Spot the female creative director – is Singapore’s adland comfortable with the status quo?

Singapore's most influential creative directorsSingapore’s adland doesn’t seem too bothered by gender inequality – and that’s a worry writes Robin Hicks.

So, there was a bit of a brouhaha in Australia last week over Leo Burnett Sydney announcing the hire of five senior creatives who were all male, which got gender equality campaigner and former BBH Singapore boss Cindy Gallop hot under the collar. “It’s 2015, what the f@#k are you thinking?” she tweeted.

Well, to look at this poster that is plastered all over Singapore’s subway network to promote the Institute of Advertising Singapore’s Hall of Fame Awards, this market doesn’t appear to be a much easier place for women to succeed in an ad agency creative department.

Singapore's most influential creative directors

Hall of Fame awards ad next to a house ad for SMRT Media

J Walter Thompson Singapore’s creative chief Valerie Cheng, who chaired last week’s Creative Circle Awards, cast a lonely figure as the only female representative in the bottom left-hand corner of a collage of Singapore’s “most influential” creative directors, the winner of which is to be revealed next week.

Not a great look for the sponsors of the awards detailed at the bottom of the poster, which include SMRT Media, Shooting Gallery Asia, and, erm, Leo Burnett.

But there’s a sense that Singapore’s adland is divided on gender inequality.

Some think it’s an issue, particularly over a lack of pay parity between men and women, as Henry Adams suggested in a piece on sexism in Singapore’s adland just under a year ago. Others, like Goodstuph’s Pat Law, suggest that it’s not and never really has been. Very few are comfortable talking about it.

One of the most memorable sessions at the last-ever Ad:tech Asean conference in July was a panel on gender equality. It was notable for three reasons. First, an open disagreement and eye-rolling between two of the panelists, one of whom (Susana Tsui, the APAC CEO of media agency PHD) suggested that gender equality is not an barrier for women in this industry unless they make it one.

“The whole world is not against you. There are different ways to achieving what you want. You should embrace being a woman,” she said, a comment that did not wash well with Carmen Benitez, the American MD of social tech firm Fetch Plus.

It was also notable that there were only women on the panel, as if men are not part of the debate. And thirdly, because of how badly attended the session was.

Preethi Sanjeevi, Carmen Benitez, Evelina Lye, Susana Tsui, Roshni Mahtani. Pic: Click2View

Preethi Sanjeevi, Carmen Benitez, Evelina Lye, Susana Tsui, Roshni Mahtani. Pic: Click2View

There was hardly anyone in the room. Even for now-defunct Ad:tech Asean, it drew a small crowd. It does not seem like it is an issue the industry wants to confront. Or is simply bored by.

In the comment thread beneath the story on Gallop’s response to Leo Burnett’s quintuple male hire, the sense was that in the Singapore context the industry has bigger things to think about.

One commenter, who seemed to concur with Leo Burnett’s response to the fracas on Twitter, that the people hired were done so on merit and not because of their gender, wrote:

What the fuck are you thinking Cindy? It’s 2015 not 1972. What utter bullshit. If there were more women interested in studying art direction and writing then there would be more female CD appointments. I work with students here in Singapore and have noticed that there are far more males enrolling than females. The academic institutions need to attract more females to the industry and the male dominated 4As committee should get off their fat bureaucratic asses and do something about it. You find the right person for the job not the right male/female/transgender/bisexual/gay person for the job.

Another commenter made the argument that recruitment in Singapore is more tarnished by nepotism than sexism.

The real unfairness is that there is really never a rigorous process where the selection net is cast as wide as possible. Mates hire mates. Period. Once we hear that so-and-so has moved to a new place, everyone can predict who’s gonna follow suit. Why bother even pretending that this is all about gender or racial diversity? Melbourne boy hires Melbourne mate. Even when they work in Hongkong or Singers.

This is a worry.

It is not a new observation to make that – in Singapore and elsewhere around Asia – women have more household buying power than men. So it probably makes sense to have more women in senior creative roles.

Gender inequality in creative departments is as much a business problem as it is moral one.

Robin Hicks


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