Thoughts from a 3 Percent Conference: we need clients to demand more women on their business

Only three percent of advertising creative directors are women.

Who’ll solve this problem? Women? Men? Agency management?

I think we need the clients.


Our panel at Boston’s 3 Percent Conference

I was thrilled to see a huge a turnout last night — albeit mostly women — for the Boston version of Kat Gordon’s 3% Conference.  It goes without saying that if only three percent of advertising’s creative directors are women, we have a problem. And it’s a pretty big one. It results in work that is often one-sided — dominated by guy-humor, lacking the right nuance, and missing opportunities to connect more deeply with the more dominant sex, at least when it comes to influencing purchase decisions, adopting technology, using social media and gaming.

Women account for, or influence, 85 percent of all purchases in this country. They embrace new gadgets and devices more quickly. They exceed men’s use of social media on every platform except LinkedIn. And they comprise at least half of all video gamers; 3% Percent Conference facts actually show that they spend more time than man playing.

Yet with the exception of a few organizations — Mullen’s own Frank About Women among them — the advertising industry chooses to have mostly men create, evaluate and bless the work that is supposed to market to women.

Of course, this is neither a new nor a surprise. The annual cover of Creativity showing All Star creatives has told us that for years. Juries at the award shows reminds us how male-dominated the creative side of the industry remains. And a look across the top ranks of most agency creative departments confirms it.

The problem is as easy to identify. This is a brutal business. Long hours, lots of weekends, the demands of new business pitches, extended time on the road far from home to produce TV commercials. None of which is very compatible with women who want kids and families, which, by the way usually happens right when they’re at the point in their career where they’re most qualified to become creative directors.

The 3% Conference last night did not pretend to offer the complete formula for effecting change, saving that for a more thorough two-day conference in San Francisco. But Kat Gordon and our panel did put forth a few strong suggestions — all of which were discussed and debated vigorously by an engaged and opinionated audience.

There are two sides to the issue. The role that women can play in their own career growth and success. And the responsibility of agencies themselves to change, not out of altruism but because it’s good for business.

The consensus came down to this.

Women need to take more credit for their accomplishments.

I love assertive, opinionated women. Apparently not all guys do. So you can heed the advice of Cindy Gallop and be a bitch. She makes a damn good point.

Right now our industry needs more bitches because bitches need to start bitching, by which I mean, speaking up.

We live in a world where the default setting is always male. Most innate bias and sexism is unconscious. We change that by speaking up. Have a different point of view from the men? Say so. Want that promotion? Ask for it. Facing an all-male leadership team, board, creative department or conference speaker lineup? Challenge it and propose a better balance. Yes, you’ll be called a bitch but not by people who know the best new future for our industry is one shaped equally by men and women.

But even if you don’t want to get overly assertive, women do have to ask for more promotions, fight for more opportunities and most importantly take credit for their accomplishments, something they fail to do. Especially when they work with men.

All of this presumes, of course, that they’re doing great work and know how to present it convincingly.

Finally if both of those approaches fail, you’re working in the wrong agency according to panelists Alyssa Toro and Sue DeSilva. In that case, get the hell out, let it be the agency’s loss, and find a more enlightened place to work.

Guys have to play a role

While they probably won’t admit it, guys are more comfortable hanging out with guys. As creative directors, they’re more comfortable giving feedback to guy teams. And when they do review work from women, they often apply narrow evaluation criteria.

The women in the audience last night appeared unanimous in suggesting that men CD’s filter work through a man lens. If it doesn’t satisfy their creative sensibilities it isn’t creative. So perhaps it’s time to listen to the smart, creative women that work for us. Recognize that they understand themselves better than we do and so their opinion should matter at least as much.

Kat shared one interesting example that proves this. If you were going to buy your wife or girlfriend a birthday gift, who would you ask? Certainly not another man. Perhaps one of her friends or another woman who shares her taste. Why not trust the same opinion when marketing to women?

Lastly on this topic, senior men need to be mentors to women. Don’t be afraid to take young women to lunch. Counsel them on how to sell their work, navigate the organization and develop influence. You won’t be seen as a lech. You’ll be seen as a guy who gets it.

Management needs to model behavior

We may have to put in crazy hours to meet client deadlines and get to work that’s great. But is that the only way? Is it good to be in the office at 10:00 pm every night, to forego vacations, to neglect our families?

You could make an argument that everyone is more creative if their life is balanced. But even if you don’t buy into that, it’s more than evident that women who are Moms work harder, smarter and more efficiently. They have no choice.  So what if someone goes home to get the kids or watch a soccer game? All that we should care about is the quality of the work.

If agencies buy into the fact that a woman’s perspective is better for business and yields more effective work — arguable I know — then as the 3 Percent Conference suggests, they have to set an example from the top and practice the kind of behavior and policy that can make the business for accomodating to women. If not, we all know what happens. When it’s time to have a family, the women leave. We all know amazingly, talented, senior creatives who eschewed becoming CDs to go freelance instead.

Example: Feel compelled to write 10 emails to your staff at 11:00 pm? Do so. But don’t hit send until the morning. After all if you send them at 11:15 at night you’re declaring that you expect them to be reading them and responding at the same time.

But there’s really only one solution: clients have to demand more women on their accounts

I’m skeptical, however. Change is hard. And the industry is what it is on many fronts. Granted there are some companies where everyone goes home at 5:30. (They’re probably not on the Ad Age A-List or winning lions at Cannes.) And there are others that go out of their way to make flex time work, to fly creative teams home from shoots on weekends, etc. They get it. But when push comes to shove, deadlines and the work take priority, at least as far as most agency management is concerned.

If we really want more women CDs working in the industry, the only real solution is for clients to demand more women on their accounts, from the teams that do the work to the CDs that inspire and approve it. They already know it’s good for business, after all their consumers and users are women.

(That’s not to say that men can’t deliver the goods see Dove Sketches, done by a male team; but let’s face it, typically women get women better than men do. And that perspective is needed for all products and categories, not just so called female brands.)

It’s clients who have the greatest clout and the most to gain. And wouldn’t it be so great to replace Don Draper’s best line of this season…

“Every time this agency wins a car account it turns into a whore house.”


“Every time this agency wins a _______ account it gets more collaborative (or more relevant, or more balanced, or more diverse, or more balanced.)

After all, those would be just a few of the benefits of having more women CDs in advertising.


Wish I had heard about this event. I would have loved to attended. But a thought on the last point re: clients demanding more women on their accounts: Hopefully some of that will come from more diversity from within client organizations from CMOs to brand managers, which had also been a boys club in the past. Clients are going to want the best people on their teams, regardless of gender or ethnicity (at least that's the hope, right?). Which leaves it to agencies to make sure those hard working and smart creatives are enabled to continue moving up the ladder. 


 @JMillerBoston @edwardboches @katgordon @mamuwe Great conversations going on here.

3% is not just about women. It's about everyone who has a diverse background and opinion who doesn't "fit in"; who isn't able to share their talents and skills because the folks in charge--who are usually one homogenous group that may or may not represent the very customers they're selling to or servicing--this one group feels the diverse opinions and experience of others is not relevant. This isn't about racism, sexism, or xenophobia. It's bigger than that. This is about our ability to survive in a sustainable way as a nation. This is a critical business problem, pure and simple. And it's a problem in every industry: biotech, education, aerospace, IT, financial services, high tech, fashion, health care, government, hospitality, you name it. Corporate America is shooting itself in the head by not making the most of the diverse resources at its disposal--the very diversity that would drive it toward innovation and true success. It's economic suicide. 

Which is why we have to do something. Yes, change is really fricking hard. And the current she-change isn't exactly an ocean. But at 3%, we believe that whatever we can do to make the waters rise even an inch will lift ALL of our boats. 



You're right, Edward, I didn't mean to make you look bad. Really. I respect everything you've done in your career. In fact, I was an intern for you back when you worked in PR at HHCC. And I didn't mean to hide my identity. My name is Mary Murphy Webb, mamuwe is a moniker I use everywhere. I also apologize for my cynical tone. This is a very very emotional subject for me.  When you've been fighting the good fight for as long as I have and have finally clawed your way to the top, your interpretation of people's writing on the subject of your life's work becomes a bit tainted, to say the least. The point I was trying to make is that the biz is the biz. It requires long hours and weekends and that's not going to change. Nor is it going to change for attorneys, and a myriad of other professions. The change needs to be societal. And it's too bad that it's only women who feel compelled to leave/back burner their careers for the sake of children and family. I too know of many, many women who've left the biz because they felt they couldn't both have a career and raise a family. I even know a couple of  guys who've done it.


The bigger point is that there is something very broken with the creative departments of most advertising agencies. I know. I've worked in them. And I also believe it has very little to do with the hours and travel.


The problem goes beyond women.


There are very few african americans in creative departments.


There are very few of anything in creative departments except white guys--white guys who I love, btw. 


Maybe white guys need to solve the problem--as you very bravely seem to be attempting to do.


And us bitches need to just shut up. Goodness knows it's only going to be interpreted as whining or personal attacks.


Heck, I'll just let Jodi talk: 


"As somone who does not want children, I'd argue that it's not the long hours and hard work that women are adverse to. We focused a lot on that last night and to me that wasn't really the issue. The issue is being very subtly reprimanded for the same work behaviors men are applauded for (speaking one's mind, exerting leadership, taking credit, telling it like it is, critiquing others' work, DOING ONE'S JOB)."





Women need to speak up, so I will.


On all accounts, I heard I missed an amazingly inspiring event. I missed it because I was in Los Angeles. My job as a creative director requires I work both coasts in what Edward referred to as this  "brutal business. Long hours, lots of weekends...none of which is very compatible with women who want kids and families."


In addition to a great career, I have three children and a husband with a very demanding job who takes on a full half (if not more) of the childrearing and household responsibilities. The problem I believe is that Edward and many men and women like him still believe that it's women, not men, who want (and should take full responsibility for) kids and families. A tired rant, but a still true one.


Needless to say, the assertion that women aren't making it to CD-level because they want to have babies right when those decisions are being made is a lame excuse for Executive Creative Directors who want to rationalize their promotions of buddies over bitches.


Thanks @edwardboches , a great recap and good to review last night's experience through your lens.


I was struck by the heat generated in the last hour of the gathering, in and around the topic of work/life balance, the grind of agency hours, the choices men and women make that define their priorities in life. I saw a lot of fire in the eyes of the young women in attendance – many of whom were heading right back to work after we wrapped at 9pm. I'm pretty sure folks would have kept talking for another two hours at least!


The typical argument in the ad business is, "if you don't wanna put in the time, you're in the wrong line of work."

It's a simple enough answer to a very complex set of issues, and therein lies the problem – most creatives aren't content with simple ham-fisted answers. We crave elegant, nuanced solutions. It's kinda what we do. 


This is the broader awesomeness of what 3% has to offer. At its core, it's an easy cause to get behind (unless your're a soulless corporate gynophobe, I guess) because the numbers speak for themselves, and because finally, we all get a focused platform for the discussion. But once you get started in this conversation, it quickly becomes apparent that a focus on women leads immediately to a deeper exploration of people in general; what we want to stand for, and how we choose to stand together. What collaboration really means to us as clients, businesspeople, makers and thinkers. 


I'm so glad to have a seat at the table with @katgordon and @rebrivved  – what a great opportunity. This ain't just more FastCompanyTechCrunchMashableAdWeek blah blah blah. This is the real stuff. 


Thanks for this fabulous recap, Edward. Glad you shared my Prezi, but this version you pulled off the web has a couple typos that were corrected in my presentation. Just don't want anyone thinking the 3% can't spell! 


Thanks for this fabulous recap, Edward. Glad you shared my Prezi, but this version you pulled off the web has a couple typos that were corrected in my presentation. Just don't want anyone thinking the 3% can't spell! 

edwardboches moderator

 @rebrivved  @JMillerBoston  @katgordon  @mamuwe I am reading Blood, Bones, Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton. The chef/owner of Prune in NYC. You want to see a male centric industry? Restaurants.  All the same problems and challenges.  I agree with you. And I know a little about change, having worked to transform a company more than once. It is  hard. And it's not about right or wrong or what's better. It's whether you can structure change in a way that makes it desirable and good for those who have to change. My suggestion about clients is based on that insight. Everything agencies do is in response to outside forces, typically. It's why they do spec pitches, why they give their services away, why they are now trying to hire minorities. Pressure from the outside will work even faster than the logic inherent in the numbers.

edwardboches moderator

 @mamuwe Mary, thank you. All great points. And nothing with which I disagree. Except that I think women should be more vocal. They don't have to attack the system, but they do have to fight for change and their due.


I don't defend the culture. I simply acknowledge it. I changed my entire approach and commitment when I had kids. Stopped traveling, cut back hours, and realized the importance of that for others. Though I have partners and colleagues who think differently. The African American issue is even more shameful as the industry failed miserably to diversify in any way reflecting the population. We are all making an effort now to redeem ourselves. It's hard to generalize. There are many agencies that are more overtly pro-women than others. BBH, Hill Holiday, Connelly and Partners. Even re-structuring how they do things to accommodate women. And there are lots of men who are supportive. Rob Schwartz at TBWA, for example.  At Mullen, it's often women who act like men -- exhibiting all the qualities you mention above as being criticized -- who are the most successful. I long for a day when you don't have to act like that to get ahead and be recognized. There are female qualities -- collaboration, open mindedness, nurturing young people -- that the industry needs, whether it knows it or not.

edwardboches moderator

 @mamuwe I have never said that, nor is it implied in my post or my comments last night. I simply stated a fact that many women do -- I won't name them here without their pemission, but there are dozens of not hundreds -- leave the business to have families. Not all manage to find husbands or partners as willing to be equal as you have. I have in fact done that, sharing parenting and all that goes with it. Congratulations on having such an awesome husband. Though I'm not sure that should be a requirement for single Moms or gay Moms or others. Your situation is but one way to solve this.  Finally,  I also willingly put my name on everything I say and do online, so that people not only know where I stand, they know who they're talking to. 


I saw the fire in those young eyes last night and wish I'd had the chance to tell each of those young women the following:

I've been lucky to work with male creative directors like @JMillerBoston who even when he's not comfortable with my ideas is smart and secure enough to realize that together we can come up with creative solutions a room full of white guys might never consider.

I've also been unlucky enough to work with male CDs who told me I didn't fit in or that I didn't "get" it. Truth is, they didn't "get" me. Either way, like Cindy Gallop, I decided early on that I'd rather be a bitch than a doormat. I also decided to always be the best creative I could be, to learn how to present my own work, understand the client's business, stay ahead of trends and embrace change whenever possible. You'd think that would've been enough. But sadly, a few times it wasn't.

So here's one last piece of advice. When you're on staff at an ad agency, always keep your portfolio fresh and at the ready and your network active so that if the shit gets too deep, you can do what I and so many other women (and men) have done before you: vote with your feet. @katgordon you know what I'm talking about.

edwardboches moderator

 @JMillerBoston  @katgordon  @rebrivved Agree totally. This is about women as they tend more often than not to deal with the consequences of a demanding business, male cultures, and not enough women in senior roles who can change each and every company.  But at the same time, and my comments last night reflected it, change will be really hard. Agreeing intellectually with what needs to be done and doing it are two different things. I know a fair amount about designing for change. It never happens because it's a good idea or good for people, it happens because there's a reason that someone wants to do it or sees value in it for themselves. It has to tap into and leverage positive and existing behaviors, not dictate or force new ones. On practice that does exist and won't change is that agencies respond to clients. Hence the argument that we need brands and clients to step up.


I hear you @edwardboches  and have a related story. A dear (male) friend who was a very talented chef in Manhattan rose through the ranks to become the sous chef at Le Bernardin. But he became so disgusted with the industry that he quit to become -- wait for it -- an Art Director. Disenchanted with advertising, once his second daughter was born, he went freelance to stay home while his wife continued her high-octane career. She is now an SVP, Director Global Capabilities at Draft in NYC. And he is a happy stay at home Dad who takes the odd advertising assignment.

@JMillerBoston @katgordon @mamuwe 


 @edwardboches  @katgordon  @rebrivved  one of the things we've been discussing is that 3% will inevitably address and include dialog about non-agency careers (what some folks call The Client Side - use your best Sith Lord voice when saying that), as many of us shift in and out of agency life and thus have a a huge opportunity to influence on both sides of that coin. @rebrivved and I often talk about The Creative Community, and the reality that our careers can take many turns, often away from agencies (gasp!) once we've discovered a product/service/special interest that resonates. So that natural flow from agency creative to "client," I think, is rich territory to mine for stories, experiences, etc...and could be viewed as an important context for the kind of change we're looking for. 

edwardboches moderator

 @JMillerBoston  @katgordon  @rebrivved Yes and  yes. I also hope and expect we will see the model itself change. We need to be more IDEO like, designing experiences, the workplace among them.  Will Burns of @ideasicle fame and I talk a lot about his new model, which is brilliant. It not only offers a solution for those who move outside agencies but for agencies themselves to embrace. Change will come. It will help when some of the dinosaurs (and that's not just age, but mindset) leave or get thrown out of the business.