The feminine touch

Don’t expect the eponymous Women’s Work exhibition to be full of intimate and sensitive oeuvre; forget the clichés, says Oliver Bennett

Somehow, the whole notion of ‘women in advertising’ seems a bit tired and ‘gender studies’. Isn’t the idea that advertising is full of blokes sitting around talking about ‘2CK’ campaigns and ‘eye candy’ somewhat old hat? Then again, creative departments are apparently 83 per cent male. The industry remains geezer-heavy.

Hence Women’s Work, the first exhibition from British Design & Art Direction and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising of work by female creatives, which starts today. So why do women creatives need their own platform? According to D&AD, the idea is not to place women in a ghetto, or to suggest that they create a different kind of advertising – although visitors can draw their own conclusions – but to inspire and include women at entry level. ‘And there hasn’t been such an exhibition before.’

Kate Stanners, creative director at ad agency St Lukes, who is in the show and helped to organise it, is even clearer. ‘The point is to demonstrate to young women that a career in advertising as a creative is possible,’ she says. ‘We lose a lot of female talent as they feel that it is a very male-dominated area. This exhibition is not about separatism. It’s designed to help redress the balance.’

At a preview of the exhibition, it was clear that the old certainties of ‘female’ work have been overturned. Forget those clichés about women producing intimate, sensitive and subjective work: much of this show is gag-based, even bawdy.

There’s Mary Wear’s hilarious commercial spot for Yellow Pages where the woman assumes her scruffy male neighbour’s flat has been burgled. There’s Martha Riley’s poster, ‘BA don’t give a Shiatsu’ for Virgin’s upper class service, and Vicki Maguire’s press ad for Severn Trent Water, which has a 1950s Janet and John-style caption, wherein the clean water’s new-found habitat will please dad, as ‘mum says he likes common birds’. Then there’s Caroline Pay and Kim Gehring’s ‘Sven’ in Union flag undies for Schweppes. Laddish, almost.

More ‘female’, insofar as it is sensual and soft-focused, is Kate Stanners’ work for Boots the Chemists, which uses naked silhouettes. But the credits reveal that Stanners herself has a male creative partner in copywriter Tim Hearn, one of several male names in the show. Not an issue, says Stanners. ‘Having a mixed team gives a mix of perspectives,’ she says. ‘Different styles emerge as a result.’

Equally, Stanners is keen to show that accounts don’t get divided up according to gender. ‘As we show, there are as many great beer ads written by women as there are Tampax ads.’ Even Madeline Morris and Miriam Sorrentino’s press ads for Always sanitary pads has a kickback: a peach being crushed in a vice.

There’s purer graphic work, such as Cecilia Dufils’ café graphics for Costa, and Pat Doherty’s Intercity ad that features a brushed JCB. Other pieces are artsy in a vaguely Gillian Wearing way, such as Bonnie and Charlotte Horton’s smoke alarm spot with the floral message on a coffin: ‘I didn’t get around to it’.

Each exhibitor has a fun blurb. The only hint of polemic comes from Verity Fenner and Claudia Southgate, who say that when they researched the Army campaign for Saatchi, ‘It seemed we had more chance of becoming army officers than we did of ever becoming a female creative team.’ And that’s the show’s kickback.

Women’s Work shows for six months from 24 January at 44 Belgrave Square, London SW1. Contact Angela LuceyHarmer at the IPA on 020 7201 8239 for viewing times

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