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Ellen Hammett 

Dmexco's founder opens up about its gender problem

Dmexco's founder opens up about its gender problem

Business in 2017

It’s been one year since Dmexco’s sexist debacle, and I was back in Cologne last week to see whether any of the subsequent lobbying to crack down on gender discrimination at one of digital marketing's biggest annual conferences has paid off.

Lo and behold, within the first 20 minutes of entering Dmexco's conference halls I've passed three ‘booth babes’ - the latter of which is dressed as a cheerleader, wandering around by herself in a crop top, hotpants and heels, and who, when I ask her what she’s doing there, tells me I could win a free ticket to Wednesday evening’s party if I have my photo taken with her.

A couple of men walk past gawping. I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

(That says AdRom, by the way)

Ironically, when I cross paths with her I’m on my way to the 'Girls’ Lounge' to meet with Dmexco’s co-founder and director of business development, strategy & international, Christian Muche. But we’re not there to get our hair and make-up done (although we could if we wanted to). I’m there, on a plush white stall under the soft pink glow of equality, to hear what Dmexco is doing to promote gender equality this year.

We were genuinely floored by the response to the article Newsline published last September - both positive and negative - and understand it caused some headaches behind closed doors. I know that Muche read it too - it’s why he’s invited me here to meet with him (albeit 12 months after I first got in touch, unsuccessfully), so I'm keen to hear his thoughts and find out why I'm still seeing half-dressed women being used to flog stuff for companies with outdated approaches to business.

I’m surprised when he asks me if I’ve seen any promo girls so far - I thought that Dmexco, as an organiser, would at least have some idea of what its exhibitors are getting up to. Then I remember there are currently more than 40,000 people and 1,100 exhibitors doing business in the sixth-largest exhibition centre in the world, and suddenly the enormity of the task hits me.

As I continue to speak to Muche, I find his attitude towards the issue at hand to be progressive and sincere, and he is quick to assure me that addressing the gender balance at Dmexco has risen to the top of his agenda - both in terms of getting women more involved in debates and on the floor, and working on how brands choose to bring attention to their stands.

But that hasn’t always been the case - and even by his own admission, Dmexco, now in its eighth year, has only recently started to pro-actively challenge businesses about gender discrimination.

“It wasn’t on our agenda in the first couple of years; we were aware of these things but we weren’t aware we could play a role here,” Muche tells me.

“But over the last four years we’ve realised that we should step into this more - and not only with the Female Quotient, but also with our regular partners, we felt there was a willingness to support this as well. So yes, if you want to blame us, why didn’t we do that from the beginning? We had a bunch of other things to sort out. In an ideal world yes, it should happen from the first time on.”

At the helm of a conference that draws in tens of thousands of marketers from all over the world each year, it feels like Muche finally realises he has a key role to play in tackling sexism within an industry that still largely favours men.

Just last week it was announced that Google is being sued by three of its ex-female employees for paying them less than men in similar roles. The problem goes beyond pay; within the company, for every seven men there are three women, with males representing approximately 80% of staff in tech roles and 75% of leadership positions.

But Google isn't alone. In the UK, women in the technology industry are paid on average 16% less than men. The sector also has the largest like-for-like gender pay gap at 6%.

Meanwhile, in adland, despite women making up more than half of the workforce, it is estimated that just 2.9% of adtech CEOs are women - lower than the 4.8% of female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies.

These are just a small number of the gender-specific issues currently plaguing our industry.

Argutus: digital s3xistp3rts

This year, just over a third of Dmexco’s speakers were women - and Muche tells me it is his mission to bring that closer to 50 per cent within the next two to three years.

"I think it was three years ago when we analysed the share of female speakers on our stages and we said ‘wow, this is a low number’ and then we started to proactively talk to the brands who come on stage to say ‘if you have a choice, we would like to have a female leader on stage’," Muche says.

“We’ve had a few partners saying, ‘I would like to bring my female leadership on stage, is there an opportunity to do that?’ And I say: ‘I don’t understand the question - what kind of opportunity you need, except that we offer you a speaker slot? It’s up to you to fill the speaker slot with this or this or this executive’."

Having attended Dmexco for the last three years, I can confirm that it is, indeed, a massive sausage-party, both on- and off-stage. So the rise in female speakers this year, alongside the conference’s stronger focus on gender equality, can only be seen as a good thing.

Unfortunately, Muche says it’s sometimes simply the case that companies don’t have any women in leadership roles to put forward - something especially noticeable in European companies compared with those in the UK and the US - which points to a much bigger, ongoing issue outside of the Koelnmesse (it begins and ends with hiring more women into senior roles).

From my experience, it also tends to be these European countries that use provocatively dressed women to hand out flyers and bring business to the stands - however Muche tells me this is a completely separate challenge to bringing more women on stage.

It’s written into the Dmexco contract - and was last year - that so called ‘walking acts’ and promotion teams outside of the stand, body painting, performers, scantily dressed hostesses as well as advertising of an ideological and political nature, are prohibited. Three strikes and it’s a penalty fine.

“Do they care about 5 or 10 thousand Euros?” Muche says with a shrug. “Some of them do, some not.

"The only way to [make businesses aware] is to get in touch, which is tough and it can take some time - and sometimes it needs a couple of years to change this."

(As an aside, I did get in touch with ResponseConcepts and Crowdfox last year - two of 2016’s booth babe perpetrators - and while I never received a response from either, ResponseConcepts' promo girls were fully-clothed this year.)

Cheerleaders, air hostesses and Vegas showgirls aside, 2017 feels like a turning point for adland in many ways. Transparency, brand safety, cleaning up the digital supply chain, advertising as a force for good...marketers are kicking their heels in. And now, it seems, the gender debate is picking up speed in the right direction.

Dmexco is obviously not going to change the way it runs its business - and it is only natural that a conference as big as this one encompasses both the best, and the worst, the adtech world has to offer. Like Muche says, it could take some years to get everyone on board.

But by the end of the two-day conference, it feels like there has been a shift this year - and, while a handful of businesses still insist on using scantily-dressed women as part of their marketing strategy, I feel somewhat optimistic that Dmexco has begun to take the gender debate seriously. (On the upside: at least you now know which companies not to do business with.)

I just hope it will continue to use its growing influence for the greater good - and encourage other conference organisers to do the same.

Cannes, I'm looking at you:

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LindseyClay, CEO, Thinkbox on 18 Sep 2017
“Well done, Ellen, for continuing to put this issue in the spotlight. It seems as though there's still a long way to go but awareness has been raised, the organisers are taking it seriously and consequently, progress is being made.”