CANNES, France – Helen McRae, the CEO of one of Britain’s largest advertising media buyers, once said, “My experience in this industry has never been one where I have seen sexism.”
She got into trouble for that because, obviously, the advertising industry is rife with sexism of all kinds. She rolls her eyes when Business Insider read that quote from 2015 back to her at the Cannes Lions ad festival. Apparently, she got some flak for saying it. “That led to a whole slew of trolling … lots of people commenting ‘oh does she go home and play with her unicorn at night?’ It was hardly on a massive scale but it was annoying,” McRae says.
Today, she goes to lengths to explain that what she meant was that she hadn’t seen sexism inside Mindshare, the media agency she controls which places £566 million ($724 million) of advertising in the UK every year, for clients such as 21st Century Fox and Marks & Spencer.
The quote makes a lot more sense with that context because of course she has seen sexism: She sees it in The Sun, The Express and the Daily Mail, which routinely run extended discussions of the state of various TV personalities’ breasts, female politicians’ legs and skirt lengths, and how “ample” various famous women’s bodies are, on any given day.
“Brand safety” is a big issue in Cannes this year, because advertisers are becoming annoyed at seeing their ads run next to jihadi recruitment videos on YouTube and hate speech on Facebook. Both Alphabet and Facebook are going to lengths to clean up their acts. But the brand safety debate has not yet extended to sexism in media. Advertisers aren’t generally bothered if their ads run in the same paper as The Sun’s “Titsee Index,” a feature that rates Oscar nominees based on how much cleavage their dresses show.
So, when McRae sees stuff like this in the Sun, Mail and Express, doesn’t she ever think “this is ridiculous, why are we supporting this with ad money”?
“I do think it’s ridiculous,” she says. “I don’t like discrimination of any form, whether it be by gender or race, etc. And I think the point is there is a general consensus that we have to do something about it. There is a lot of discussion, I think we have to start doing things to change that.”
One of the things she is doing is supporting Unilever’s Unstereotype Alliance. The organisation is supported by WPP, IPG, Facebook, Google, Mars, Microsoft and J&J, and it aims to end sexist portrayals of women and men in advertising.
But McRae is reluctant to say outright that she would advise clients not to appear inside sexist or hate-filled media. All clients are different, she says. One example is Breitbart, the rightwing news website that was recently kicked off the AppNexus network when the online ad company concluded it had broken its rules against supporting hate speech with ad dollars.
“It causes a lot of reflection within clients and some clients have actually said the people we want to talk to, to sell products to, are in this place, on Breitbart. Other clients take a more corporate perspective, a more corporate standpoint, and say we do not want to be associated, we’re going to make a unilateral decision to not do that,” McRae says.
In fact, McRae has been on a journey of discovery since the Brexit vote last year, which took the largely pro-European ad industry by surprise. She used to ignore the Mail, but now doesn’t because she wants to know what’s going on outside the London bubble.
“Brexit last year in Cannes, what it made me realise is, to me, the industry as a whole I don’t think is reflective enough of the greater UK population. I don’t mean that from a gender perspective, I mean really understanding, outside the M25, really understand who are these people, what are their fears or concerns? One of the takeaways from the Brexit bit is we need to have more diversity in our organisation – otherwise we run the risk of being left-leaning Guardian readers, actually not able to understand what is relevant to people living in very different circumstances. It opened my eyes a lot and I changed my own reading behaviour, to be a bit more broad. I have now started to read the Daily Mail, very quickly,” she says.
“It’s not about the politics it’s more about, what are people taking about? What are the concerns? And I even started look at Fox News as well, to see the two sides of the same issues. What gets higher coverage? What gets lower coverage? What people are talking about. I felt after Brexit the only thing in my Facebook feed was an echo chamber of collective vitriol and horror, etc. And I had to pull myself out of that and say, what really is going on? Because I wasn’t getting any answers from that.”