"It turns out there are a lot of women who just have a problem with women in power,” quipped Kellyanne Conway, de facto mouthpiece of the new White House in a recent interview.
While they sip tomato juice and black coffee, I present the notion of “women in power” to Annette King and Emma De La Fosse, respectively chief executive and chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather UK. Both fit the bill of a “woman in power,” after all, but ponder the semantics.
“It’s a funny word ‘power’ isn’t it,” says King, tentatively. “The higher you go in a company the more you realise you have less power than you thought,” adds De La Fosse.
I ask which word they would use instead? “Leadership,” replies King, to De La Fosse’s nodded agreement. Over 16 years the pair have worked together in various positions and geographies, climbing the meritocratic ladder to the top rung. “We’re now in UK leadership roles, and we’re both women – and that’s a good thing,” says King. “But I think we’d just say that, first and foremost, we’re just the right people for the job, regardless of our gender.”
“I just think of Annette as Annette and I think of me as me,” De La Fosse adds. “I very rarely think ‘oh I’m dealing with a man or I’m dealing with a woman’, or ‘I’m dealing with an older, or younger person’. For me, people are just people.”
Neither seem particularly keen on so-called “positive discrimination,” by which individuals seen as belonging to discriminated groups are prioritised for job roles. “I think if there’s something in your way that’s not right – I will do everything to remove it,” says De La Fosse. “But am I going to put a person in there just to make up a quota? Never. The business will tank if you start doing things like that.”
“We are here to serve some of the most amazing clients in the world,” adds King. “So we have got to make sure that we’ve got the right people in the right job, while also making sure that we are an organisation that people enjoy working for, where people can get what they want from their career.”
I ask whether the advertising industry has moved past the male-dominated “Mad Men” stereotype? “I think there’s a lot of inequality in advertising, and I think the male/female gender bias is part of it,” De La Fosse says. “But I don’t think it’s the main thing. I don’t think it’s any more urgent than, say, the lack of working class people in advertising, or ethnic diversity, or the lack of older people in advertising. It’s important that we remove obstacles, but it’s important that we’re very honest about it: if there is an imbalance, why is there an imbalance? Some of it might be about sexism but most of it isn’t, and I think it’s important that we don’t jump on a bandwagon – I think it’s far more complicated than that.”
But can advertising change perceptions – be a force for good? King mentions Tom Knox, president of the IPA, who she says has “worked very hard to make [‘good’ advertising] front of mind in the industry.” De La Fosse adds that “what’s really lovely actually, is that lots of our clients are coming to us and saying: I want to do something about this, can you help us do it?”
Ogilvy & Mather are responsible for perhaps the most famous female focused campaign in the history of advertising: Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty.
“Dove was invented here and evolved over many many years,” says King. “Copied by many,” De La Fosse interjects. I ask how they feel about the campaign being imitated so frequently – surely it’s the message, not the medium? “I think it’s flattering, it’s wonderful, the more people who do stuff like that the better,” says De La Fosse. “But make no mistake: Dove was the forerunner, they went out and started doing this type of stuff. I think brands have realised that it’s not just enough to sell something, they need to stand for something. And I think Dove was a …”
“...It was an early pioneer of that,” says King. “Actually standing for something that matters.”
We move onto Trump, and International Women’s Day. I have never seen the eyes of a living person roll so far back as King’s did when I mention the new President. “I probably shouldn’t say what I think if I’m being recorded, probably not. I’ll leave it at the eye roll,” she laughs. On International Women’s Day this year, a global general strike – A Day Without A Woman – has been organised “in the spirit of women and their allies coming together for love and liberation.” Would King support her staff joining? “People should be free to express themselves. That’s up to them, that’s not up to me. I do sort of still think – by all means go, but what are you striking for? Make sure you’re clear on why you’re doing it.”
Suggesting myriad women’s issues pertinent to the strike organisers, I hit a vein with equal pay. “I believe violently in equal pay – I nearly swore then – I mean why wouldn’t you?” says King. “If you believe in the principle of the right person for the job, you pay the person the right amount of money for the job. It doesn’t matter what they look like, what sex they are, anything about them – what they do at weekends – who cares? They should get paid fairly for the job.”
“It’s just crackers,” adds De La Fosse.
By this point in the interview the pair are finishing each other’s sentences; they have a convivial rapport, bouncing off one another like an unrehearsed double act.
They collectively insist that “two heads are better than one” – which means?, I ask: “it means Annette is very lucky to have me,” De La Fosse giggles.
“Emma looks at the world in a certain way,” says King, “which is very different from how I look at the world. It strikes a balance, it’s perspective.”
Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M.