I woke up one morning last week to a very interesting headline in The Sunday Times of India, ‘Bye dress code! Why men are showing their legs at work’. The article was a syndicated piece from the New York Times, ‘Blame the Millenials? For Men, Shorts at Work Is a Thing’ by Max Berlinger.
The article narrates from US experience how at Ogilvy & Mather, the advertising and PR agency, a group of men have banded together for what they call Shorts Friday. Melissa Smith, 46, an executive vice president at the company, said she may have unwittingly jump-started the movement when a new employee asked her if shorts at the office were O.K.
“I said as long as guys were wearing them in a work-casual way — no short shorts — and they kind of took that and ran with it,” Ms. Smith said.
Chris Krautler, 32, a vice president in the public relations department who has worn shorts to work, said that it is how one wears them that matters. “For our group, the gentleman’s agreement was: If you wear shorts, they have to look nice,” Mr. Krautler said. “The idea of wearing a T-shirt and shorts isn’t right. There’s a balance to it.”
Ms. Smith has noticed the effort. “It’s actually quite fun, because the guys on that team have a lot of style, and they try to one-up each other each week,” she said.
I joined advertising in an era when client servicing guys were called ‘suits’ simply because they were always dressed in suits … nothing more, nothing less. Anything but a formal suit (linen in Bombay and Calcutta, tweeds okay in Delhi with leather elbow patches) worn to a client’s office was deemed an insult to the client. Dress code uptill the late '80s was strictly formal, atleast for those who needed to interface clients. Even senior creative guys were seen in formal attire at client presentations.
Over the years, however, I have had my own experiences with a dressed-down(?!) dress code too. Let me share a couple of such instances from my past life …
Excerpted from Sandeep Goyal’s KONJO – Fighting Spirit, Harper Collins, 2014, pages 103-104
CASUAL IS NOT COOL
Daikin had been a client of mine from my Rediffusion days. It was therefore only a matter of time that one day we got called to come and make a presentation on our new agency.
Daikin is not a very important client for Dentsu in Japan. So it was more a relationship with the local team, with whom Rajesh (Aggarwal) vibed well. I went along for the initial meeting. The Japanese MD attended. He liked our work across both Japanese and local clients. A few days later we were informed that we had been assigned that business. Gullu (Sen), Rajesh and I went down to thank the client for reposing faith in us. We said we would do our best by Daikin.
A few weeks later, in passing, Rajesh mentioned to me that the Japanese MD we had met at Daikin had been posted back to Japan. I told Rajesh we must take him out for a farewell dinner. Rajesh said the gentleman had already relocated. Have you met the new incumbent? No, said Rajesh, I will fix for us to go see him.
I walked into the Dentsu Marcom office one morning to find Rajesh in a really foul mood. Without any preamble, he said, ‘Daikin just sacked us.’ I was taken aback.
As it turned out, the new MD from Japan was a big stickler for decorum at work. Ad agency guys being who they are, our Account Director arrived at Daikin attired casually for a meeting. Jeans, tees, sneakers. Perhaps, a two-day stubble too. One look at him and the MD walked out of the meeting. Being dressed in casuals for an official meeting amounted to disrespect for the MD, and for Daikin.
Rajesh tried meeting the MD to apologise but he refused to meet. The business was gone.
I have mixed feelings about this episode. Perhaps the new MD was too harsh and hasty. Perhaps he should have warned the erring agency guy at least once before firing us. But in some old-fashioned way, the 60-year-old MD was not entirely wrong. Sure, we were in a creative business, but we were also in a client-facing business. Walking into a client’s office in jeans and sneakers was surely not acceptable.
I must confess that I was horrified when one day we were leaving for an important presentation, I saw one young guy getting into the car wearing a pair of shorts and hawai chappals. I turned to Rajesh and asked who he was. A new copywriter, I was told. But where is he going? With us to the meeting. I was aghast. I could not have a half-dressed copywriter accompanying us for such an important meeting, howsoever creative he might be! Rajesh, despite the ghastly memories of Daikin, resisted. But I was adamant. I ordered him off my car.
Prudish behavior? No. I think, much as with the Daikin MD, there has to be a minimum protocol in every business. The Japanese themselves are loosening up and dressing down. But if it could be a pair of shorts today, it could well be a bikini-clad Art Director the next time! I suppose one needed to draw the line somewhere.
The above story dates back maybe 10 years. But my views on the subject have really not changed. I still think, despite the Silicon Valley effect, a scruffy unshaven look, and shorts at the work-place even in creative department of an ad agency are a strict no-no. I know many may not agree with me and say my views are old-fashioned but I think a certain minimum protocol and decorum at work is necessary.
Though in Japan (which I consider my second home, after 20 years of working with the folks there), things have been changing somewhat. They used to say in Japan that company executives in Tokyo even sleep with their jackets on. Even in the dead heat of summer, executives carry their jackets around with them, never showing up at a client’s office without wearing the jacket. So, the done thing is to reach the client’s office, put the jacket on, then go inside where knowing the weather, the client would suggest that he/she take-off the jacket and be more comfortable. This fun little ritual gets repeated thousands of times everyday in some or the other office in Japan. But the jacket as mandatory dress-code stays.
In 2006, the then Prime Minister Junichirō Koizumi initiated a dress-down programme in Japan called Cool Biz. While on the face of it, the programme was intended as an energy-saving exercise … offices in Japan were habitually cooled to 16-18 degrees … Koizumi san’s government mandated that offices be maintained at 28 degrees so as to save electricity, and reduce carbon emissions. The Cool Biz dress code advised workers to starch collars so they would stand up and to wear trousers made from materials that breathe and absorb moisture. Additionally, workers were encouraged to wear short-sleeved shirts without jackets or ties. Many workers, though, were confused about whether they should follow the new stipulations—many came to work with their jackets in hand and their ties in their pockets. Even those who liked the idea of dressing more casually sometimes became self-conscious during their commutes when they were surrounded by those wearing standard business suits. Many said they felt it was impolite not to wear a tie when meeting counterparts from the other companies. All of the government leaders took part in Cool Biz. Prime Minister Koizumi was frequently interviewed without a tie or jacket, and this produced a significantly raised profile of the campaign.
In the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the government announced the Super Cool Biz Campaign in response to power shortages and the need to conserve energy by at least 15%. Guidelines, keisou no jisshi, on the implementation of the casual dress code suggested : Not required to wear – Necktie and Jacket. Allowed to wear – Half-sleeve dress shirts, Kariyushi shirt / Okinawan shirt, Polo shirts, Hawaiian / Aloha shirts (!), Chino pants, Sneakers. Not allowed to wear – Exercise / Sweat shirts, Shorts, T-shirts, Jeans.
Cool Biz ushered in cataclysmic changes in Japanese fashion. Store sales boomed as Japanese rushed to refurbish their wardrobes. Despite the loosening up of the dress-code, the jacket though still remains the hallmark of Japanese office-wear. For the Japanese, shedding the jacket was akin to suggesting wearing shorts to work in India!
In India, especially in advertising, Friday or not, I still think wearing shorts to work is a no-no. Sure, no one is insisting on jackets to be worn to client offices in the sweltering summer, but shorts do seem a bit under-dressed to me. Silicon Valley norms don’t apply to client meetings and daily office routine in India. At least not yet.
If you agree, or disagree, do write to me at email@example.com. I shall share your feedback with all Campaign readers.
(Sandeep Goyal’s blog covers everything in advertising and media … campaigns, clients, colloquiums, controversies, critiques, criticism … even couture.)
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