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Back to the future in Cairns

'You Can’t Ask That' panel at Cannes in Cairns (B&T)
'You Can’t Ask That' panel at Cannes in Cairns (B&T)

Words by Jane Caro

I left advertising about 16 years ago, so it’s been a long time since I’ve had much to do with the business that I had worked in for 35 years.

It was with delight, but some trepidation, therefore, that I accepted an invitation to speak at the second annual Cannes in Cairns advertising and marketing extravaganza. I am not usually nervous about presenting in public, but, as the day approached, I found myself unaccountably jittery. I could see so much had changed since I’d been in the business, especially around technology.

One thing I noticed from the moment I arrived, was how many more of the delegates were women, compared to numbers at the ad conferences I had attended in the ’80s and ’90s. At least half of the delegates and - perhaps even more importantly - the speakers were women. Amy Shapiro, who helped organise the conference, told me she had worked hard to get as equal numbers as she could. As a beneficiary of her efforts, I thank her.

However, we were also overwhelmingly white women, many with the shiny good looks of the privileged, and all but a handful appeared to be under 50. Nevertheless, more chicks is an improvement, right? I was genuinely pleased to see that some things really had improved. Advertising as an industry likes to pride itself on being cutting edge and ahead of the curve. But I have always felt that advertising doesn’t create trends, it reflects them and is still mostly a conservative workplace.

Cannes in Cairns 2023 (B&T)
Cannes in Cairns 2023 (B&T)

Talking to some of the delegates over the three days of the conference, about the current position of women in advertising and marketing, I discovered that much of the industry itself was still lagging behind. A major clue was that only one woman I spoke to agreed to allow me to use her name. Caitlin Haskins, from Azerion JAPAC, was full of enthusiasm for her employer. “I had great male mentors guiding me,” she said, “And parental leave is both male and female focussed.” (Note to bosses, treat your female employees fairly and they are quick to sing your praises.)

Her friend, who worked elsewhere and preferred to remain nameless, also had a good boss who promoted her seven times. However, even this enlightened man groaned when she brought up the company’s extended parental leave policy. Back in 1987, I got fired when I was four months pregnant so, I suppose, a groan is better than that. But does it still have to be so bloody hard?

And it does seem as if it is parenting that remains the great impediment to women’s careers. One senior woman confided, that when she had her first daughter, it was challenging to negotiate working from home on Friday.

“I had to cope with my female boss thinking I would not be productive if I was at home, even though every Friday everyone else went to a boozy lunch.”

And things did not improve when her child was older. “I had to leave at 3pm to pick her up on some days, and someone would always ask if I’d got an early mark, so I used to hide my bag in the toilet so I could look like I was going to the loo and not leaving.”

Research from the Ad Council backs up my observations. People working in advertising are more likely to be white, young and private school educated, and women and people from diverse ethnic backgrounds are more likely to complain of discrimination and less likely to be retained. Perhaps that’s why another delegate, an older woman felt that the barriers for women were less daunting in the early part of her career. Her younger companions did not agree. “If I have my hair down, I get taken less seriously,” one told me. Another added: “Young women feel underestimated when they walk into a room.”

But it’s not all bad news. A woman who runs her own business said: “I want to hire mothers; they actively work harder.” She was also full of praise for the organisers of Cannes in Cairns. “It’s so good to see so many women speaking – more than at any other conferences.” One young man who spoke to me also made me feel hopeful.

“I am so fortunate to work with incredible female leaders,” he said, “but I think there is still a way to go.”

The fact that he wasn’t arguing that all was fine because he had a woman boss gave me more hope than anything. If young men are starting to notice the inequality, that’s a real step forward.

Nonetheless, there remains a lot going unsaid in advertising and marketing at the moment. Like other parts of the media, advertising has no trouble attracting women but they are still under-represented in senior ranks. As one woman said: “You can’t be controversial and a woman in leadership.” Unless you own your own business, perhaps. Dee Madigan, ECD and founder of Campaign Edge, pulled no punches in her presentation. “I think the advertising industry has gotten off very lightly after #MeToo,” she said, and then, after a perfectly timed pause, she added, “So far”.”

Let’s hope that at the next Cannes in Cairns more women are prepared to give me their name.


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