Less creative than men? Reluctant bosses? Glass ceiling? 12 women on surviving and thriving as creative directors in Asia Pacific

Female symbolOnly 3% of the world’s advertising creative directors are women. And yet it is women who makes most of the purchasing decisions. 

Mumbrella Asia asked creative directors in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, India, Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand for their perspective on the challenges of rising to the top of their profession as a woman.


Tista SenTista Sen, senior vice president and national creative director, J. Walter Thompson | INDIA

Tell us about your background and achievements.

I started my career in a film production house and assisted in over 60 commercials. But I always knew it was the writing I was interested in.

I have worked across categories and clients both FMCG and start-ups and the financial sector. One of my key accomplishments would be to launch sunsilkgangofgirls.com [a content portal for young women] backed  much before digital became fashionable.

Sunsilk gang of girls

Sunsilk gang of girls

Who is your role model?

Cindy Gallop

Cindy Gallop

My role model keeps changing depending on the stage in life I’m in. And right now my big peeve is finding a voice for women in our industry. I am a complete fan-girl of Cindy Gallop. She was my jury chair at the inaugural Glass Lion at Cannes and is such a strong voice for women across the industry. The thing is, what she says is not just restricted to the West but symbiotic of cultures and transcends geography. And she says it like it is. Blunt and sharp and always makes perfect sense.

Do you think there’s a glass ceiling in advertising in India? 

It would be naïve and foolish of me to say there isn’t. Too many horror stories with too many unhappy endings. All I can say is as a culture where women are made to feel subservient and inferior there’s a lot we can do to change. Advertising, like any other industry in India, is aware of the challenges women face and attempting to address that. How successful and how they implement it is another story.

What are the sort of challenges you have faced as a woman in making it to the top of your profession?

Actually it was harder when I was starting out. I was told by many a male colleague I may add, that clients would not take me seriously because I dressed well. A manicure and pedicure suggested I was too woman-like and could not be taken seriously. Ordering lunch somehow was my job as well as cracking the next big idea and being firm in the work-place meant being aggressive. Recently I feel that my being a mother and wife and having a successful career means I must be screwing up on some count. That makes it more palatable for the rest.

What is your view on the belief (proposed recently by former Saatchi & Saatchi chairman Kevin Roberts) that women do not want management roles in advertising?

That is such a crock of absolute rubbish. Women want it and more. And why shouldn’t they. I have seen too many cases of mediocre management because gender came into play. The issue is women are hesitant to ask and expect the other party to notice. I prescribe to the theory that men are hired on potential and women on proof in our industry, and that is an issue we grapple with everyday. Women approach problems differently and come up with different solutions. If that involves taking a crack at the top job and sitting across the senior leadership table, so be it.

What do you make of the claim (made by some male creative directors in the past) that women aren’t as creative as men?


What advice would you give to a woman who aspires to be a creative director in India?

If you are passionate and really love what you do this is where you belong. Walk with your head high and your high heels even higher. For every obstacle or impediment in your way you have the option of walking out. And if you cower once you will cower forever. Your thinking and mind is what the industry is looking for not your vital statistics. And if discrimination and gender bias is what you face give me a call.


Jennifer HuJennifer Hu, chief creative officer, Ogilvy & Mather Group | TAIWAN

Tell us about your background and achievements.

I learned of an opening for an advertising film producer one day. I didn’t know what an ad agency did, but I had experience in making 8mm films and writing scripts. So I applied nevertheless, and I got the job as a producer. Four months later, I happened to notice what copywriting was about from the copywriter sitting next to me. I believed that I could do better than him, and I went to the GM and told him that I could contribute more to the company as a copywriter. He was convinced, and so I became a copywriter and thus began my career as a creative.

During my second year as a copywriter, I was awarded the Grand Prix in a major local ad awards, and as a reward, I earned my first promotion. Later, I took a position with Ogilvy & Mather, working in direct marketing for two years. Then I transferred to advertising. Eventually, I worked my way up to ECD. Today, I am the very first chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather Taiwan.

My team and I were champions at major local ad awards for seven consecutive years, with the most Grands Prix, named Best Creative Agency for many years, and also won the first ever D&AD Yellow Pencil in Taiwan with “Soap”, a mini film from my “WeGo Motel” series.

The film was featured in a special program by France Télévisions, and was also declared by AdFreak as one of “the 25 most epic ads in the world”.

“Dream Rangers,” the commercial film I created for TC Bank in 2011, attracted interviews and special reports in several major international media, and has reaped over 50 million views on the internet. It has been translated into nine languages and praised as the world’s most influential Chinese-language TV ad.

Who is your role model?

Steve Jobs.

Do you think there’s a glass ceiling in advertising in Taiwan? 

I thought about the answer to this question for a long time. There is, and there isn’t. I believe the reason why there are less female creative directors in Taiwan must ultimately be traced back to how ambitious female creatives are. I’m not sure, but perhaps Chinese traditions have educated women that way and suppressed their ambitions to become a manager or leader in the workplace. When it comes to moving up the ladder, they would rather wait for the assignment from their boss, instead of asking for a promotion. If their boss neglects the matter, they may simply remain silent. I believe this is a different kind of “glass ceiling” that they have built themselves.

What are the sort of challenges you have faced as a woman in making it to the top of your profession?

When I first took the position of a creative leader, the entire corporate management team, from the managing director to the planning team leaders were all desperately looking for new personnel. For me, stabilising the employee turnover rate was a matter of pressing concern. But I also understood that this was a good opportunity to weed out mediocre people and recruit more outstanding people.

I promoted young creatives with potential. I gave them titles and let them lead their own teams, and this allowed me to retain talent that could be cultivated. At a formal company meeting, in front of all the employees, I declared my vision, beliefs and methods. I thanked all the employees who were willing to stay and invited them all to join me in moving forward.

I recruited outstanding talents from outside the company and finished building my organisation in the shortest time possible. That was the period when digital media was just beginning to emerge as a formidable phenomenon. I formed the first digital team among all the conventional advertising agencies, and we started feeling our way forward, working together with the brand teams. The next year, I successfully recruited a digital creative director that was hot in the industry. Afterward, we became frequent champions at digital awards.

Trials were coming fast and furious back then, leaving no time to catch a breath. But looking back now, I truly feel that it was a precious gift to quickly make me a fearless, optimistic, confident person, and I’ve stayed that way to this day.

What is your view on the belief that women do not want management roles in advertising?

Really? I’ve never sensed that. In fact, my observations are quite the opposite. All the women around me are strongly ambitious to take on management roles.

In order to enhance their leadership abilities, they are willing to lead by example, bear responsibilities, and continuously broaden and better themselves. In this male-dominated advertising industry, the correct question is not whether women are enthusiastic about taking on management responsibilities, but whether there are positions of sufficient weight that can be fairly placed on women’s shoulders, and whether we can truly accept a female as who she is, as a woman, instead of acting like a man.

What do you make of the claim that women aren’t as creative as men?

To be frank, such statements only arise from a mindset of bias against women. On the contrary, I have seen plenty of female creatives bringing glory to their male supervisors with their talent and hard work.

What advice would you give to a woman who aspires to be a creative director in Taiwan?

I have written an article titled “50 pieces of advice for young female creatives,” which has been circulated in the Greater China area. Here, I share a few of those thoughts:

1. Find the person in your company with the most enthusiasm and concentration for outstanding creativity. Let him/her be your mentor in addition to your actual supervisor.

2. Don’t complain, and certainly don’t join in any little group of complainers. Roll up your sleeves and look for solutions and resources.

3. Your body and brain are your weapons. Pay attention to your health and eat well to keep them in excellent condition.

4. Take advantage of this stage in life when your stamina is at its height, to grasp any opportunity, big and small alike, to build up experience. In my second year in the industry, I won the Grand Prix at an advertising awards, working for a little client that was turned down by more senior colleagues. And I used it to make a name for myself. When God gives you a gift, he hides it under wrapping paper.

5. Dream. Dream big like those ambitious male colleagues of yours. Write your dreams down, and once a year review what you’ve done to make those dreams come true.

6. Don’t let anyone insinuate that you’re not good enough.

7. What’s even more important than a sense of accomplishment is a sense of happiness in your work. It is not completely built upon how much money you make or how big a reputation you have, but your relationships with your colleagues and your clients. So learn to respect these people.

8. Make more friends who are experienced and knowledgeable, passionate about creating, who love reading, and are big-minded, and become a person like that.

9. When you’ve done your utmost and it doesn’t turn out as you had hoped, forgive yourself, and others as well. Don’t spend too much time bogged down in regret. The good news about work is: you always have the next time.

10. Help other women.


Yuka TsukadaYuka Tsukada, creative director, Dentsu | JAPAN

Tell us about your career path and achievements.

After joining Dentsu, I gained experience in graphic design and television commercial planning as a copywriter before being appointed as a creative director in 2006. Since 2014, I have been a member of the Dentsu Communication Design Center’s Creative Direction Department. In addition to mass media, I have often handled creative direction in a wide range of projects involving digital content, events, and public relations, which has allowed me to work with people from various other fields. I have represented Japan as a judge at Cannes Lions, Clio and Spikes Asia. In 2010, I was selected as a Creator of the Year Medalist by the Japan Advertising Agencies Association, which recognises people who have made noteworthy achievements in Japan’s ad industry in each respective year. Actually, I was the first woman from Dentsu to receive that honour.

Who is your role model?

I can’t think of anyone in particular.

Do you think there’s a glass ceiling in advertising in Japan? 

There had not been many opportunities for women to enter the ad industry in Japan until the Equal Employment Opportunity Law went into effect in 1986. That is the biggest reason why there are so few female creative directors today. Many women are being assigned to creative sections nowadays, so I think that the number of female creative directors will steadily grow.

What are the sort of challenges you have faced as a woman in making it to the top of your profession?

Rather than seeing men as competitors, I worked with the view that everyone was part of the same team. I made a point of respecting each individual, who essentially has the same values and sense of purpose regardless of his or her gender, while trying to encourage my colleagues, and, in turn, be motivated by them. A desire to climb to the top was not the reason for doing my job. I just wanted to do good work. I wanted to strive together with people who were motivated by the same thing. If I am a member of a team that does an outstanding job, and I can develop personally, then I am satisfied. My approach has been very simple.

What is your view on the belief that women in advertising do not aspire to have management roles?

To some extent I agree, and to some extent I disagree. If management just means overseeing an organisation, then I think many female creators do not see the attraction in that role. That’s because creative people naturally get excited about realising their own ideas. Nevertheless, depending on the person, there are certainly women who, while considering their age and personal life, want to be involved in supporting younger workers. That kind of role is somewhat like being a matriarch in the company, which is suited for such women in my view. In any case, compared to men, women generally express their feelings more honestly. The quality of the workplace environment is what has a big effect on motivating women. More than income and status, they place importance on a comfortable workplace and meaningful work. Without those aspects, many women will simply quit the company and start up a business or go freelance.

What do you make of the claim that women aren’t as creative as men?

Creativity has a very broad meaning nowadays. I wonder about the context in which such claims were made. In many respects, I believe it is women who excel at being creative. At any rate, the idea of pitting men versus women is meaningless in my view.

What advice would you give to a woman who aspires to be a creative director in Japan?

Generally, my advice is to keep at it. If you just keep working, opportunities will come in time. Along with that, you have to be resilient, because women must always be stronger than men to be able to survive in this industry.


Uzma Farhan

Uzma Farhan, executive creative director, IAL Saatchi & Saatchi | PAKISTAN

Tell us about your career path and achievements.

At times off-road, but overall it’s been a fun rollercoaster ride over 19 years in the business. From being fired for having an opinion to quitting because politics is just not my best friend. I have seen it all. Met federal ministers, state secretaries, the who’s who of bureaucracy and politics, the humblest to the snobbiest.

As for achievements, from the identity launch of a big commercial bank to creating the brand identity for the country’s biggest telecom brand, I have done it all. The current Dunya Ko Bataa Do (Tell the whole World) work for Jazz is my most cherished and recent achievement.

Also, being part of the biggest social media sensation of the year, the famous print ad for Jazz featuring Nargis Fakhri. The curves of a famous international model created the biggest wave of expression the Pakistani social media scene had ever seen.

Uzma print ad

From planned to unforeseen, my work has made quite a few ripples.

Who is your role model?

Everybody. I am inspired by generality and commonness. I learn from everyone. I love the rawness of a small child, the gullibility of a young teenager, the over confidence of a young entrepreneur, the drama of an actor. They are all my teachers, my mentors.

Do you think there’s a glass ceiling in advertising in Pakistan? If not, why are there not more female creatives directors in Pakistan?

Says who? The number of women creative directors in Pakistan is, if not more, equal to that of male CDs. In fact, if you see the top 10 advertising brands in Pakistan you will find more women CDs and ECDs than men. This is mainly due to the local advertising culture. Women are good talkers, great entertainers and excellent managers. They use emotions to tell and sell a story. Clients are usually men (marketing and branding is still very much a male dominated profession) who like listening to interesting and intelligent women. The chemistry works.

Women read more, know more and are generally more idea-oriented because we are raised to troubleshoot. We have a solution for every problem and communication in our country is more problem-based than numbers-based. We communicate because we have to, not because we want to.

What are the sort of challenges you have faced as a woman in making it to the top of your profession?

Honestly, none. I have been fortunate. But yes generally it is not easy for a woman to reach the top. There is an interesting fact to share about Pakistan here. The percentage of educated women is higher than that of men. Also the top academic positions in schools and colleges are usually bagged by girls, therefore making it difficult for boys to get good jobs to start their careers.

I know a local bank here that actually does not hire girls as a rule, citing that boys need to support families and girls don’t. So the situation at entry levels is actually reversed.

Men face more hardship because of women. But this changes as you go higher in rank. The same women will now have to work twice as hard and will probably need more experience to reach the position than their male counterparts.

But society is changing fast. There are professions previously ruled by men but are now women dominated such as teaching. Private school teaching jobs are exclusively for women, and for this reason education is the least preferred profession among men now in Pakistan verses 10 years ago.

The same is the case in communication. The creative department is fast becoming a female dominated space. Soon women will be in the majority. They are in control already. One gets to see many female faces on account pitches and creative competitions in both the private and government sector.

What is your view on the assertion (proposed by your former boss, Kevin Roberts) that women do not want management roles in advertising?

Maybe, yes! Because there is too much male domination around. Women in management end up being the male version of themselves. Management culture is very male-oriented. The codes are all man-made. The dress code, colour code, language code, the politics and even the dirty jokes are all about women. It is hard for a strong woman to let go of her feminine self and be a man.

Another strong reason could be that women have more responsibilities than men. Another built-in feature. They are also homemakers. I am a mother and a wife. I do all the regular errands a housewife is expected to do. And I feel guilty when things at home get neglected. Such feelings might explain why some women are reluctant to move into management roles. It’s not because women cannot, it is rather they prefer not to.

What do you make of the claim that women aren’t as creative as men?

I handle the largest telecom account of the country, both strategy and creative. And I am not alone. You will find many more like me in Pakistan, a third-world country with a 60% literacy rate. Need I say more. As for creativity, this is a built-in feature in all women. Men need to make an effort, we don’t. Perhaps this is why creativity is a feminine word.

What advice would you give to a woman who aspires to be a creative director in Pakistan?

Be yourself! The day you start acting like a man you will lose. The time is near when it will no longer be a man’s world. So make sure you are part of it.

The only thing a woman creative needs to control is her ability to find stories when there are none. This can be your biggest asset or your biggest weakness. Use it to sell products rather than sell yourself. Women possess all the qualities of a great creative. But they use it for the wrong reasons.

Fear no one but yourself. Don’t stop for anyone but yourself. The world is not complete without you. You are the beauty that makes this world a beautiful place.


Valerie ChengValerie Cheng, head of Creative Shop, Southeast Asia, Facebook | SINGAPORE

Tell us about your career path and achievements.

I graduated as a graphic designer and my first job was being an assistant to a photographer/ videographer. I was hired for my skills in video editing, as I was proficient in Adobe Premier and After Effects. During my spare time in the studio, my boss asked if I wanted to figure out how to use a webpage-designing tool called Macromedia Dreamweaver. That was the beginning of my self-taught digital background during a time when very few had the skills and courses were hardly available.

I got my job as an art director with CCG.XM (better known as XM Asia, and now Mirum) where I spent six years learning the fundamentals of digital best practice. A milestone then was designing and launching Singapore Airlines’ first online booking website.

I moved on to Arc Worldwide, the digital-arm for Leo Burnett, as a creative director, where I honed my skills as a creative leader. It was at Leo Burnett that I gained most of my experience and knowledge in building brands working on the likes P&G, Hewlett-Packard, and Tiger Beer. It was there that I fell in love with advertising and realised the power of a big idea to transform businesses.

Yasmin Ahmad

Yasmin Ahmad

One day, Mark Tutssel, global chief creative officer of Leo Burnett, invited me to join the agency’s global council. It was a major honour and boost to my confidence as I was probably the youngest member on the panel then. Being on the council gave me the opportunity to be surrounded by many great creative leaders such as the late Yasmin Ahmad, and I got to watch them in action. Till this day, I cannot be more thankful for the years of experience I’ve gained from being at Leo Burnett.

I moved on to join Publicis for a short stint and landed at JWT/XM as ECD. I continued to grow as a leader in a network agency and the biggest milestone was when we won the Changi Airport and Singapore Tourism Board business back-to-back. That experience taught me that nothing is impossible and every pitch is yours if everyone puts his or her mind to it. I was promoted to chief creative officer and learned the art of leading an agency within the five years of being with them. It was also at JWT that I led as a global creative director for a brand (Shell Lubricants). That experience was priceless and very different from working on local or regional accounts. The clients were top-notch and respectful of what the agency had to offer and my team in JWT London was a dream A-Team to work with. It was with Shell that I made my most beautiful content for the campaign Real Destinations.

When the Facebook offer came along, it was perfect timing. I had felt like I needed to experience something different after almost 20 years in the agency world. It has been just six months and it feels like I’ve gained six years worth of knowledge. Every day there’s something to learn – from building a culture, to people management and of course best practices for coming up with creative ideas that work on platforms like Facebook, Instagram etc.

Who is your role model?

Linda Locke

Linda Locke

My time with Leo Burnett is also most significant because I got to work under Linda Locke, then regional ECD of Leo Burnett. Through her I’ve learned to be relentless if you want to create brilliance and that hard work eventually pays off. Just watching her work and her constant search for more creative solutions inspires me to do the same. I’ve learnt to genuinely care for my clients’ business and approach every brief strategically because Linda would question every problem that way. She was appreciative of those who worked hard but, tough on those who were lazy. Meetings with Linda trained me to come prepared and she used every second of her time effectively in the agency. She ‘threw’ me into ‘deep water’ many times to challenge myself and the most nerve-wrecking moment was chairing the Creative Circle Awards for the first time. It was also the event that put me in the spotlight and led to more judging opportunities like D&AD and Cannes.

Do you think there’s a glass ceiling in advertising in Singapore? 

I never felt at any point in my career that there was ever a glass ceiling. I would say my success came more from hard work than talent and that’s the sacrifice I had to make throughout my career, especially the times when I had my first child at 27. I was hardly home before mid-night and my mum was helping to take care of him. Being a fairly young mum then, I didn’t realise I was spending very little time with him. I believe my mum made up for that gap but in a very blessed way, my son has grown to be really attached to me.

I’ve had many female creatives in my team and it is mostly the phase of being a mum that forces women to rethink their priorities. This usually happens around their late 20s and early 30s and it is also the prime period which most creatives become creative directors. As the job becomes more demanding, hours become longer and more stressful, and most mums will face the difficult decision to choose family or spend less time with them. At this crossroad, I’ve seen many go freelance if they truly still enjoy advertising.

What are the sort of challenges you have faced as a woman in making it to the top of your profession?

In the office, I’ve never felt the challenges I faced were any different from those a man would confront. I thought being a woman had more positives than negatives. I felt clients were more appreciative at times that they had a female creative leader and were interested to know my point-of-view. I believe we are naturally more emotional and sensitive which is a strength to tap into for more insightful ideas.

When it comes to managing people, our sensitivity goes a long way to help us empathise with staff issues and needs. Overall, I always felt more protected by my global and regional management because they know how rare it is to have women among them and they really treasure what women have to offer.

What is your view on the belief that women do not want management roles in advertising?

In general, there are people (both men and women) who may not enjoy management responsibilities but what organisations need to do is to find the potential in those who can and nurture them to become leaders. I had the fortune to meet many such as Linda Locke who kept pushing me to rise above. Many others would benefit from that and maybe more so in women. It is often documented how women are more humble about their capabilities and may even shy from roles they think they cannot fulfil. This is why they need people to encourage them to “lean in” and take the plunge.

What do you make of the claim that women aren’t as creative as men?

I didn’t think God would be that unfair. If anything as I’ve mentioned, a woman’s strength lies in her sensitivity to understand people better, which can lead to more insightful ideas that hit the heart.

What advice would you give to a woman who aspires to be a creative director in Singapore?

Be prepared to work hard but also remember to work smart. Longer hours are not necessarily quality hours. Compartmentalise your day and devote time to other passions. A balance life and happy family will give your brain the boost you need to generate fresher ideas.

And most importantly, don’t give up on your career if you really love what you do. Speak to your bosses and try to work things out. If they treasure you, the organisation will do whatever it takes to make it work.


Euna SeolEuna Seol, chief creative officer and co-founder, PostVisual | KOREA

Tell us about your background and achievements.

I’m a dreamer who believes that a small piece of true communication can change the world.

I founded PostVisual in 2000 [which was acquired by J. Walter Thompson in 2013]. We won a Cyber Gold Lion at Cannes Lions in 2004, Gold, Silver, and Bronze at New York Festivals in 2006, and more than 60 awards from advertising festivals around the world. We are working with brands including Nike, Innisfree and Yuhan-Kimberly.

Who is your role model?

Pina Bausch

Dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch

Woody Allen, Robert Lapage, Pina Bausch, Haruki Murakami and Richard Curtis – contemporary storytellers who look deep inside themselves to create rich worlds and tell incredible stories.

Do you think there is a glass ceiling in Korea’s advertising industry? 

In Korea, regardless of gender, creative director is a job that requires a fiercely competitive nature, and will draw on all the energy you have. Korean women are asked to devote hard work to this job as well as the traditional role of housewife, taking care of the kids and doing domestic chores. This is an endless process, and 365 days in a year are never enough to do what needs to get done. It is like doing two jobs on a repeated cycle, part one in the office, part two at home. Women are trying their best to do everything, but at the same time they do not feel satisfied that they are doing everything well.

What are the sort of challenges you have faced as a woman in making it to the top of your profession? 

Not long after I had founded this company, I became a mother of two children. I always wanted to be with my babies, but I couldn’t be. I felt so sorry for them, because I couldn’t love them enough. I had to be perfect at my job. I focussed too much on doing things well at work and did not find the right balance between work and life. I eventually suffered from burnout. Though I had a hard time recovering, I learned a valuable lesson in how to balance what is important in life. My kids are more grown up now, and I want to say thanks to me back in the days. Now I appreciate every moment in my life and the fact that I have a role in both workplace and home. A successful career is only a part of the pleasure I take from life.

What is your view on the suggestion that women do not want management roles in advertising?

I think it is hard to form a view and generalise about whether women want management roles or not.

What do you make of the assertion that women aren’t as creative as men?

I think even to enter a debate about this is to give it credibility. I’d rather ignore it and not comment. Perhaps whoever said this has an inferiority complex.

What advice would you give to a woman who aspires to be a creative director in Korea?

At some point, I think it’s better not to give too much advice. Instead, I would recommend finding a quiet place, take a look deep into your heart, and listen to what it tells you. The answer is already there.


Kim PickKim Pick, creative director, Colenso BBDO/Proximity | NEW ZEALAND

Tell us about your career path and achievements.

I began my career as a journalist and film critic in New Zealand, before discovering copywriting in Australia. Within my first two years in advertising, I had won some of the top creative awards in Australia, and was headhunted from one role to another. By the age of 26, I was creative director of McCann Erickson, Singapore. In the UK, I became regional creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi London, writing the global campaign ‘Love the skin you’re in’ for Olay. For the last 10 years (since becoming a parent), I’ve teamed with husband and creative partner Wayne Pick at agencies TEQUILA\Auckland, RAPP New Zealand, RAPP New York (where I was ECD with a department of 60+ and US wide duties) and now Colenso BBDO/Proximity where I’m a CD.

Who is your role model?

David Droga was my mentor when I did AWARD School in Sydney, and he recruited me to join Saatchi’s when I moved to London. He was very focused on big, clean ideas and was ahead of the curve with thinking that has stuck with me, such as “don’t show me the ad, tell me the press release.”

Brigid Alkema

Brigid Alkema

I also admire Kate Stanners, who went from being ECD of Saatchi’s London to global CCO of the group.

And in New Zealand, Brigid Alkema, who has done amazing work at Clemenger Wellington and, as ECD, is now on the board of Clemenger Group.

Do you think there’s a glass ceiling in advertising in New Zealand? 

I find ‘glass ceiling’ a misleading term. It suggests there’s some sort of singular, tangible barrier that limits career progression for women, and or even some dastardly ‘white privileged male conspiracy’ to keep women out of the top jobs. But this is not the case, in New Zealand or elsewhere.

The answer to why there aren’t more female creative directors is complex, which was only reinforced last year when I was asked to be on a panel alongside some leading academics on the subject of gender diversity at the American Academy of Advertisers global conference.

These experts talked about how there is not so much a pipeline issue of people entering the industry (numbers coming out of ad school are generally 50/50, with women graduating in the tops spots equally to men) but a retention issue. As women have children, many find it difficult to return to work full-time in an industry that is known for its long, unpredictable hours, and often inflexible work arrangements. So while you may not find as many senior women creatives in traditional agency structures, instead you’ll see them in consultancies, freelance, running their own agencies, moving to digital or PR shops or to the client side.

The experts also talked about how the “masculinised environments” of some ad agency creative departments can contribute to women departing the industry. With personality factors such as “perseverance, toughness, competitiveness, and a thick skin” seen as important factors for success, this isn’t a comfortable environment for everyone to thrive in.

In fact, as women do rise to the top, experts say, the same personality traits that saw them succeed can go on to hinder them. Sheryl Sandberg recently referenced this in regard to the classic Harvard business case study of “Heidi/Howard”: the identical personality traits and networking skills considered likeable in a man, were, in a woman, seen as “selfish” and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.”

There are many more factors, including evidence that women don’t tend to apply for roles unless they are fully qualified for them, whereas men will apply even if they are underqualified. There is also the issue of ‘unconscious bias’ whereby even the most socially aware individuals and organisations can unwittingly perpetuate stereotypes and status quo by hiring or making decisions based on previous history.

I also believe that a creative woman’s portfolio can become too niche over time, if she is constantly assigned briefs with a female skew. And this can easily happen when women are under-represented in the creative department.

It’s a combination of all these factors that can lead to women not being in the top creative positions.

Now while you could dismiss this as natural attrition and “survival of the fittest”, it is vital to find a way to foster diversity – of ethnicity, age, socio-economic background and gender – in creative departments and in senior leadership roles.  As these roles tend to shape and influence culture (in organisations as well as society) – there must be more than one type of voice represented.

What are the sort of challenges you have faced as a woman in making it to the top of your profession?

Prior to becoming a parent, I don’t feel I faced any particular career-limiting challenges – in fact, quite the opposite, I felt my opportunities were limitless. In retrospect, being a minority woman in the creative department did lead to me receiving more than my fair share of female-skewed briefs which risked pigeon-holing me as a specialist. But, equally, I can say it made me highly sought after and employable.

However, as a parent, the challenge became the hours.

In London, with a small child, I needed to commute to Geneva for meetings and presentations which was hard to manage without outside support.

And in New York, I was regularly clocking 100 hours on my weekly time sheets, and spending weeks, even months, away from home because of production and client commitments. For many women with family commitments, this is not sustainable.

What is your view on the belief (proposed by Kevin Roberts recently) that women do not want management roles in advertising?

Kevin Roberts said two things on this subject, one related to women in creative, and the other regarding modern ambition in general:

Firstly he said: “We have a bunch of talented, creative females, but they reach a certain point in their careers … 10 years of experience, when we are ready to make them a creative director of a big piece of business, and I think we fail in two out of three of those choices because the executive involved said: ‘I don’t want to manage a piece of business and people, I want to keep doing the work’,” Roberts said.

In response to this, I believe that of course creative women aspire to management (and leadership, and executive and board) roles – and that they can excel in those roles. I also believe that there are women who are unable to accept greater responsibility in their careers because they do not have the support networks outside of work to support the longer hours, the evening networking, the breakfast meetings, the travel and all those things that come attached to a more senior role – for instance, if they have a partner who also works, and no external support with childcare. So it is not a matter of “wanting” but feasibility, and this varies by individual, regardless of talent.

Kevin Roberts also made a comment in regards to millennials (not women specifically) who don’t necessarily aspire to traditional views of success.

He said: “If you think about those Darwinian urges of wealth, power, and fame — they are not terribly effective in today’s world for a millennial because they want connectivity and collaboration. They feel like they can get that without managing and leading, so maybe we have got the definition wrong,” Roberts said.

“So we are trying to impose our antiquated shit on them, and they are going: ‘Actually guys, you’re missing the point, you don’t understand: I’m way happier than you.’ Their ambition is not a vertical ambition, it’s this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy.”

I believe what Kevin Roberts is saying here is not far from the views of people like Arianna Huffington, who in her book Thrive, says “For far too long, our male-dominated model of success has equated success with working around the clock, driving yourself into the ground, sleep deprivation and burnout…” and suggests that there can be a different way.

I think the point of contention was his remark that gender diversity “is not an issue.” And that “the debate is over”. When in fact statistics show that overall, while women account for the majority of those employed in ad agencies, they only make up a small minority of senior executive positions (and anything less than 15% is considered tokenism). This is an issue, and debate has just begun.

Generally, the industry does accept that change is needed, and that it needs to start at the top, which is why Clemenger Group began its Gender Diversity group almost two years ago, and has set targets to have women holding 40% of senior roles by 2020.

What do you make of the claim that women aren’t as creative as men?

The essence of creativity is the ability to draw connections and to see things in an original way – it’s cognitive. A creative brain can belong to anyone, male or female – including people who aren’t in the creative department.

Neil French

French: ‘Women are crap’

The most publicity ever given to the claim that women were less creative than men (based on global media mentions) was when Neil French said “women are crap” in 2005. He later clarified (after his global role was terminated, in somewhat of a déjà vu scenario) that it was not that they were crap creatively but because women ‘wimp out’: “If you can’t commit yourself to any job then, by definition, you’re crap at it,” he said.

What advice would you give to a woman who aspires to be a creative director in New Zealand?

Jump in. Hold on to your identity. Don’t mould your personality to try and conform or fit in to your creative department – instead you can help redefine what it is to be a creative. Find a mentor, learn to negotiate and present, provide PR quotes and promote yourself, don’t fall for any suggestion that emotion or humour or creativity is attached to one gender, watch that your portfolio doesn’t get narrowed down by accepting too many ‘female’ briefs. But most of all, focus on the work. And have fun. It’s awesome.


Tanke TankekoTanke Tankeko, executive creative director, strategist at large | THE PHILIPPINES

Tell us about your career path and achievements.

My career path is purely intuitive. Back in college, I took AB Journalism simply because the course offered respite from trigonometry and calculus. I was also self-aware in that I know I’m better with words, had a natural fondness for writing, literature, and the humanities. Little did I know that it was the perfect bed for my career in advertising as it gave me a competitive advantage, allowing me to be a hybrid, being both a strategist as well as an ECD.

I started out as a copywriter at Ace Saatchi and Saatchi and stayed with the company for over eight years until I was ACD. I moved to TBWA as CD. Was spun off to be chief creative officer of Creative Juice/Manila. I retired at 36 to be a chef and restaurateur. But the call of advertising and strategic planning has been incessant despite my move to a new industry. Eventually, I’ve found myself servicing brands again like Magnum Ice Cream, Bonchon Chicken, and political aspirants – from mayors to governors, senators and even a former president and most recently, through my former ad agency, the current President of the Philippines.

In so far as my career goes, I am most proud to hold over five Ads of the Year awards, hundreds of local and international metals ranging from Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze from the local Ad Congress, New York Festivals, London International Awards, Ad Fest, shortlists at the Cannes and is the first Filipino to win a One Show Pencil in 2004 for “Christmas Wish”, a 30-second radio spot for the Philippine General Hospital, when I was CD at TBWA\Santiago\Mangada\Puno. Oh, and I also judged the interactive category at New York Festivals.

Who is your role model?

Mmm… there isn’t one, but there are many that I admire for their specific traits. From the local industry, Melvin Mangada, chief creative officer and one of the managing partners of TBWA\Santiago\Puno\Mangada, is one of the biggest influences on my career. He made me comfortable with parallel thinking, celebrated my crazy and found genius in whatever madness my mind could muster when I was a young and wild copywriter. He was passionate, focused and unrelenting when it comes to hunting for the best idea.

There was also Jimmy Santiago, former ECD of Ace Saatchi and Saatchi (now one of the managing partners at TBWA\Manila), where I started out, and my first creative director, Robert Labayen, for whom I had a great appreciation for digesting a creative brief and tapping into the power of insights to effectively strike a social nerve.

In terms of writing, my style is a confluence of all the great writers I have been introduced to through books, films, theatre, graphic novels, and all the music I listened to, from Andrew Lloyd Webber, Burt Bacharach and Van Morrison, to Freddie Mercury, Stevie Nicks and Lou Reed.

Do you think there’s a glass ceiling in advertising in the Philippines? 

Leigh Reyes

Leigh Reyes

Merlee Cruz-Jayme

Merlee Jayme

I don’t think there is such. There have been a lot of great female ECDs around – Merlee Jayme of Dentsu Jayme Syfu, Leigh Reyes of Lowe and Trisha Uy of MMI, a lot of CDs at large such as Peachy Bretana, Judith Albano, and even a whole lot more we lent to the world such as Sheila de la Cuesta, Joni Caparas and Tin Sanchez. 

What are the sort of challenges you have faced as a woman in making it to the top of your profession?

Apart from the occasional nasty bout of PMS, I really couldn’t think of any.

What is your view on the belief that women do not want management roles in advertising?

He must be suffering from verbal diarrhea coupled with temporary dementia, or perhaps even possession when he said that. Well, I hope at the very least.

What do you make of the claim that women aren’t as creative as men?

It’s just like tall men who have said they were clueless about how their wives or girlfriends have been cheating on them, or slowly poisoning their food, or how much these women in their lives are contributing more than they do, if not economically, socially or societally for their very own psychological well-being by giving them the illusion that they are smaller than their men to help these poor guys compensate for their shortcomings.

What advice would you give to a woman who aspires to be a creative director in the Philippines?

Women or men or anyone in between, first and foremost, be authentic. No one fakes his or her way to the top. You have to be true to yourself, to what you know or don’t know, understand or don’t understand. Armour yourself with experience. Broaden your horizons; take in everything you can, good, bad and everything in between. Be fearless in that way, but not stupid enough to get yourself stuck in the muck (though I should say from experience that that’s where the some of the best stuff lies).

Be tolerant of different points of view. Be true to your clients. Advertising is a service industry. Creatives and their account manager counterparts have the duty to provide real, effective, and well thought of solutions to their clients. To do so, you have to put in all the necessary hours and focus to understand their brands and products, their markets and most of all their desires and unmet needs.

Know the competitive landscape. Study patterns, benchmarks, and best practices. That’s the only way you will ever arm yourself with knowledge and understanding. Listen to your gut, but have the discipline to really dig deep for data. When logic and emotions meet, that’s where the best solutions lie.

Never let ego get in the way for the hunt for the best idea, but do use it like a hunter chasing for its prey. It’s a team hunt, not a solitary one, though there are times you have to take the initial quest alone.

Most of all, never compromise yourself. Unless you really love where you are, and what you do, and believe in what you invest your time, mind, heart and spirit in to, you’re wasting your precious life.


Damisa OngsiriwattanaDamisa Ongsiriwattana, creative director, Ogilvy & Mather | THAILAND

Tell us about your career path and achievements.

I started my career at JEH United [now GREYnJ United after being acquired by Grey Worldwide in 2015], a local agency formed by Jureeporn Thaidumrong, one of the top female creative leaders in Thailand in 2005.

Over 11 years, I have had a chance to work at Ogilvy, J. Walter Thompson and Creative Juice\Bangkok. I am thankful to have received global and local awards including at Cannes Lions, London International Awards, One Show, Clio, Spike Asia and Adfest, and was a jury member at Cannes Lions 2014.

Who is your role model?

Jureeporn Thaidumrong

Jureeporn Thaidumrong

My role model is Ms. Jureeporn Thaidumrong. She is a famous creative and a true warrior of Thailand’s advertising industry. I was impressed by her vision and leadership, and her ability to transform a vision into a reality.

Do you think there’s a glass ceiling in advertising in Thailand? 

I don’t think there is a glass ceiling in Thailand’s ad industry. Once you’ve entered and proved yourself, gender inequality is not an issue here. We just started out with fewer female creatives at the entry level; 10 years ago there were not many female creative role models for the next generation to follow.

Punnee Chaiyakul

Punnee Chaiyakul

On-Usa Lamliengpol

On-Usa Lamliengpol

Although there aren’t too many female creative directors, there are many female executives at senior management level in Thailand, such as Khun Punnee Chaiyakul, chairman of Ogilvy Bangkok, and On-Usa Lamliengpol, chairman of Leo Burnett Thailand. Personally, I think it is because Thai women have excellent management skills.

What are the sort of challenges you have faced as a woman in making it to the top of your profession?

For me, being a woman in advertising is more like an opportunity than a challenge. As I mentioned, there are not so many women. And if you can prove your value as a creative, people see you as a good creative, not a female creative.

What is your view on the belief that women do not want management roles in advertising?

Most creative people I have worked with, both men and women, want to progress in their career, but perhaps do not want to move into management roles. Being creative and being a manager are two very different things in my view.

What do you make of the claim that women aren’t as creative as men?

I think we all have experienced very good and less good creatives, both female and male. The important thing is to raise the creative bar of our industry, and also the reputation of the industry to outsiders, rather than focusing on which sex is more or less creative.

What advice would you give to a woman who aspires to be a creative director in Thailand?

I believe women are stronger than men. Put on your lipstick and be creative.


Fiona ChenFiona Chen, creative director, Ogilvy & Mather Shanghai | CHINA

Tell us about your career path and achievements.

I started out as an F/A artist back in the old days when computers had yet to exist in Singapore. I was completely self taught, and worked my way up to my position as a creative director now.

My first stop in China was in Beijing in 1997, then to Shanghai in 2000. And I’ve been in Shanghai ever since. I consider myself half local Chinese.

I think that my passion and extrovert personality made me stand out from the crowd, and I became one of the youngest creatives to become a creative director at Ogilvy back in those days. (I was barely 28 years old then.)

I have bagged some local and international awards.

Who is your role model?

My role model is myself. I’m tough. I’m passionate. I’m self taught. I’m talented. And I’m a woman.

Do you think there’s a glass ceiling in advertising in China? 

It’s true that creative women are facing many challenges when moving up the ladder. It’s also the reality that there are way fewer female creative directors then male creative directors. From my experience in China, there are two major reasons for this.

The first being that the ballsy nature of a creative director is at odds with the social stereotype that is expected of a Chinese woman.

In my view, the job of a creative director is a tough one. You need to have a unique and firm point of view, even if it means being unsympathetic and unaccommodating.

So what do you call women who will not take ‘no’ for an answer, or outspoken women who express themselves with colourful expletives, or make you work late at night only to kill your ideas in the morning because they aren’t good enough, or fight tooth and nail to protect an idea?

Because of our passion and toughness, we are labelled many unpleasant things, a lot of times the ‘B’ word.

On the other hand, society is much more tolerant towards a man who is outspoken, or tough, or fierce. It’s a sad inequality.

I’ve been told many times that I’ve earned my fame as the ‘B’ in the industry. But it won’t change who I am. As I know, I’m quite good at my job, and I push the boundaries of my team to keep doing better. I will retain my passion and my toughness to get me and my team more recognition from the industry.

The second main reason why there aren’t more female creative directors out there is the clients’ need (or lack of need) for us. For obvious reasons, many skincare and beauty clients love to work with creatives who are women. I appreciate their trust and enjoy working with them.

However, it’s unfortunate that some clients I have encountered don’t believe in female talent. Shocking, but true.

I once pitched for a local client with a team of female professionals, and we lost the pitch. Afterwards, I heard from my friend from the winning agency that the client told them they have doubts that an all-women team is capable of handling their business. It’s really depressing that we lost just because we are women.

Another example is for an international car client. During the first meeting with the client, after I introduced myself, the key client pointed at me and said aloud that they ‘doubted that women can make car ads’. Frustrating and ridiculous, but true.

I strongly believe female creatives can work as broadly and deeply as any of our male counterparts. Our talent should not be contained ONLY to areas that traditionally ‘belong’ to women.

I have had the great pleasure of working with many amazing ECDs and CCOs at Ogilvy. None of them labelled me as a creative only suitable for ‘female industries’. They give female creatives the same chance to shine as long as we deliver good work. I hope clients can also embrace this diversity and can judge us by the work we do, not by who we are.

What is your view on the belief that women do not want management roles in advertising?

Bullshit. I think that anybody who has the capability and talent for a creative management role should go for it, regardless of gender. As a woman, you need to trust yourself, work hard, and lean in! Don’t let the social stereotype limit your potential.

What do you make of the claim that women aren’t as creative as men?

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I feel sorry for those men who think that because they are missing out on a hell lot of talent. On the other, I blame the women who these primitive men have based their conclusions on. It’s a pity that they don’t push hard enough to get what they deserve.

What advice would you give to a female creative who’s starting out in her career in China?

The same advice I would give any talented person, regardless of gender. Be fearless. Be creative. Try everything.


Zenobia PithawallaZenobia Pithawalla, executive creative director, Ogilvy & Mather Mumbai | INDIA

Tell us about your career path and achievements.

I joined Ogilvy and Mather, Mumbai in April 1994 as a trainee copywriter. The vacancy was in what was then known as the Promotional Campaigns Division. About three years down the line I moved into advertising. So it has now been over two decades with Ogilvy & Mather.

Key accomplishments. For someone who went to four colleges in 6 years, I would say my greatest achievement is to have stayed in one profession and one agency for over 20 years. Ogilvy & Mather does that to you.

I have been on international juries. The Cannes Lions Film jury 2016 being the most recent one. I have received the Woman Leadership Achievement award 2016 from The World Women Leadership Congress.

Who is your role model?

My role model is Piyush Pandey. Why he is my role model would require a separate article [read our interview with the Ogilvy India chairman in 2014]. For now I’ll just say: from him you don’t just learn about advertising. You learn about Life.

Do you think there’s a glass ceiling in advertising in India? 

I feel when you are in a creative business, the only thing that matters to all those you interact with for work is whether you are creative enough. A client who is putting his trust and money into an agency will only make a request for the most creative team. No client has ever called and said I want a man to lead my business. So I genuinely believe there is scope for equal growth for all. In fact, I know of a lot of women creative directors in India.

What are the sort of challenges you have faced as a woman in making it to the top of your profession?

I am happy to be a woman. In my experience, people are nicer and gentler around women.
Be it bosses, clients, etc. And I like it that way. I feel often I have done crazy stuff and got away with murder, only because I am a woman. Being a woman has not posed a challenge for me, in fact it has been a privilege.

What is your view on the assertion that women do not want management roles in advertising?

This question needs context. Every creative person’s ideal world, (be it a man or woman) is where they could keep creating without the hassle of fire fighting, dealing with problem people and people’s problems. But as one grows, this becomes a part and parcel of your job and you just do it. And get on with it.

What do you make of the claim that women aren’t as creative as men?

The good thing about creativity is you can have the best idea on one brief. But there will always be someone who’ll have a better idea on another. Allowing different people to excel at different points. So sometimes a great idea can come from a woman, another time it can come from a man. This is creativity. There are no rules.

What advice would you give to a woman who aspires to be a creative director in India?

I would like to frame this differently. My advice is for creative professionals who are starting out, doesn’t matter whether they are young women or young men. Do all the work that comes your way, happily. There are no small briefs. Treat all briefs with equal respect.
You never know which brief will get you your glory. And last, but not the least, make sure you are doing what you love to do.


Lizi Hamer

Lizi Hamer, regional creative director, Octagon | AUSTRALIA

Tell us about your career path and achievements.

Maybe one day I can answer a series of questions about being a creative director, not a female CD.

I started with one foot in the art world and another in sport from a young age, so it’s no wonder I ended up as regional CD at Octagon and co-founder of SisuGirls.org.

I cut my teeth in advertising at McCann Sydney, winning my first digital Cannes Lion in the first year on the job. My creative journey took me to Saatchi & Saatchi Sydney where our team changed Australian law in partnership with Greenpeace with their ‘Reverse Retail’ campaign.

Moving to Asia, I worked as creative first for Sapient Nitro and then Arcade, where I led the Heineken account across Southeast Asia, building Heineken’s music presence through a 5-year social experiment; ‘The Heineken Original Sound Experiments.’ I captured the attention of fans as I worked on groundbreaking projects with Red Bull, Magnum Ice Cream and Airbnb.

Since joining Octagon I have led the creative output of the APAC region. In the Australian market we recently worked with Dove Men+Care and David Pocock to challenge the stereotypes of masculinity within society. An important message led by an incredible man and a brave brand.

Most recently, we have reinforced the partnership of Standard Chartered Bank and Liverpool Football Club with a VR experience – Inside Anfield.

I believe in the power of smart partnerships and generous ideas. You either have to be entertaining or useful, and on a great day both.

Who is your role model?

Damon Stapleton, ECD, DDB New Zealand. He says, “great work takes courage and bravery.” Damon was ECD while I worked at Saatchi & Saatchi, Sydney. I learn and continue to learn from his wit, his ability to find the heart of the idea and his passion for craft. Damon taught me to learn about human beings, understand their drive, cares, worries and passions. And he always supports the maverick.

Colleen Decourcy, partner and global ECD, Wieden + Kennedy. “There’s a constant tension between the craft and the curiosity, that says “let’s do something new.” Colleen is a women who sits on a global stage and leads by example. She talks frankly about the industry, success and motherhood. Her ability to shape an organisation from the top in today’s world is essential. I believe it’s important to have a global understanding of the landscape.

Yasmin Quemard

Yasmin Quemard

My incredible peers are role models as they continue to inspire and motivate me to keep pushing the boundaries; Laura Jordan Bambach [creative partner at Mr President in the UK], Melanie Cook [APAC head of strategy at Sapient Nitro], Yasmin Quemard [senior creative at Ensemble Australia] and Miranda Dimopoulos [CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau of Singapore]. Smart intelligent women who are rocking their stages.

Do you think there’s a glass ceiling in advertising in Australia? 

Men and women in creative departments

Gender breakdown in Australian agency creative departments. Source: Campaignbrief

I think some progress has been made in Australia to get more women into the creative department. But seeing more at the top hasn’t eventuated yet.Keep going SheSays you’re helping support women in the industry.

Working to make creative teams more diverse is essential. Having diverse teams means there will be more opinions, more understanding, a range of personal experiences that shape us and in turn deliver more varied and creative ideas.

There is no quick fix to changing an entrenched culture. It requires commitment, target setting, real policy and procedural change from the top. Plus a dash of boldness to build tomorrow’s creative teams.

What are the sort of challenges you have faced as a woman in making it to the top of your profession?

The challenge I always faced was in asking myself: ‘do I become one of the boys or do I escape the boys club and hope to grab hold of insights, briefs and good jobs through other means?’ While I’m still in the middle of my career, I believe you need champions on the inside to survive – both male and female. I was fortunate to have several male champions, and I know they continue to support women in creative departments throughout Australia.

What is your view on the assertion that women do not want management roles in advertising?

I can only speak for myself. I certainly want to be an ECD and a CCO. I recognise that holding a management role is very different in a creative department, as opposed to ‘being a creative’. Our industry needs to figure out how we nurture supportive leaders who can build diverse departments, spot new ideas and strategically align businesses to embrace creativity. The Modern Creative Leader conversation at VIVID has started this conversation.

What do you make of the claim that women aren’t as creative as men?

An individual is as creative as they dare to be. You have to dance a fine line of courage, dramatic thinking, human understanding and absorb from the greats who have created the rules for you to break. It is individuals who choose to become creative. It is only you who holds you back. The only thing to learn is say every idea out loud.

What advice would you give to a woman who aspires to be a creative director in Australia?

If you think about glass ceilings, people and the conventions that may hold you back – you’re wasting energy you could spend on creativity. Be creative, be optimistic, be excited and deliver exceptional work. Learn what you want and how to ask for it. But ultimately be the inspiring person you’d want to work with.

Got a view? Write to us at Robin.hicks@mumbrella.asia.


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