Is the Malaysian advertising industry sexist?

Circa 1980s…

We were all bad people.

The Chairman of the agency was a well-heeled big shot. And he called the shots. But one day the expat creative director of his agency “crossed the line”. The creative director was caught sleeping with the Chairman’s mistress and despite being warned, continued his shenanigans.

When the well-married Chairman finally found out, the Creative Director was thrown out of the country never to be allowed back again in less time than it takes to say Testosterone.

And who was that feared global creative director who went on a global tour with a talk titled “Sex Sells”? When he visited KL, he had his fair share of romps and did more than reward the faithful.

When you look close enough we are not different from other industries. If anything, people think we hang around with models. But boy (girl/they), have I seen some really ugly people in the industry….

Stairway to Heaven.

In one agency, the boss slept with so many of his gorgeous female staff they ended jealously fighting over him. And the boss was a married man.

He was suave and there was a private spiral staircase from the ground floor to his office in the sky. When there was a meeting in his office, people were wary where to sit. He had generous sofas but there were too many used tissues on the carpet and such.

Those days cigarette brand name advertising was legal, and money was aplenty in the business.

A cigarette client was like a God, they had ample millions to shoot a few tv commercials and then just can them never to be used. POWER!

Thank God for Grab

One day, my Art Director and I decided to take time out and pop into a cinema for a mindless movie just to chill, and we saw our Account Director joined with his secretary at the far end of the row in front of us. Reserved class, it was. Reserved for married men to slide down to their sweet young things under cover of darkness, since the halls were chilly.

When they saw us, they started looking at the screen throughout as if it was the greatest film on earth.

But let me tell you about our ride to the show.

My Art Director and I went downstairs to catch a cab to the cinema in Bukit Bintang.

Taxi drivers were all high and mighty and their rudeness was next level. Pre Grab days.

I flagged down a taxi, and the irritated crusty old driver rolled down the side window and blurted, “Lu puki mana?”.

There was no time to correct his language as it was raining, so I barked back, “Saya p### Jalan P### Bintang.”

He replied, “Masuk, masuk,” like he had just handed out scholarships to Yale to some ungrateful bastards.

All I could think of that whole day was there was actually a taxi driver going around KL asking passengers, “Lu puki mana?”

Watch your language

Back to the office, the MD asked the voluptuous Account Manager who’d come late for the meeting, “Why are you late?”.

The flustered lady caught her breath, and blurted, “I was tied up.”

The MD responded with a signalling glare, “I bet you were.”

Bad, bad, bad… Trump calls it Locker Room Talk.

Compared to today, those times in the office seemed like scenes from a soft porn movie.

Some strange consensual law on all things forbidden ran the universe like a non-spoken perversion.

There were no tree-hugging, “don’t touch the papayas, the insects will die” movement to save the planet then.

Slut was not a 4-letter word. In fact, it was the theme for Friday night parties at the Wine Bar in Wisma Stephens. If you are above 50, you may have been to one of these Slut Parties. The Invite read “bring out the slut in you”, and this was before someone invented Ladies Night.

PC was a computer on the accountant’s table.

We just sold products, consumed them and lived.

And you thought AMC’s Mad Men tv series was bad.

Michael Jackson’s “Bad” was the theme song for the bad boys, and the girls who just “wanna have fun”.

I could go on and on, but comedian Bill Maher sums it up best, “Humans are not good people.”

The biggest bad ass our side of the planet then was the awards-slut Neil French. Every creative wanted to be like him. He was God, in fact his name card in later years read Godfather.

Then came the bald head craze, quickly  followed by mini pig tails and finally ear rings and bulky bangles.

Not for me; I was happy with my turban and a bangle I wore since birth. You see the Sikhs were always ahead of any trend. We even found the cure for baldness; opting for the glorious all-weather, timeless turban. And saved a fortune on barbers.

Wild, willing and wily

Those days, everybody was bad. People drank like fish, smoked like young soldiers and life was all about the next raise. Awards were a bonus; they were not deal breakers.

Most senior executives had the office keys and some would bring their “catch” to the office late at night for further briefing. Nothing like walking around an empty office with a girl in hand pretending you owned everything, I suppose. Worse still, boasting that you came up with the ideas postered in the hallways.

Once a group of inebriated lads brought two pretty girls to the boardroom after midnight, and convinced them to pose naked on the boardroom table. Photos were taken (with permission) but sense kicked in the next day and the film was destroyed.

Those days art director’s handling photo shoots are known to persuade the model to go naked for special pictures just for his own “artistic” portfolio.

There were quite a few gays in our industry, they were bad too. Hitting on young vulnerable prey who were just underlings. One famous advertising gay CD committed suicide at his apartment, apparently over a lover’s quarrel.

Talking about work-life balance, I remember working late was the norm. One local ad agency even ran a full page ad showing the two floors of their office building with the lights on late at night. The copy I think went something like, “we burn the midnight oil for our clients.” The ad caused a lot of buzz and was an effective recruitment tool: people wanted to work at an agency that did not sleep!

Opened AI

After CEO Sam Altman was fired from OpenAI last week, for being “not consistently candid in his communications with the board”, he was rehired when staff threatened to leave. This included co-founder and former chair Greg Brockman.

The unspoken news is that Greg has a little more explaining to do: his use of discriminatory language against a gender-transitioning team member. Despite many promises to address this issue, no meaningful action was taken, except for Greg simply avoiding all communication with the affected individual, effectively creating a hostile work environment. This team member was eventually terminated for alleged under-performance.

How do you regulate favouritism?

Reverse discrimination

It is an unwritten rule that award shows favour male over female judges, challenging the very concept of meritocracy the industry is built on.

A few years ago, white male creative directors at a UK ad agency sued the firm claiming they were fired because they were men…. and won. They claim they were sexually discriminated after a presentation to a diversity conference pledged to “obliterate” its Mad Men reputation of being full of straight, white men.

The lawsuit revealed that the financially struggling agency had changed course on its layoff plans amid revelations of its gender pay gap, resulting in terminations for the five men who’d raised concerns around how issues of diversity were being discussed.

Our value system is driven by education

We are already seeing more religiousness and geo-political posturing in the world.

Which brings me to a sober conclusion for Malaysia….

A messed-up education system produces a messed-up population who become messed-up ad people, messed-up clients and a messed-up audience. Why aren’t people watching ads anymore? Why aren’t ads intelligent, engaging, entertaining and rewarding anymore? Where’s the insight, the strategy, the concept?

The often mentioned “Shit Well Shot” is truer today than ever. They insult our intelligence?

Or cater to an audience that lacks intelligence?

It all goes back to the education or the lack of a good one.

First published on MARKETING Weekender


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