Advertising and sex

A few years back, I read an article in The Spectator. It was by Madsen Pirie, the chairman of The Adam Smith Institute. He was writing about the phenomenon that, in the UK, girls were passing more exams than boys.

He was interested in the reason behind this. Some people thought it was because more girls were being allowed to take exams at higher level.

Madsen Pirie said this wasn’t the answer. Some people thought it was proof that girls have always been more intelligent, but until now they hadn’t been allowed to show it.

Madsen Pirie said this wasn’t the answer either. He said everyone was looking in the wrong place for the answer. The reason girls were passing more exams than boys wasn’t actually to do with girls’ intelligence at all.

It was to do with the exams themselves. At about the time when girls began passing more exams than boys, exams had changed. The examination authorities had begun giving 50% of the marks for the course work, done in the year leading up to the exam.

Previously, 100% of the marks had been for the final exam itself. Course work hadn’t counted for anything. This suited boys, who would do as little as possible all year, and cram like crazy in the last weeks before the exam.

Then it changed, and 50% of the marks were given for course work, this suited girls. Who would work steadily and conscientiously all year. So that, by the time of the final exam, they would already have more marks than the boys.

And, however hard the boys crammed for the final exam, it was only worth 50% of the marks. Madsen Pirie then interviewed a Cambridge don on the difference between male and female undergraduates.

He said that, generally speaking, the girls were better on the detail, but fuzzy on the big picture. The boys were better on the big picture but sloppy on the detail. He said his two best students were a male and a female, and they would both get ‘firsts’.

How does this work in advertising terms? Years ago Amanda Walsh, our CEO at the time, asked me why there were fewer women in the creative department than other departments.

She wanted to know if I thought it was just old fashioned sexism. I said I didn’t think so. The creative department is basically a big playground. Lots of time spent telling jokes, playing games, reading comics or books, watching reels or YouTube, basically (what looks like) time-wasting.

None of this is a problem as long as, by the deadline, you’ve managed to turn it into a great idea. Great ideas don’t happen slowly, incrementally, and conscientiously.

They tend to happen as a result of a short, intense period of cramming information and then a sudden explosion of creativity. More the way boys approach exams than the way girls do.

Account handling, on the other hand, requires exactly the opposite values. Constant attention to detail, an intuitive ability to read situations and feelings. conscientious application that ensures everything possible has been done as it needs to be.

In short, the account handling department gives a lot more marks for course work than the creative department does.

  • Jonathan Waring

    Really interesting post Dave. I agree and the evidence suggests you’re on to something. However, sent the link around and the agency and opinion is well and truly divided – the argument may last a few days!

  • Kevin Gordon

    Hi Dave,

    This blog reminds me of a TV programme called ‘Now get out of that’. It’s very challenging.

    Hmmm. Gender. Most of us are fortunate enough to be born with a complete left and a complete right half to our brains. One half is known to process scientific and factual information, and the other half deals with theory and the arts. Right in the middle between the two halves is something about a cubic centimeter in size called the amygdala, a chemical factory that distributes messages and triggers actions all around the body: some of which we can control, such as a knee-jerk reaction and others which we cannot, such as emotions.

    If we take Barbie Doll and Action Man as two basic stereotypical gender types, we can see that gender type behaviour has been classically shaped and conditioned over many years in the modern world through childhood play to reach the stage it has now. Barbie teaches choice. The whole game is about changing clothes and the perception of the persona whilst Action Man is about Kicking ass.

    The eleven plus was a bone of contention for ages. The outcome of this exam would heavily shape a child’s future by their education. However, it is now known ‘intelligence’ is not measurable by a simple exam because intelligence is far more complex and comes in many forms. It has however been proven that each gender is better in particular areas. Women in general (and I’ll probably get in trouble for this) have less visual-spatial awareness than men. This explains why they generally have more difficulty parking cars than men. Men tend to only be able to think about one thing at a time, and find multitasking (talking about one subject whilst thinking about another) almost impossible, whereas women can do it automatically. (God knows how!)

    Its interesting to see how those types of conditions form our views in the behaviour of the genders we become, and it highlights the classic case of the Account Group – Creative Department clashes for which this business is notorious.

    As we know, no man is 100% male and no woman 100% female as we are all born from two genders. However, it’s never a 50 / 50 split either. We’ve all come across the woman who thinks like a man, and the man who thinks like a woman, so perhaps the best test to find out whether a male or female should be in accounts or creative is to set them two tests:

    1. Hold a conversation about one thing whilst thinking about another whilst doing something else.

    2. Get them to park the car.

    Regardless of gender, it certainly makes one thing very clear to me about where all the advertising world’s Creative / Account group contention comes from:

    One person feels they should run an agency.
    One person feels they should lead an agency.
    Both feel they should do both.
    However, there is only room for one answer.

    The irony is all this conflict at the end of the day actually produces brilliant work.

  • Jack Gardner

    Have you been dropping the sugar cubes again Kevin? No man is 100% male! I am. And most of the women I know are 100% women down to their lace undies. Although I used to work at the BBC and there was some confusion there about which way to whack your clapper board. This whole argument is in itself a bit like a woman, it just goes on and on. I should know, I’m an expert, I was married once and the one thing I learned is this. The only time I’ve seen a bum look big was in a bar. ‘nuf said I think on that subject.

  • Anca

    Dave, there really IS a scientific explanation for the higher number of male creatives, but it doesn’t really translate into boys being better on the big picture and girls on the detail.

    Here’s how it actually goes:

    Male intelligence is mostly related to gray matter.
    Female intelligence is mostly related to white matter.

    Gray matter represents information processing centers in the brain,
    while white matter represents the networking of the processing centers.

    More intense activity in processing information means more intense activity in reshaping information = creativity/innovation – that’s why there are more male creatives/artists AND engineers

  • Kevin Gordon
  • Jack Gardner

    Thanks for that Kev. An unnecessarily complex way of saying that chicks like a box of chocolates and bunch of flowers before doing it. Oh yeah and they remember when and where they did it and how it felt. Unlike men who can’t muster a single memory of doing it other than the time then did it with Tracy on the bonnet of a Ford Fiesta in Tescos car park but can remember the half time score of Newcastle v Aston Villa in the semi finals of the FA cup in 1963.

  • Kevin Gordon

    Absolutely right. It’s just that the temptation to inject a little embalming fluid into the conversation was just too much to cope with. I wonder where researchers fall into this lot. Do they see themselves a quantitative (emotionless male number crunchers) and qualitative (females with feelings) or are they gender neutral. It makes me think of that terrible Carry On film with Kenneth Willliams screaming out ‘Frying Tonight?” with that bizarre pussy cat of a wife. The best agencies always have had larger than life characters, larger than life rows, insane pillow-fights over the tiniest of things. That’s what has made them so much fun to work in. That creative department I left in Saudi Arabia were almost in tears when we parted company. It was a witches brew, but in a strange way it all worked, a bit like Doctor Evil, Mini Me, and Austin Powers.

  • John W.

    Now I know why I’m a last minute hero. It’s genetics. I tend to go out on a wing a prayer. Preferring to fly by the seat of my pants. Males need to tap into their female side now and again for some fastidiousness.

  • John W.

    Ha. That should have read ‘… on a wing and a prayer’. Now, what was I saying about fastidiousness?!

  • Kevin Gordon

    Hi Dave,

    As the client is the paymaster in every scenario, and therefore the judging panel who awards the prize based on points, how do you think he or she evaluates points across an agency in general?
    What is more important to him or her in a client-agency relationship?
    Is it better to have male face female for better chemistry?
    What ticks their boxes?

  • Dave Trott

    Hi Kevin,
    My money’s on women as CEOs or account directors as a rule.
    They win the client in the first place and keep the account at the agency, and nothing happens without that.

  • Kevin Gordon

    Hi Dave,

    I can see your point.

    As you mention, women have: conscientious application , constant attention to detail, and have an intuitive ability to read situations and feelings.

    Considering the way digital has come of age, and the ease with which this highly social media can make or break individuals within seconds, do you think the digital medium encourages women to step up to the plate more than they would have done five years ago because of their natural abilities or is it because the way agencies and clients do business has changed?

  • Dave Trott

    I think everything has changed.
    Service is way more important than ever before, and women understand that better than men.
    70% of all spending is done by women.
    More and more clients are female.
    Brand is more important and women understand that better than men.
    Relationships are now way more important than solutions, and women are better at the former and men the latter.
    I’m not saying these are improvements, but they are changes.

  • Kevin Gordon

    Hi Dave,


    We have a saying in our house: ‘She’s the boss and I wear the trousers’.
    In the recently published ‘Guide to Management Ideas and Gurus’ (Hindle
    2008) with over 50 of the world’s most influential management thinkers past and present, only two females made the list, indicating a serious paradigm shift. that’s far from over considering 70% of all spending is done by women.

    It would be great to hear more female views on this issue.

  • steve booth

    hi Dave,
    It there a reason you titled this post “Advertising and Sex” instead of “Advertising and Gender”? I’m not complaining since it was very interesting, but it wasn’t what I was expecting when I clicked through on the title. But then, maybe I am thinking like a man… steve booth
    PS. I’d much rather be graded on the outcome, than on what goes into it. It’s the results that matter, not how much work was done. So I guess I think the old way of testing was better… maybe again I’m thinking like a man? :)

  • Kevin Gordon

    Hi Dave,

    I know I have time on my hands to think about these great blogs you write
    while you have a very busy business to run. I just want you to know that I
    appreciate your replies. I just wonder sometimes if you are thinking:
    ‘ Oh God, not him again!’.

    I doubt I could keep your quality of Blog going for as long as you have already.

    The reason I asked you the last question yesterday was not to infuriate you with
    more questions, but to to try and prize out all the other people who are obviously
    reading your blog with as much interest as I am, and try and get them to interact,
    especially women, who I sense are more present by their absence than we know.

    As your first blogger mentioned: This stuff will seriously affect the future shape
    of the ad industry and how it moves forward from here.

    I used your deceptively small D&Ad book on how to get into advertising written some
    time ago and used it as a basis for the next 20 years of my career. It has never let
    me down, and I still quote it to people who want to learn how to do advertising properly.
    What that book gave me and many others was clarity like no other, in an industry that
    at the time was floundering in direction like it is today. It also gave me courage to
    change the things I could in an industry that was plagued and suffering with ex-army
    Old School Tie thinking at the time.

    I guess people are naturally reluctant to talk right now with the way £100m chunks of
    business are moving around at the drop of a hat. However, if they want to stay in the
    business they have to change, and that means opening-up and having the courage to
    change by feeling free to share their thoughts.

    Looking forward to the deceptively small book that will come out of this one day.

  • Jack Gardner

    Steve, you said …when I clicked through on the title. Serves you right for putting sex into the search. I don’t think many people who are looking for Dave’s sort of blog put sex into the search. No offense meant Dave. I”m not sure horny young chicks hot for gender is going to work. Gender bender might give you a bit more. I could be wrong I am so naive on these things. Good luck.

  • Jack Gardner

    Having said that of course I have heard that porn is the new philosophy

  • rachel carroll

    Big pictures? Grey matter? Frilly underwear? Bollocks. There are so few women in creative departments because most creative departments are deeply conservative places.

  • Kevin Gordon

    Hooray for Rachel !!!!
    Where’s the rest of you?
    Come on!
    This is your chance to make it St Georgina’s Day!

  • rachel carroll

    Hurrah for you too Kevin. Your intrepid tales are always appreciated. I too have lived and worked in foreign climes and think the biggest thing it teaches you is that people everywhere are more alike than different. And that includes men and women.

  • John W.

    Your juxtaposition of frilly underwear and bollocks, Rachel, has left me all of a quiver.

  • rachel carroll

    That’s normal John. Bollocks look great in frilly underwear.

  • Kevin Gordon

    Girls with Balls!
    Great stuff.

  • Dave Trott

    Hi Steve,
    “It there a reason you titled this post “Advertising and Sex” instead of “Advertising and Gender”?”

    Of course, you wouldn’t have read it if it had ahd the boring title, would you?
    That’s basic advertising.

  • John W.


    That sounds like a bad porno!

  • Kevin Gordon

    Hi John,

    Of course it’s bad.That’s what is so good about it.
    Who can ever forget Eric Morcambe with his glasses on upside down?

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