000 more people would be alive if they had been cared for by a woman physician instead of a man. And yet organizations refuse to hold harassers accountable. They push women out while promoting the men, even when they pretend their mission is prioritizing care delivery.’

We’re not saving patients’ lives, we’re selling clients’ products and services. And yet we as an industry continue to act like there isn’t the same problem of harassment. 'Men in advertising who are turning a blind eye to the sexual harassment that is endemic in our industry – why we are hemorrhaging female talent, skills and creativity – how do you feel about that statistic?’ Cindy says, to a silent and inflective room. Do people have to die for us to act? How many businesses do we have to lose? How many headlines do we have to read about internal investigations, or twitter threads on harrowing experiences, before we realize that looking after our own is just as important as looking after our clients? 

‘When WE are all safe, white men in advertising, you too will be a great deal safer than you are currently’ Gallop continues. Let’s talk business risk, and debunk the stereotype that men are bigger risk takers than women. Think differently? Think again. ‘I’ve seen many high risk, high stress, dangerous business scenarios where men have made calls, they have overruled the advice and inclinations of women (if there were any working with them and around them), and very bad things have happened. Sometimes… resulting in those agencies closing’ Cindy states.

Those of us who are most at risk – from harassment to business decisions – actively design safe spaces. The 3% Conference is one of them. Right now many agencies are designed by men, for men – but when we all design these spaces together, we will all be safer. We can feel physically safe at work, and we can take bigger business risks. 

6. You’ll be richer

‘White men in advertising, you’re a whole lot richer than us. But when we are all paid equally, you have no idea how much richer every single one of us will be. 

There’s a huge amount of money to be made out of taking women seriously, black people seriously, the LGBTQ community seriously, the disabled seriously. When we start our own businesses we start the industry we all want to work in, and that’s so goddamn lucrative.’

If you don’t know We Are Rosie, where have you been? Founded by the brilliant Stephanie Olson, it’s the agency we didn’t know we needed but now couldn’t imagine the industry without. It was founded 20 months ago and has already booked $5m in revenue. Oh, and they have a 100% client retention rate. 

7. You won’t age out of the business

I’m in the privileged position of being able to look around my agency and see people of all ages. I don’t have enough words left to express how refreshing it is to not report solely to other people in their 20s and 30s, but instead learn from people with decades of experience (Cindy refers to them as ‘experts’). It is just *chefs kiss* 

She says, ‘We bring experience, expertise, craft skills, people management, meaning we make business way more time and cost efficient.’ But as she also points out, ‘The industry is ageist as fuck because the old white men who run our industry, who rather bizarrely don’t seem to think that ageism applies to them in any way, are operating ageism because they fetishize youth. They want to be surrounded by younger men so they can feel young. And they want to be surrounded by younger decorative women because that is how they see our role.’ 

Cindy about to metaphorically burn everything down

It is so TIRING and BORING and quite frankly, UNCOOL, guys. If you want that ego hit so badly, watch a rerun of Mad Men or reread your own thought leadership pieces. Many of us are actively choosing agencies that don’t subscribe to this – so it’s only a matter of time before you’re either forced to change or forced out. ‘The freshness and objectivity and perspective of youth, combined with the experience and expertise and innovation of age,’ is the ideal balance, Cindy says. If you want to try arguing with that, good bloody luck. 

Whoever you are, whether you’re a boss or just straight up act like a boss, you can start making a change at work right now by reading ‘How the best bosses interrupt bias on their teams.’ Everyone at every level can do this. 

‘Can anyone really put their hand up and say they don’t want this future?’ Cindy concludes. 
Guys, you really do have everything to gain – a safe, inclusive, truly rewarding industry. When it’s all of those things for us, it’ll be all of those for you. 

By the end of 3% I was lost for words – but my ears were ringing with Cindy’s. In my book, that’s the best possible close to another transformative year.