Nina DiSesa Can Fix Those Mad Men

Ogilvy's Nancy Vonk Reviews McCann Chairman's 'S&M' Technique for Besting the Boys

By Published on .

"Seducing the Boys Club" is a welcome sight on bookshelves for a group that has little in the way of guiding lights. An ad woman at the top of the pyramid sharing wisdom on thriving among the men is, well, unprecedented. But Nina DiSesa is both brave and foolish as she tells all from her lofty perch at McCann New York. Bravery in spades as she names names of jerk clients and coworkers; puts her weaknesses on display for all to gawk at and learn from; takes a new job with a new diagnosis of breast cancer ("There's nothing like breast cancer to put a damper on things"); and describes an important client meeting marching on at her insistence with a gusher of a nose bleed. This woman is tough.

Foolishness comes in as she describes men as inferior and easily bent to female will. (Nina, you said that with your out loud voice!) Her secret to success is called "S&M," for Seduction and Manipulation. She means this to be taken in a "benevolent" way, but it's hard to feel the love for a technique that is so off-putting. Many examples of it are hard to stomach: Lines like "Wow, your arms are like steel. Been working out?" ("It always works") and "Smile. Flutter eyelashes" had my eyes rolling. There's abundant imagery of controlling men: "Once I was able to control him I knew there wasn't another person alive who would vex me again;" "I play on their masculine pride and natural instincts to protect the 'weaker' sex." There are times when this reads like an episode of Mad Men.

Ms. DiSesa is outspoken, and can be a hothead -- she isn't shy about reliving meetings where she has a meltdown and comes away looking the weaker for it. But she's also a nurturer and team builder. She will find a way to make warring creatives mend fences, to trick creative people into appreciating account services and vice versa. She's extremely confident, but unlike many senior men, ready to admit when she's wrong and determined to learn from it. She swears a lot. Loudly.

Her journey to star status, from Richmond to New York to Chicago and back again to New York, is filled with lessons, but suffers a bit from sounding long ago. The young reader may question the text's relevance when examples of triumphant moments include advertising that's aged poorly (true, of course, of most ads) and scenarios limited to huge agencies where entire chunks of creative departments run wild, well out of Ms. DiSesa's control. (Some of the examples of bad employee behavior are jaw dropping: A writer presenting and selling terrible work he'd been told to kill; another sabotaging her in a client meeting by claiming an idea the client loathed was her favorite; others intentionally breaking light fixtures daily while they goof off in the hallways.)

Ultimately she has excellent insights on hiring right, how to get straight to the truth of any issue by asking those who have nothing to gain or lose (secretaries, to-be-retirees), the need for women to go against their nature and take credit for God's sake, to not shrink from emotion when it helps you register you're a force to be reckoned with, the importance of reading the room, giving others power and credit, the imperative of using your clout. She confronts women's idealistic, naïve beliefs that advertising is a meritocracy with a message to snap out of it: "Everything we've been told about how women are supposed to behave in business is geared to suppress us and make us insecure about ourselves." But men should embrace female leadership: "A female culture -- one that embraces compassion, nurturing, collaboration and sensitivity -- by its nature creates a more productive, pleasant place to work than an atmosphere of fear, danger, and macho competition."

Ms. DiSesa at her best is bold, decisive, funny, charming and disarming. She coaches the reader to take risks and fail at times, like men always do. It's OK. Make mistakes. Bring in the bacon and all is forgiven. Use different techniques to manage men -- women are far easier to direct -- that don't hurt their fragile egos and appeal to their male instincts. Don't be a "real bitch." Be brutally honest; it will hurt you sometimes but help you more often.

In following her model of brutal honesty, the book is flawed by some cringe-inducing examples I could never take to heart. But many women in our industry and others can benefit from the wealth of wisdom Ms. DiSesa has been generous to share. There's plenty for men, too, if they reach for it. In fact, much of her best advice is unrelated to gender.

"Can a female boss create a female culture in a boys club?" Hopefully Nina's book will encourage and empower more women to find out.
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