The M&C Saatchi sexism debate says a lot about the trade press

Rosie Baker
By Rosie Baker | 25 January 2016

M&C Saatchi has now come out and apologised about the offence caused by the entertainment at its birthday celebrations.

Events snowballed since the event last Thursday (21 January). First Mumbrella attacked and then the mainstream press picked it up and it became a national issue. Although I don’t completely agree with the furore that has flared up, it is right that M&C has issued an apology and I believe that the agency and its senior management are sincere when they say they are “devastated this has caused offence and concern around this issue.” 

The apology flips from the original comment given by Tom McFarlane but reads sincerely, but it was a case of damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Say nothing and it spirals and you become vilified in the media. Say sorry and you’re conceding wrongdoing. 

I’m sure that the editorial team at Mumbrella are rubbing their hands together at a victory for feminism (and of course traffic) but I’m troubled by the whole thing for a few reasons, and not all of them are about sexism or M&C Saatchi. I’m currently in Hong Kong and haven’t had an opportunity to put pen to paper on this – but it’s been on my mind since it kicked off on Friday. Bear with me - this is a long one, but please read to the end.

I’ve written before around the issues of sexism in the industry and the fundamental issues of policy that need to be addressed as well as the sexism we know exists. (Read my take on the sexism issue that engulfed Leo Burnett last year:  and read our November feature ‘Stonewalled Women’ that asked senior creative women what steps the industry could actually take to improve). I fully believe that there are problems with sexism in the industry that have to be addressed – but I didn’t feel that this party was indicative of it. Now I’m wondering if I’m horribly out of touch.

From a female perspective, I don’t see burlesque as degrading to women – I see it as an empowering form of art. A lot of women agree – but then a lot don’t.

Do I think that it’s OK for women to be subjected to derisive and degrading treatment at the hands of men? Obviously not. Do I think that’s what happened at M&C’s party? Absolutely not. Is it a grey area about what should and shouldn’t be acceptable at industry parties? Definitely.

But is the attacking nature of the article that emerged a signal of what is wrong with segments of the Australian trade press? I’ll let you decide.

Granted, having a scantily clad woman (note woman, not girl) jump out of a cake isn’t the most progressive of concepts, but it was part of a tongue in cheek celebration at a 21st birthday party event which was themed around looking back on 21 years as well as looking forward. She wasn’t a stripper, and it should also be pointed out that burlesque differs greatly from stripping. All the acts were professionals in their field, and not vulnerable people coerced into a performance.

Had M&C Saatchi snared Lady Gaga or Dita Von Tesse to perform in some way – would we be hearing complaints then? No – but both those high profile, strong women often dress provocatively in the burlesque style not dissimilar to that adopted by The Bag Ladies (who are highly regarded dance artists in Australia). And as for the Bag Ladies' routine? It’s satire and was created originally as a comment against consumerism. The irony of that concept being performed at an advertising agency party is an irony that hasn’t been picked up by many. The outcry around ‘who thought it was a good idea to put bags over their faces?!’ Presumably the dancers who came up with the act did.

As far as line ups of any kind of event I’ve been to in the ad industry, M&C Saatchi’s entertainment line-up was one of the most diverse. A drag trapeze acrobat, scantily clad male dancers, scantily clad female dancers, a black female singer and a black UK DJ alongside a caucasion Australian DJ.

I identify as a feminist in a lot of ways. Feminism to me largely comes down to choice. The ability of a woman to choose what she participates in – not to have that dictated by society (or men). If a woman chooses to make money from her sexuality – then that is her choice and it’s a powerful one – there shouldn’t be anyone barefaced enough to tell her she can’t.

If a woman chooses that she finds burlesque to be degrading, she can choose to not participate, not watch the show, and she has the right not to be judged for that decision and preference. As do men. But at no point during the course of the evening did it enter my mind that anything sexist or degrading was happening around me. Does that make me sexist or anti-feminist? I don't think so.

Alongside this, I’m also largely offended by the way it’s been used to crowbar in the genuine debate that should be had about equality and diversity in the industry. The issues around the gender pay gap (which exists), paid parental leave, flexible working hours, childcare for families, discrimination and sexual harrassment in the workplace are very real.

These are serious things that have an impact on the industry (as well as most others) and party entertainment doesn’t scratch the surface - so by aligning the two, I think an unfair mis-step is being made.

I think at least part of the reason that this has troubled me so much is that if someone (or an organisation) is going to position themselves as the bastion of ethics and moral standing, I think the credibility of that person and that organisation to do so plays a big role. Do I think Mumbrella is the organisation to do that? Actually no, I don’t. And it's not because of the gender make-up of its team.

Being female doesn’t necessarily make me more qualified to discuss the issues of feminism and sexism, but I find something inherently patronising about a group of (predominantly) male industry journalists attempting to dictate what women should and should not be offended by, swooping in like feminist crusaders to save all the poor women in advertising subjected to such a great display of sexism. [Note this is my interpretation of that article and how I felt upon reading it, Tim Burrows has pointed out in a comment on another AdNews article since I wrote this but prior to publishing that the article was written by two men and two women, but of the four Mumbrella staff at the party three were male. Plus Tim - the content director – is male.]

I know Tim professionally. I used to work (briefly) with Simon Canning. I don’t know their new managing editor Suzan Ryan (I don’t even think she was there) but I know Nic, Alex and Miranda fairly well and respect all three personally, but the commentary that Mumbrella pursued after the party, feels like another example of hunting for a negative angle.

It’s not that I don’t believe the team at Mumbrella hold the view that the entertainment was sexist, they’re entitled to whatever opinion they like, as is anyone else, but what I’m taking issue with is the editorial approach.

The description of the event and the performances didn’t give a fair reflection in my mind and part way explains why the majority of the comments come from people who weren’t actually there and so are making a judgement about whether it was acceptable or not from a write up that seems out of context.

Reading the vibe in the room it was all part of a spectacle, a themed party designed to be glamorous and fun. It didn’t feel as though anyone at the party found the acts offensive on the night (except the Mumbrella team, who according to a photo actually looked to be having a bloody good time too). I spent the evening catching up with M&C’s senior team and industry people and having a ball with my own team dancing at the front to Norman Jay reminiscing about Notting Hill Carnival.

I then spent the next day wondering if I was at the same event, reeling from the backlash, which feels as though it’s been contrived out of a desire to shock and dig the knife in. My immediate thought was that it was a cheap and negative shot, indicative of the approach taken by Mumbrella over a range of issues. A digital stirring of the pot to generate clicks under the veil of addressing an issue. It seems to deliberately skew the perception of the night to fit in with the point it’s trying to make – glossing over the diversity and theming of the event, to bring someone or something down a peg or two.

Since being editor of AdNews, through our content and through the way we interact with the industry, I have been crafting a position for AdNews, of what we want to stand for and how we want to be viewed in the market. It builds on the 90 or so years of heritage that the brand has that was built by editors before me such as Paul McIntyre (and even further back if you can remember that long).

That position is to be a constructive voice in the market. To cover the industry and challenge it but in an insightful, constructive and progressive voice. Not to take a classic red top look for the negative and scandalous headlines and angles but the ones that will offer a credible and authoritative perspective and inform our readers. That doesn’t mean being a soft touch, and we may not always get it right, but it does mean not deliberately attacking the industry like a savage dog at any opportunity. As I’ve discussed with a number of agency heads already this year how we’re aiming to bring more female voices into our coverage because we recognise that we are part of the problem that there is a lack of visibility for female voices in the market. But playing the long game doesn't have as much of a bang.

On Friday, a brief scan of the comment pieces on the left hand column of Mumbrella, those reserved for its journalists and guest columnists, included such negative takes as: Coca-Cola's new global strategy will move the brand backwards in Australia ripping apart a hugely sophisticated global strategy put in place by some of the world’s top marketers and agencies, the failure of a startup (albeit a poorly thought out one) and a number of other negatively angled headlines.

It’s also interesting to point out that Mumbrella launched a ‘new column’ dubbed ‘Credit where it’s due’ in September 2014 to recognise when someone has done something worthy of credit in the industry or to quote: "Credit Where it’s Due is all about generating positivity about our fantastic industry. While we welcome positive and constructive comments, anonymous or otherwise, this feature a snark-free zone so please bear that in mind when commenting." It even has its own stamp of approval logo. I can find only nine times it’s been used since then. (Peter Biggs, Helen McCabe, Nick Baker, Jason Kent, The IAB, Meat & livestock Association’s lamb ads, Peter Vogel, Fiona Jolly and David Gyngell. As an aside that’s two women out of nine if we’re doing a tally for gender equality but I could have missed some.)

The need for a specific column to "generate positivity" and celebrate the talent and smarts in the industry is presumably because it’s so far outside the scope of the regular editorial agenda. Is that the lens that the industry, its work and its people should be viewed through?

So I find myself perplexed by the entire issue and less sure of whether it was or wasn't appropriate entertainment the moreI think about it. I don’t want to undermine the issues around sexism and the need for the industry to address it.Unconscious bias is so complex and so far reaching. In many ways I agree the behaviour of people outside the office and the things they deem acceptable is an indication of the attitude that will carry through into the workplace. On the other side i think 'this was just a party!'

Is this a victory for the gender agenda, for women and a step towards less sexism? Is it a victory for the fun police and a step towards a more bland and beige place where everyone lives in fear of doing or saying anything even remotely risqué? Or is it just a victory for a trade press that will hang anyone out to dry for the sake of notoriety and traffic? I genuinely don’t know, I’m sure someone will tell me.

It’s been said to me before that the industry gets the trade press it deserves. If an industry continues to engage with a trade press that will knock it down at every opportunity, then that becomes a sad truth. The only thing that can change that is how the industry engages. And that is up to you.

* Discliamer Matt Porter, who handles M&C Saatchi's corporate comms, is also employed by Yaffa Media on a part-time basis. He does not work for AdNews.  

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