The original articulation of the is-ought problem, is attributed to 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume.
The problem simply describes the tendency we have to make claims about what ‘ought to be’ (prescriptive) on the basis of statements about ‘what is’ (descriptive).
The is-ought problem is also sometimes known, rather menacingly, as ‘Hume's guillotine’.
Here’s a current example that should be salient for advertising types:
There is gender imbalance that favours males in ad agency creative departments, therefore the patriarchal conspiracy that perpetrates this injustice must be destroyed.
Positioning a prescriptive claim after a descriptive claim in this way is a cute trick of the rhetoric.
The closeness of the two claims carries the implication that they are relevant to each other and, furthermore, asserts that the prescriptive claim (ought) is a logical consequence of the descriptive one (is).
The difficulty with this kind of is-ought statements is that they do not address the fundamental ‘why?’ question.
In this case, why are our creative departments disproportionately male?
In order to begin to understand this ‘why?’ question, I propose that we need to make the distinction between proximate and ultimate explanations.
To lay the blame out as a ‘boys club’ or patriarchal conspiracy (besides being a wrong assumption, anyway) looks only at the ‘how? and ‘what?’ (proximate) questions, but ignores the ‘why?’
Ultimate explanations tackle the ‘why?’, and can be expressed from a Darwinian standpoint.
In other words; what might be the adaptive purpose – or the evolutionary roots - of a given behaviour?
With that in mind, we recently read about the mating behaviour of North American Prairie Chickens.
These creatures attract mates via a big social event out on the wilderness called a lek.
I know you do like our occasional biological detours.
A lek is akin to a massive open-air chicken rave.
The male birds gather together and compete for the attention of the females in a mass dance-off.
The best dancers then get chosen for action from the most females.
(Incidentally, this Prairie Chicken Dance is one of the oldest forms of Native American dancing, still performed to this day in those cultures and for similar purposes.)
This link between music, dance, creativity in general and mating strategies permeates all human cultures, of course.
For example, finding potential partners is a principal concern among many concert and club-goers, and the best dancers tend to do well.
Those on the stage itself tend to do even better.
For many a teenage boy who first tentatively strapped on an axe, at least one reason he got into a band would be because he might improve his chances with the girls.
In his book, Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll, Rob Brooks, (Professor of Evolutionary Ecology at the University of New South Wales) has looked deeper into this phenomenon.
He points to data that suggests that up until the early fifties women accounted for around one third of the singers of the day that dominated the popular music charts.
But from the mid-fifties - the beginning of the rock ’n’ roll era – and on to more recently, that ratio had changed to about one in ten.
Brooks proposes that the emergence of pop radio and television the 50s and 60s provided the perfect vehicle for young men to pursue their (or, more accurately, their genes) evolved agenda of competing with each other to attract women with their singing and dancing skills.
(And, as an aside, several studies have shown that in a general sense women tend to be more attracted to men with deep voices. This is an auditory cue linked to testosterone levels - a male phenotypic quality that would have been a fitness indicator in our ancestors. This has encouraged some biologists to label this the Barry White Effect - another example of pop culture’s many contributions to evolutionary theory.)
In simple terms evolutionary theory states that it is in the interest of the male genes to try and mate with as many females as possible, thereby increasing the rate of passing his genes into the next generation.
Conversely it is in the genetic interest of the female to be far more choosey and select only the best quality males. From a parental investment point of view she has far more to lose by making bad choices.
Looking at brands and advertising through this lens we might suggest it follows that, for the most part, advertisers are seeking to attract as many potential buyers to their brand as possible.
This could be viewed as a ‘male’ mating strategy. Quantity of mates slightly trumping quality.
Consumers, therefore, must adopt a far more cautious approach. There’s significant risk in making the wrong choice. They need to select the ‘fittest’ brands that they can. This could be compared to a ‘female’ strategy.
Why does this matter when considering the question about why our creative departments seem to skew disproportionately male?
From a status standpoint, the creative department represents the sexiest part of the whole advertising process. They make the work, pick up the awards, they are the stars of the industry.
Is it any wonder, then, that young males in the industry are attracted to the creative department?
Aside from anything else, their genes compel them to.
Women tend find creative men sexy. And as an added bonus creativity beats just about every other attraction cue, you don’t even need to not be that good looking if you can bash out a decent tune, or write a Lion winning campaign or two.
The evolutionary psychologist Dr Geoffrey Miller explains it in this sense.
Creative men will attract women because their creativity reveals the following heritable traits:
- Extraverted personality
- High intelligence
- Ability to express emotions
- Ability to obtain social status and resources
By absolutely no means are we suggesting that the creative department should be sole domain of men. That would be an equally fallacious is-ought statement.
But for competitive young males it’s a pretty attractive proposition.
The role of creatives is to represent the idea, and the role of the creative work in advertising is to propagate a brand idea among large populations in order to influence buyer behaviour. In this respect there is some similarity between how advertising creative works (when it works) and male mating strategies, from an evolutionary standpoint.
So perhaps it’s not unreasonable to speculate that this – coupled with the benefits of the traits above associated with creativity – will have a tendency to attract a disproportionate amount of young males who fancy their chances when competing with each other in this field.
It’s also well documented that – in an overall sense, across all functions – the sex ratio in agencies is far more evenly distributed. Close to 50/50.
Strategy and Client Service, then, are the other key functions in the agency.
These roles are to represent the voice of the consumers and the the voice of the client respectively. Both consumers and clients take on considerable risk if they make bad choices, either in the brands they buy or campaigns they sign off.
There is therefore a distinct possibility – given the resemblance to choosey female mating strategies – that these functions may attract more women than men.
And, guess what? They do.
Not only that, in other flavours of agencies in the industry, where there is less of a focus on a creative product (Media, PR, Content etc), this gender question doesn’t arise nearly as often.
There are not nearly enough women in creative leadership positions, and creative departments in general. True.
Yet they dominate the other departments. Also true.
By seeking to understand why this might be the case – the real why? - an ultimate explanation rather than the grab-bag of whats and hows - then perhaps we might come up with some better ideas for what might be the best way forward.
I’d suggest some scientific rigour would not go amiss in the exploration. There are quite enough ‘ethnographic’ opinion pieces masquerading as ‘studies’ or ‘research’, thank you very much.
As a final note I should point out that this author spent many years in creative departments before moving over into strategy.
In this time I’ve worked with many women creatives and reported in to at least three women creative directors.
All 3 were fantastically talented and as good, if not better, than the top male CD’s I’ve also experienced.
But what sets them apart, and contributes to their continuing success, is their willingness and ability to compete, survive and thrive in the toughest department in this industry.
It is this simple fact that needs to be recognised in this debate.
Lack of this competitive drive was my own failing in the creative department.
Talent is mandatory but it’s not enough.
Survival and success also depends on the individual’s ability to compete, fiercely. At the time I was lacking in this area and that’s a big part of why I did not survive.
I’m happier in strategy anyway, thanks for asking.
Creative departments are hugely competitive environments. Especially the best ones.
People literally disappear if they don’t compete, win and produce. Go 12 months without bringing in a piece of metal and you are run the real risk of being toast.
It’s like that. And that’s the way it is.