Firstly, I know that your mother is from Malaysia so you will have a strong view on this. Asia generally is fast becoming a honeypot for the ad industry with the likes of Droga5 now even planning to open an office in Shanghai and Havas just striking a big partnership deal in China too. What are your thoughts on the potential for the media and marketing industry in Asia?
“My answer will be extremely subjective and bias because I am of the region myself. But I think there is an enormous opportunity if our industry understands that it is not about the global agency brands and holding companies, and agencies that took off in other parts of the world, going ‘we are going to bring our amazing skill, talents, people and creativity to Asia’.
“They should be thinking that this region has a colossal amount to offer the rest of the world and we are going to do everything we can to unlock that potential. You have to be in receive mode and looking to learn so that you can see what can be taken back to the rest of the world from Asia.
“That is the potential I see, but to be frank it is not the mindset I observe. We are still talking about colonial attitudes. Our industry comes into Asia from other parts of the world on the premise that it is in transmit mode and Asia is in receive mode.
“I’ve been at industry conferences in Asia where the line-up of speakers has been virtually all white men. Asian audiences are much more polite and I’ve watched bemused Asian people sitting listening to white guys who have said very inappropriate things on the stage under the guise of jokes.
“If you think you are there to dispense, then you are not learning anything. The idea that the people in the audience have nothing to offer could not be more wrong. I want to see that exploded in Asia. I am dying to do a whole lot more consultancy and public speaking in Asia now because of this.”
Looking back, you studied English literature and renaissance theatre – and you worked previously as a publicist and marketer. How on earth did you end up in advertising, that must be quite a story?
“I read English lit at Oxford and I fell madly in love with theatre there because of the thriving student drama scene. I did everything in theatre at the drama society. I wrote, directed, stage-managed and I decided while at Oxford that all I wanted to do was work in theatre for the rest of my life.
“But I knew I wasn’t good enough to be an actress or a director. I went on to a one-year MA at Warwick in theatre of the European renaissance. But one of the things I did a lot when I was younger was draw so I designed theatre posters for friends’ productions and from there I was pulled into promoting and marketing their productions.
“I really enjoyed that so I thought I bet it’s easier to get a job doing this in theatre rather than acting or directing. So when I finished my course at Warwick, I worked as a publicity and marketing officer in Cardiff, Guildford and then Liverpool.
“After several years of working 24-7 and earning chickenfeed, as you do in theatre, someone said to me ‘young lady, you could sell a fridge to an eskimo’. So I thought that this moment is the universe trying to tell me something. And so I went into advertising.”
Just returning to the topic of Oxford for a second, what do you think about the higher education elitism question? You went to some very good universities in the UK. There is an argument that the homogenous elite from the top universities run the majority of industries – and indeed governments – because they get opportunities that someone from a lesser university, or someone who didn’t get the opportunity to go to university at all, might not get. Is that a topic you’ve given deep thought to as well as gender diversity? Don’t we need to change the optics there too and call people out on that?
“At Oxford, as in every industry, there is absolutely that closed loop of white guys talking to white guys about other white guys. But within Oxford, as with any part of society. there are also those of us within it who do not have access to that privilege and whose experience therefore is rather different. Nevertheless, not every graduate of Oxford came from the Etonian circle and has the doors of power open to them in the way that a very small elite coterie did.”
Given that you were at Bartle Bogle Hegarty during the golden years in the 1980s and 1990s and worked out of London, Singapore and New York, what’s the work you are most proud of and why?
“I was at BBH for 16 years in total. I joined in London in 1989 and I left the New York office in 2005. And I have to tell you, I am enormously proud of all the work BBH produced and I say that with feeling.
“Back in the day I was constantly in credentials meetings, pitch meetings and client dialogue not to mention hiring when we were building up the New York office in the late 1990s. During all of these I would play our showreel.
“I watched it Christ knows how many times, but the wonderful thing was that I never got tired of watching it. Every single time I would watch with as much joy as any of the prospective clients or interview candidates.
“I am pretty sure there were people at the larger, stuffier agencies who would not be able to say the same thing. That is testament to the quality of the work. I was enormously proud of every single thing we produced.”
Your tagline on LinkedIn is: “I like to blow shit up. I am the Michael Bay of business.” It’s a great line, but could you elaborate on what you mean by that? And do you actually like Michael Bay’s movies?
“The way that line came about was years ago I was in a meeting with some prospective consultancy clients and I described what I did by using those words. Then I decided that it was pretty good and I would use that to characterise what I do.
“I basically only want to work with clients and brands who want to change the game. I do radical, innovative, groundbreaking, transformative. I don’t do the status quo so that’s why I encapsulate what I do in that way. It attracts the people who want what I do and it repels the ones who don’t.
“I recommend to people and companies that they identify their default throwaway descriptor. It is how somebody sums you up when you are not in the room. Everyone of us has one so you need to decide what you want it to be and come up with it.
“On the Michael Bay front, I very rarely watch his movies so I would not describe myself as a fan. And as somebody said to me, he should actually be aspiring to be the Cindy Gallop of movies.”
In the past, you’ve won awards for Advertising Woman of the Year. Should such gender specific awards even exist and should women actually accept such awards? It almost suggests a sub-category, which would seem to be crazy in the modern world.
“The fact of the matter is I am a huge fan of affirmative action and quotas because the playing field is not level. Our industry is not a meritocracy. In that context, the idea that there is no gender discrimination and that all women have to do is work really hard and it will be recognised is absolute fucking bollocks.
“When women say to me that they don’t want to be hired just because they are a woman, I tell them to get over it and to look around you at all the mediocre men who got hired because they were men. Absolutely do get hired because you’re a woman or person of colour and then prove from that position how bloody brilliant you are and how much you deserve that job.
“But seize that opportunity when it is offered regardless of motivation. We know that women and people of colour are not getting one tenth of the opportunities that white men do.”
I once had the awful experience in a previous job whereby I was told by the owner of the media house I was working for that I shouldn’t hire too many women in senior editorial positions because they would just go off and get pregnant, and then I’d have to spend my freelance budget covering the positions. I was horrified by that. Any thoughts?
“That mindset, that attitude and that behaviour still exists today. Believe me.”
Out of interest, why did you never start your own female-founded ad agency – given what you’ve achieved and how much of a maverick thinker you are? Do you feel you can have more impact as a consultant working for a diverse range of clients?
“You could argue that my start-up IfWeRanTheWorld was the culmination of my 30 years of work in brand-building and advertising. Someone even said to me I had created the agency of the future because it enabled businesses to come together with their consumers to do good and make money simultaneously; but not in the old world order way whereby companies make money here and then do good by writing cheques for causes somewhere else.
“Instead, the new world order way is to make money because you do good. We need to integrate social responsibility into the way that we do business on a day-to-day basis so that it becomes a key driver of growth and profitability.
“For me, it’s not about starting an agency. It’s about doing what nobody else is doing and what you think is missing that could help our industry. Unfortunately, I had to put IfWeRanTheWorld on the backburner when ‘Make Love Not Porn’ blew up in a way that nobody anticipated. I am currently working to raise funding to build a full-time team to run Make Love Not Porn.
“I then want to go back and reactivate IfWeRanTheWorld because the world has caught up with that thinking. The business model of the future is shared values and shared action equals profit – financial profit and social profit. In other words, when brands and business come together with their consumers on the basis of values that everybody shares – acting collaboratively and collectively to walk the talk together – you can make things happen in the real world that will benefit consumers, benefit society and benefit the brand and its business. Consumers now expect the same behaviour from brands that they expect from people. This is the new reality.”
Would you ever take another big agency job, if they offered you autonomy and the chance to do it your own way on a big scale?
“I absolutely wouldn’t because currently I can say whatever the hell I think. I don’t care what Maurice Lévy, Vincent Bollore and Michael Roth think of me. I don’t work for one of those holding companies or have an agency that I’m dying to sell to one of those holding companies one day. And I don’t work for a company that wants business from one of those holding companies.
“So I can say whatever the fuck I want because I just don’t care. That’s the reason I am able to say what so many other people know and think, but dare not say. I am not beholden to anybody within the status quo of our industry. That is enormously important.”
So who are your clients and how do you decide which jobs to take and which jobs to say ‘no’ to?
“I am completely client-agnostic. I will work with anybody who wants to change the game in their particular sector. But I’m really glad you asked that question because I really thought after the whole Kevin Roberts episode [when the former global boss of Saatchi & Saatchi claimed last year that gender discrimination was not an issue for the industry] that I would find a lot of agencies, clients and holding companies would hire me as a consultant in order to leverage diversity to the max.
“There’s way too much talking about diversity in our industry and too little doing. The way to approach this is to do what we pride ourselves on doing for our clients. That is enormously ingenious strategy and clever creative execution, and that’s what I bring to the table.
“I’m not selling diversity, I’m making people want to buy it. But I’m not being hired by the people I would like to hire me to enable me to make a real difference. However, I do want to give a massive shoutout to the one company of whom that is not true and that’s Interpublic. They reached out to me and asked me to help them develop a programme to relaunch their’s women’s leadership network. Michael Roth is spearheading tangible action and change within that holding company and across all of its companies, and they should get full credit for that.”
So in that case, are you still optimistic about change if most of the holding companies and agencies are still wedded to the old world model and unwilling to redesign the way they do business? It must be burdensome to be the sole big-name industry spokesperson on this issue?
“I have to say that I am so tired of talking about all of this. I want to see shit happen. I do what I do in this area because I bloody love advertising and I bloody love our industry. It is jampacked full of creative, brilliant, intelligent and articulate people who spend all of their time focused on the client’s business and never lift their noses from the grindstone to focus on themselves.
“If we ever did that, we’d be a very different industry today. We would have completely redesigned the business model and ourselves. All the talent is there and change happens from the bottom-up.
“In an industry that is spectacularly failing to introduce real change at the top, I am recommending to women and people of colour that they start their own agency. I don’t mean an agency like the ones you see all around you. I mean start your own thing and identify what is missing, and what you can bring to the table that is new in a way that nobody else has.
“When you have that closed loop of white guys at the top of our industry, the creative output you get or the product is Batman v Superman. It, not coincidentally, tanked at the box office. When you welcome women and people of colour into the room where it happens what you get is Hamilton, which not only exploded every convention of a Broadway musical but is also literally making billions of dollars.
“That’s the creativity and the money our industry is missing out on currently. Our industry thinks its glory days are over when in reality our glory days have not even begun because we haven’t realised what this industry could be with the skills and the talents of women and people of colour.”
So part of the problem then is the male, stale and pale brigade running the big holding companies where all the ad dollars and the power is locked up, that’s what you’re saying?
“The problem there is that those white guys at the top are sitting very pretty. They have their enormous salaries, their gigantic bonuses, their huge pools of stock options, their lavish expense accounts. Why on earth would they ever want to rock the boat?
“They have to talk diversity, to appoint a head of diversity, to have diversity initiatives. They have to say the word ‘diversity’ a lot. But deep down they don’t really want to change a thing because the system is working just fine for them as it is. These white guys really do not want to change.”
It’s true in related industries like tech and consultancy too isn’t it? You’ve also said: “If you launch or run any small business today with an all-male leadership, you will never own the future.” Playing devil’s advocate for a second, didn’t the corporate tech titans of our time – Facebook and Google – do exactly that? And it would seem that those guys do own the future, wouldn’t it?
“In the tech world, you have huge platforms built by all male white founders with all white male tech teams and all white male VC backers and all white male advisory boards. So you end up with an all white male designed built experience, which does not take into account women or people of colour.
“In terms of online harassment, white men are the least harassed. So they’ve designed platforms that are deeply unpleasant and unsafe for women and people of colour to operate on and they don’t care. Things are designed for men and women are expected to follow along behind and get swept away in the experience.”
You spoke at the Mumbrella360 conference in Sydney last year about diversity. What sort of feedback did you get following your presentation and is progress being made on diversity in Australia?
“First of all, I was very pleased with the response in the moment at Mumbrella360. The response from the audience at the event was phenomenal. The most moving moment came during the Q&A after my presentation when a young man in the audience was crying. Here was a 23-year-old guy who said he wanted to be part of changing this. It was just a wonderful moment.
“Lots of people came up to me afterwards to say they were inspired and more wrote to me afterwards as well. But I honestly can’t speak to the progress made since because I don’t study the Australian ad industry.
“I just hope it made everybody consciously think about this issue in terms of their own business. I also hope it made people more willing to speak up. And that’s certainly the impression I get from the women of the Australian ad industry that I’ve interacted with subsequently.”
And are you still getting the reports of sexual harassment from women in the industry in Australia that you mentioned you were receiving before speaking at the event?
“Yes, women write to me from all around the world all the time, not to mention the tweets and the Facebook messages and so on.”
You have also said that the world today looks nothing like the stereotypes perpetuated in advertising all of the time. Is that true for Asia as well as the Western World? Playing devil’s advocate again for a moment, you could certainly argue that the cultural landscape in Asia is based around the man as the breadwinner and the woman as the nurturing family carer, couldn’t you?
“But do you think the women of Asia are happy with that? And do you think the men of Asia are happy with that? Let’s take one market where what you’ve said would appear to be particularly societally embedded. That country is Japan.
“I spoke at a brand media summit in Okinawa about the future of advertising to a male-dominated audience. I was the only female speaker at the whole conference and I said all of the things I usually say in a forthright way, in a manner a woman in Japan wouldn’t normally do.
“Afterwards, a young Japanese woman came up to me and said ‘please, I want to be you, please tell me how I can be you’. I was so gobsmacked and moved by that comment. It was a real shivers down my spine moment.
“I can tell you that Japanese women are no longer happy with their place in society. They want equality and a different way of life going forward. That would also create a far happier life for men. As an example, in a traditional Japanese marriage, a man who has a struggling business would not even discuss it with his wife. To not ask your wife for advice and help because of old fashioned attitudes and not get help is completely outmoded.
“The way our industry can change the world is by taking the lead in popular culture and presenting the relationship role models of today as aspirational. We can help consumers when we present an aspirational picture of a relationship where both halves of the couple work and are negotiating different approaches to housework and childcare, and learning to be fine when the wife earns more than the husband. We then make men and women feel great about a different type of relationship.”
Men also get stereotyped in ads as being pretty dumb and helpless, existing only on base instincts, don’t they?
“That’s why I make the point that when we have as many female as male executive creative directors not only will we see better depictions of women in advertising, but also better depictions of men. The single rarest unicorn in our industry is the black female ECD.”
“First of all, they are all laggards. No one is leading on this. We have to change the numbers as quickly as possible and the way to do that is to bulk buy. To hire groups, not individuals. It’s not about saying we have 30 per cent women now or whatever.
“There is a Harvard Business Review study, which shows that one woman on a board or leadership team is useless. Tokenisation is useless because the alien organism has to adapt to the culture around it. She has to become like the men and we can all point to women in any industry who are examples of that.
“By the way, this is where the issue of women being bitchy towards other women comes from. That is a syndrome driven entirely by men. When women know there is only ever room for one token woman, then that forces them to compete with each other.
“Two women on a board is still not enough of a critical mass. The critical number is three or more. When there are three or more women on a board or leadership team, they feel surrounded by their own kind. That emboldens them and makes them feel confident enough to say what they really think; to articulate their point of view and to go up in debate against the dominant white male quota, to have the courage of their convictions and to be able to be who they really are.
“In this study, on the boards with three or more women on them both the male and female directors reported a better quality discussion, better decision-making and better business outcomes. So you have to look at your recruitment plan in that context. Insist that your HR department brings you as many women and people of colour as possible in order to change the ratio numbers as quickly as possible.”
And were you able to do any of that during your time at BBH – were you able to reset the optic or were the fences just too high to get over at that time?
“Well, I started BBH New York from scratch 19 years ago. I was actively looking to hire more women and I gave people a hard time about it. I got the usual response of ‘we can’t find them’. And as the CEO with 50 million things on my plate there was only so far I could go personally to challenge those barriers then. Today, there is a much greater awareness and a much greater understanding so it’s a lot easier to demand that [equality] and get it.”
You were formerly the APAC boss of BBH and based in Singapore. If sexual harassment is endemic in the ad industry, how bad is it in Asia and is it worse here than other places around the world?
“It is equally appalling everywhere. I hear the stories all the fucking time. But even back then in Asia you were talking attempted rapes and sexual harassment. It’s really scary stuff.”
Moving on to something more positive, I hear there is now even a Facebook Messenger CindyBot version of you in the United States, which gives people advice on how to get a pay rise. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
“Yes, I launched it on Equal Pay Day. The idea was brought to me and it was just fucking genius. The chatbot basically helps women to go in and get a pay rise. I don’t want to see nice words or clever ads on Equal Pay Day and International Women’s Day. I want to see money.
“Don’t empower me. Promote me. Bonus Me. Reward me. Put your money where your mouth is. The future of our industry is creating things of utility and value that delight consumers so that means creating things like this bot. Our future is about moving from ad units to ad products.
“CindyBot is totally me in terms of tone of voice, terminology and how I articulate things. It’s a brilliant use of chatbot technology. We’ve had an amazing response to it. It’s practical and useful. You simply go to Facebook and type Ask Cindy Gallop.
“You then put in your job and area. Then I tell you the average salary for an art director in your region, for example. But then I go, you’re not average are you so we can ask for a damn sight more than that and I go through the steps of how you do it. And then there are responses if you are given excuses by your employer like there is no budget this year. I am thrilled with it.”
You famously launched ‘MakeLoveNotPorn’ at the TED conference in 2009 and ‘IfWeRanTheWorld’ in 2010. What else do you have on the boil?
“Oh my god Dean. I want to change the future of business and I want to change the future of sex. I think I’ve got enough on my plate. Quite seriously, those are the only two things I’m interested in and passionate about. That’s why I started those two ventures. I live my own philosophies. I just hope that I get to do them and make them happen.”