Calling sh*t out

Material's Sera Miller highlights the collaborative need to "call people out on their sh*t" in her review of the 'Wonder Women: Changing the Portrayal of Women on Screen' event at the Festival of British Advertising.

Thursday morning (9th March 2017) saw the opening event of the Festival of British Advertising, organised by the IPA in celebration of their centenary (more on that word: “celebration” later.) The panel session was chaired by the ever-impressive Fiona Bruce, and featured the formidable Vicki Maguire, the dynamic Carol Cass and the inspirational Fay Wheldon; all of whom it is worth noting, either presently or previously worked in advertising agencies.

Whilst the title of the event may have been “Wonder Women: Changing the Portrayal of Women on Screen”, the discussion quickly shifted away from how things should change to why they haven’t changed that much at all. This narrative - combined with a substantial amount of “what goes in the tent, stays in the tent” anecdotes - resulted in as many amused laughs as horrified sharp intakes of breath from the (overwhelmingly yet unsurprisingly predominantly female) audience. But as Einstein said: “If I was told I had an hour to save the world, I’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and the last 5 minutes coming up with the solution.”

Here’s some thoughts on defining that problem that I took out of what I found to be a challenging and thought-provoking session:


With every story told today, one key element of the narrative repeated: that in every case of discrimination or bullying shared, there was no-one clear to ask “is this right, is this ok?” This isn’t just about women; this is about giving people of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds a place to be able to understand that repeating the past is unacceptable. Peer to peer, cross-industry and leadership networks need to work together to challenge the hangovers from days gone by.

The misguided lads club, juvenile games culture, initiation fuelled, work hard/play hard culture that was still being repeated today leaves only room to be filled with people in its own image. In an industry with a talent challenge like the one we are facing, we cannot afford to alienate and drive away the best, diverse and eclectic individuals we have. Attracting men and women of all temperaments, perspectives and working styles is fundamental.


We don’t all have to agree: that’s the point. We are not a homogenous blob called “women”: we are individuals, not a herd. And we should listen to and respect other opinions which do not agree with our own, even if they feel contemporarily out of step. Surely the last year in politics has taught us that only listening to similar voices in an algorhythmically created bubble won’t protect us from opinions that challenge and will only make the shock worse when we realise that they have become louder than our own.


Being hit over the head with crass and obvious blunt instruments like the “ooh, let’s swop the gender roles round in this one so it’s clear he’s a great guy that can cook lasagne while his hard-working wife puts her feet up” help no-one. Unauthentic lazy work shouldn’t be accepted, no matter what point it’s trying to prove.

Likewise, beware the cult of trends: jumping on a bandwagon is equally dangerous and an expectation that all we all want to collectively fist pump in a wave of mutual empowerment is powerful when appropriate (continual props to This Girl Can) but it’s not how we want to be sold a hoover or sanitary products. Sometimes we might not want to be celebrated (a contentious word in itself given the reaction in the room) or empowered, or if we do it can be because of who we are as people, not because of our gender.


The debate over the role of advertising to shape and influence culture, not simply reflect it, has raged and evolved with the development of our industry, becoming ever complicated with the shifting dynamics across media, platform and audience and applicable to challenges far wider than diversity and gender. As Vicki Maguire stated: “It’s time to take responsibility and call this sh*t out.” That means calling this sh*t out in the work, in the office, in the brief, in the behaviour we hear about and observe and ultimately taking responsibility for our part in the problem.

We also have a responsibility to be brave: to ignore the group think and bias in the research focus group that throws out the script that shows a red run reality in a sanitary towel ad (“only Picasso had a blue period” will remain one of my quotes of the day). To help people have a voice, to have permission to challenge, to not put all our creative effort into events that happen one day a year like Christmas, and tackle the every day with the best of our insightful, creative and effective force.


The session was set up with a bold rallying cry: diversity is not a strategy; it is a business issue.

Not getting this sh*t sorted is unacceptable. It is the worst of us, not the best of us. It is a disservice to what we have, will and can do. In a world where we are often all too apologetic for our industry, this pervasive culture is something we all at some point have reason to say sorry for.

And it’s not just about gender, or diversity. It’s about our future. Stories of initiations and harassment in our contemporary lifetime are unacceptable. And in the context of a celebration of a 100-year history of an industry that has changed, saved and influenced lives it should be relegated to an embarrassing footnote. Surely that’s something that should empower us all to finally do take responsibility, call sh*t out and finally do something about it. 

Sera Miller is Deputy Chair of the IPA Effectiveness Leadership Group and CEO of Material.

Last updated 21 January 2022