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Why Getting More Women onto Award Show Juries Could be the Ultimate Ad Industry Hack

London, UK
Advertising's jury gender skew is somehow still a thing. Laura Swinton talks to the ADC about how they're trying to push for change

“Of all the things we’ve done at ADC this has been the hardest, psychologically. When you basically hit a wall and come up against negativity and anger then you start to think you’re crazy. We got people telling us saying that we were wrong, that it sucked, that it shouldn’t exist.” What could ADC's Executive Director Ignacio Oreamuno possibly have done to earn such a torrent of disapproval? Decided to populate his juries with pre-schoolers? Chimpanzees? Err, not exactly. The answer is: a few more women. The ADC’s 50/50 initiative to create gender-balanced award show juries and remove some invisible barriers to adland super stardom has just entered its second year. Ignacio is convinced that basic changes like this hold the key to transforming the industry and righting its (kinda retro) track record on female leadership. So why are other award shows and parts of the industry digging their heels in?

I caught up with ADC’s Director of Awards Programme, Jen Larkin Kuzler, and Ignacio for what I thought would be a ‘nice’ news story. You know the sort of thing. Positive. Blandly upbeat. Maybe a little bit fluffy. I remembered the announcement of 50/50 last year, feeling a mixture of delight and bemusement (how is this still an issue? Seriously.) and so when I heard they were entering their second year I wanted to follow up on it. But what I came across was a couple of people absolutely fired up, pragmatic, and frustrated by their efforts to implement a small change that could have a massive impact on the whole advertising industry. 

Award shows are as much a part of the fabric of the industry as pitches and pre-prod meetings. They’ve also become money-making behemoths, particularly the global shows. But as far as Ignacio is concerned, they exert a far deeper influence on the industry than many will admit – particularly when it comes to hiring and promoting creative leaders. That’s why he and Jen devised the 50/50 scheme. 

“From the advertising award perspective it was very clear that the problem was in part related to the award shows. All of the award shows use judges from other award shows and it creates this circuit. Once you’re in it, you never leave. You’ve got men who maybe haven’t done cool work for four years judging over and over and over again. You don’t see a lot of young people who might be doing great work being asked to join in,” Ignacio told me. 

The award jury and speaker gig is certainly an effective way to play the adland fame game, but it can also be closed circuit, a self-perpetuating cycle of the same old faces hogging precious top-of-mind space for journalists, recruiters and, well, other award show curators. 

The team has little time for conspiracy theories that women are being deliberately kept out of creative leadership positions due to the nebulous, nefarious ‘middle aged white man’, whose spectral form haunts most ‘Women in Advertising’ debates, conferences and articles. They are equally averse to navel-gazing and over-intellectualising when there are basic, practical steps that might produce more change and less hot air. (“This industry has become so good at bullshitting that it’s actually started bullshitting itself,” notes Ignacio, wryly.) As Ignacio tells me, it’s more about recognising and removing the hidden stumbling blocks that nudge women off the path to success.

“There’s a mechanism and this is the thing that no one wants to admit,” says Ignacio. “Say, for example, WPP is opening up an agency in Argentina or Germany and they have to find a creative director to run that shop. That person is different from anyone else in that agency because they’re the person that manages the ideas. They’re your hero. Take, for example, Dave Droga or Ted Royer. They’re the person that symbolises everything. So if I’m the money guy I need to find someone that has spoken at loads of events and judged at lots of award shows. And if the award shows are picking the same guys it means if I’m going to pick someone to run that agency I’m probably going to pick a man.”

The thinking is, if more women can be welcomed into the elite global network of jury regulars, we might see a trickle-up effect with more female talent being welcomed into the upper echelons. What's more, both think that this could, potentially, send out all sorts of ripples into the wider industry culture. “Women who had never judged before and were chosen for our jury are popping up at other award shows, so they’re clearly watching,” Jen tells me. “That’s progress in my mind.”

When the ADC team first came up with the initiative, one of the first things they did was to contact all of the other big award shows to get them in on the action. 50-50 does not carry ADC branding, it includes a free-to-access directory of high-achieving female talent and was created as a platform that any show could get on board with and take ownership of. The response, however, was not as forthcoming as one might have expected.

“When I started the whole thing, the first thing I did was to call the One Show, Cannes, D&AD, CLIO, everybody. I told them they should join and the consensus was that having an equal balance of men and women or adding women to the jury would literally degrade the quality of judging. They were worried that there weren’t enough women in advertising so we can’t afford to decrease the quality of judging. I had a very big problem with that because we’re global award shows. When Jen is picking juries, she can pick from any country in the whole world. We have 70 judges more or less so that means you need 35 women. So to hear from our peers in other award shows that they can’t find 30 or 40 or 60 women, it’s absolutely insulting. Insulting is the best way to describe it.”

For Jen, who curates the juries, accusations that including more women on an award show jury degrades it have been particularly galling. “The misconception – and I find it so ridiculous that I can’t believe I’m saying this out loud – is the issue of quality. People have said that by doing 50/50 we’re taking women off the bench. We’re not asking women who just entered the industry yesterday to judge an award show. We’re taking women with experience, with exciting ideas and great work under their belt. There’s a curation process. I’ve been accused of that, just grabbing women off the street, it’s ridiculous. The men go through an intense curation process, why wouldn’t we do that with the women?” she tells me, her voice incredulous.

As for Ignacio, his response is one of disappointment. Both he and Jen reiterate that they don't want to preach or police, they want to create an open platform that other organisations can join in with if they like - but you can tell they were hoping for a little more bravery. “We missed a chance [last year]. We could have jumped forward in ten years if everyone would have done it. If Cannes would have done it that would have forced everyone else to follow suit.”

However despite their frustrations there has been tangible progress. In Canada, for example, every local show signed up. A whole country changed its award show culture with a few phone calls – and they’re already getting in touch with Jen to let her know that they’ll be continuing with 50-50 for another year. The CLIOs has also been participating in 50/50 and has been very supportive of ADC’s efforts and has been working closely with them.

And what’s more the feedback from last year’s judges has been that shoring up the gender-balance has re-energised the jury room debates. It has liberated female CDs from the (sometimes stifling) burden of being the sole representative of womankind that comes from being the only gal in the room. It has also, notes Jen, shifted the flow of conversation and atmosphere.

Of course finding and inviting more talented creative hotshot women to attend juries is only half the battle – the next step is for these women to accept the invitations. On their part, ADC has transformed their Costa Rica judging retreat to a family-friendly affair by explicitly welcoming kids, husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends. 

“These are amazing women, smart, creative women. And sometimes they’re hesitant to say yes so the onus is on each of us to help them say yes. It’s about not just asking,” says Jen. “There are lots of reasons to say no.”

The curious thing, though, about chatting to Jen and Ignacio about 50/50 is that their long term goal is an industry that doesn’t even need such a scheme. As far as Ignacio is concerned, the gender imbalance at senior levels doesn’t reflect the make-up of the industry at lower levels. The endless hum of ineffectual debate around the issue excludes men and doesn’t take the industry forward or change much (he had some choice words for events that turned down 50/50 yet host a raft of talks about ‘wimmen’). What they want to see is more award shows getting on board, agreeing to experiment even if just for a year or so at first. If they give it a go, and more importantly give women a chance, they might just see a new, more balanced natural order assert itself.  

Advertising is an industry that prides itself on being full of cosmopolitan, early adopters but the fame-circuit’s gender skew is so old school that it’s almost quaint. ‘Retro’ in the most twee and cloying way imaginable. Or, as Ignacio puts it ‘this is one of the most conservative industries in the world even though everyone dresses in jeans shorts and t-shirts’. 

From my point of view ADC deserves a bit more support from other shows and the wider industry. If everything goes to plan, getting more women into judging rooms could be the ultimate ad industry hack.

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