Episode 35: Advertising is broken - women speak out

February 24, 2014

"Women don't make it to the top because they don't deserve to - they're crap...they wimp out and go suckle something." - Former WPP global creative director Neil French, 2005

"The unpredictability of the work...is probably the hardest thing for women to get over. But then there are other things that are more insidious." - Kat Gordon

Kat GordonWe're surrounded by more marketing messages today than ever before (current estimate: we absorb about 3,000 such messages every single day). Many of them are targeted to women. After all, women hold 80% of the buying power in any household. Yet despite that, few women are making creative decisions at the tops of advertising firms. My guests on this show argue that's a little odd - and that it's time things changed. I speak with Marti Barletta of the TrendSight Group, Monique Nelson of UniWorld Group, and Kat Gordon of the 3% Conference.

Kat Gordon founded the 3% Conference to get the ad industry to confront the creativity gap and work out how more women can rise to the role of creative director. As we discuss in the show, a decades-old agency culture won't change quickly, but with men's help, it can change. (Full show transcript below.)

16 minutes.

Show notes: 

This is a link to part of the dissertation (now book) that got everyone talking about that 3% statistic. It's by academic Kasey Farris Windels. If you Google her you can download the whole dissertation - it's the first link that comes up.

From the She-Economy website: quick facts and statistics about marketing to women.

Here's a good Adweek piece by Cindy Gallop on solving the creative director gender gap.

Kat Gordon posted on the 3% Conference blog about Mita Diran's death, and included another tale of excessive overwork from a top female creative.

Here's a piece from an Australian news site about Diran's death.

Here's the Pew Social Trends survey from 2013 on men, women and work/life balance.

Two decent ads aimed at women and girls: If you haven't seen it yet, check out this ad for Pantene shampoo (made for the Philippino market - I don't know the gender mix, if any, on the creative team.) This Goldie Blox ad also went viral when it came out.


Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time on the show, we look at women who work in advertising. It’s a popular industry for women, but a tiny minority make the creative decisions that put ads on screens. Billions of consumers take in marketing messages largely created by men. And those messages tend to influence us a lot more than we think. But changing the status quo means tackling the culture at ad agencies…

“I feel like advertising is broken and that the things we value and prize and the way we try to demonstrate our worth to clients is so off, and no one is getting to the root of that.”

Coming up on The Broad Experience.

Kat Gordon has worked in advertising for 25 years. She left the world of big ad agencies in the late nineties to go freelance - she was a copywriter back then. These days she’s creative director of her own agency, Maternal Instinct. She also founded and runs the 3% Conference, which aims to increase the numbers of women in high-level creative jobs in advertising. She started to notice the gender imbalance in the industry quite a while ago. One incident at a former employer has always stuck in her mind.

“We were pitching the Saab car account. And the entire pitch team except for one team member was male, so they had 16 men and one woman pitching this car account. And also I want to add that everyone on that team except for the one woman, she was Asian, was white – it was this white male lineup trying to win a piece of businesses from the Swedes…and if you know anything about cultural bents, you know that’s a nation that’s a lot more progressive than many…”

They did not win the account, for whatever reason. Years later Kat started the 3% Conference to ask why 97 percent of creative directors are men – and what the industry can do to change that. But as Kat just alluded to, it’s not just women who thin out the higher up you go in the ad world. Even in the lower ranks, most people pretty much look the same.

“For advertising to have a lack of diversity is such an oxymoron to me, I think it’s just bizarre.”

That’s Monique Nelson. She’s the CEO of Uniworld Group, a multicultural marketing agency based in New York.

“We should reflect the people that we’re talking to, shameless plug for Uniworld Group, but the one thing I love about my agency is we are diverse, and that’s huge. But yeah, Madison Avenue has a long way to go with respect to not only female, but diversity in its truest form. My dream would be we really do reflect, especially here in the US, the American experience, which is not white and male, dominantly.”

For one thing, America is going to be majority non-white within the next few decades. And women make more than 80 percent of the buying decisions in any household. Yet they’re usually not deciding what goes into the ads we see – and we apparently take in more than 3,000 marketing messages a day. Marti Barletta runs the Trendsight Group, which specializes in marketing to women.

“Most of the time in the world people don’t understand the differences between men and women and the problem with that in advertising is that the role of advertising is to interest, motivate and persuade people who very often are quite different from you.”

And she says that can be a problem if a team of guys is creating, say, a car campaign and doesn’t realize men and women come to decisions in quite different ways.

“So one of the things, stereotypes about women you may have heard, is that women are fickle, they can’t make up their minds, they change their minds all the time. Now what really is going on there is that women’s decision process is quite enormously different from men’s decision process.  It’s one of the things that surprised me the most, because you wouldn’t think it would be gender-related, but it actually is.”

She says for instance men tend to make buying decisions in a fairly linear way. Women on the other hand are more likely to take in multiple strands of information as they research a product, and change their mind depending on what they learn…

“So women’s process tends to loop back very often throughout the process as she learns more and more things about the product, the dealership, what her friend have preferred, etcetera. “

Marti Barletta and Kat Gordon both say it’s not that women are all fabulous at marketing to other women. Men have created some fantastic ads that do very well with female consumers. The industry needs a mixture of thinking, Kat Gordon says.

In that case, I had a question for her.

AM-T: “It’s sort of ironic because you’re making this point in your work that there just aren’t… that only 3% of top creatives are women. And yet you left the agency world yourself because you felt you couldn’t stay there and raise your children. And this is the problem, isn’t it?”

“It’s a huge part of the problem, absolutely. I revisit that time in my own mind, and I try to think…I don’t ever remember  thinking it was an option to stay and have kids…I don’t remember ever seeing anyone in leadership who was pregnant. So I’m not suggesting that they told me I couldn’t, I just somehow didn’t think it was possible. And I was commuting every day from Palo Alto to San Francisco and it was a long day, and I just I remember thinking, ‘I can’t do this job and be the kind of mother I think I want to be.’ “

She has that in common with a lot of women from many industries. But there are  some outliers. I told Kat about a woman I’d interviewed last year for a magazine piece. Her name is Marlene Hore and she spent years as a top advertising executive in Canada. She became a creative director in the 80s. She loved her job. She told me something I don’t hear many women say out loud. She had two daughters during the height of her career. She told me her daughters would have liked to have her at home a lot more during their childhood, and that she had missed out on plenty of ballet recitals and dinners at home. She said she adored her children but added, “I had to do something that was ‘me’.”

“Yeah, you know one of the things I heard Sheryl Sandberg say recently, I was lucky, I got to meet her and she gave a talk, and she talked about how no one at her level or in any kind of senior leadership talks about how joyful it can be to work – you know, it’s always about how to juggle it and how to do it all, and it’s kind of, even the language we use has built into it that it’s going to suck, or it’s going be hard, and that no one really talks about how wonderful it is, man or woman, to feel like you are using your gifts, making a difference, having an impact, and that’ something she’s trying to do, to show that she loves her work. And it sounds like this woman you just described felt the same way. I do think that’s part of the conversation that hasn’t really taken root yet and needs to.”

At the 3% Conference she says there’s no whingeing or hand-wringing. She’s actually trying to isolate what it is that keeps women out of top creative roles, so agencies can change the way they do things. She says there’s no doubt that having kids and wanting to spend time with them is a major issue women creatives have to grapple with.

“So it really is at that – I heard someone call it the messy middle – it’s right in those years where you’re maybe in your early thirties, you’ve got enough experience at that point to become an associate creative director, and you’re right at that point where you’re thinking of having a family, as I did. The types of things that make it so difficult for women with small children – and men as well, I don’t want to leave them out of this – is the unpredictability of the work…you know, for anyone that’s worked as creative director, copywriter, art director, you know you go into a client presentation, you don’t know if you’re going to sell the work and if you don’t you’re under the gun to produce something new that they’re going to like…often it can mean working all weekend or working late, or hop on a plane to go present again.

So that’s probably the hardest thing for women to get over. But then there are other things that are more insidious – one of the big things I noticed when I worked in the agency world is you get trained to be a creative thinker but you don’t get trained at portfolio school, I’m hoping this has changed, but you’re not trained to sell your work and to be a really persuasive presenter. A lot of women leave that to their male partners or account directors, so they are not selling their work, so they’re letting someone else take the glory, someone else learn how to deflect criticism and get a client to fall in love with something, which is a really important skill…and I see that lack of confidence carry through into things like women not entering their work into awards shows, women not being jurors of award shows, women not speaking at conferences, women not writing op-ed pieces. It’s a visibility issue. So that’s another challenge for women in advertising is getting them to believe their opinion matters, getting them to speak up, getting them to put their face out there, getting them to enter their work in awards shows. And then mentorship. You just can’t downplay that you need someone – and sponsorship -  you need someone  to see the talent in you and open doors for you, and what’s very sad,  is many well intended men are nervous about mentoring young women as it can look unsavory – they don’t want to look like a lech inviting the young copywriter to lunch. And one of things I say to men when we go on our roadshows or they come to our event is please get over that and don’t care what others might think, because these women need you more than you can imagine. And if you are a woman who’s achieved success, mentor as well: women really need other women pulling them up and advocating for them and giving them insight into how to navigate that messy middle.”

So I asked, do the men actually get it? She says most agencies are clamoring for guidance on how to keep women and some guys do understand the issues. Others are learning to. She uses a recent conference as an example. There were four male creative directors on a panel.

“And the one thing that happened that was so interesting…sexism came up, the male advantage, sexism, and I can’t remember which but – one of the panelists came up and said that’s old school, that doesn’t happen any more. The female panelist said guys, I hate to tell you, it does still go on…and everyone in the audience was kind of nodding along, so I do think it’s one of those things that if you haven’t experienced it first hand it’s hard to believe it happens to the degree it does. So I do think men are aware they’re losing female talent, but I don’t think they’re always aware of all the little things that happen that contribute to women giving up.”

Of course those hours we talked about a bit earlier – they’re a big thing, and they can be brutal. At the end of last year a young copywriter in Indonesia called Mita Diran collapsed and died not long after tweeting that she’d worked 30 hours straight on a client project. Kat says those kinds of stories make her despair, because there’s no need for anyone to drive themselves that hard.

“The thing that I keep saying, and I feel like this lone voice saying this, those kinds of work environments and that kind of pushing yourself to the limit does not result in creative output - it’s been proven, if you look at where ideas flourish and where amazing synapses connect in your brain, it is not at 2a.m. in a war room of an agency after you’ve been drinking Red Bull all day. That’s a recipe for disaster. So I feel like advertising is broken and that the things we value and prize and the way we try to demonstrate our worth to clients is so off, and no one is getting to the root of that, because if you really want to create great work for your clients that’s going to be motivating to consumers you would not run your agency the way you do. And I think if I were a client today and I knew what my customer base looked like, and chances are it’s mostly female, and I knew that by demanding something to be done in a crazy turnaround kind of crash and burn, and that meant the female creatives at the agency would be less likely to be able to service my business, why is that a worthwhile trade? I think it’s actually lunacy.”

She says things are changing at big companies like Google that have in-house creative departments. There everyone works together as a team to create the best work. But in the agency world, there’s still that imperative to prove yourself to the client…

“People say, well, that’s just the way it is, and I think wow, if that’s how much the agency culture is cemented in people’s minds…I don’t know, maybe I’m enough of an outsider, maybe it’s because I live in Silicon Valley and work with a lot of startups, and I’m trained to think differently and ask questions, but I don’t think it’s working, and I don’t think the men are happy either.”

Last year a survey from Pew Social Trends in the US revealed half of working dads felt stressed trying to balance work and family life – that’s compared to 56% of working mothers.

“And on the one hand I feel sad that now our brothers are feeling the pinch too, but in a way I think it’s necessary because until the HR departments are hearing a chorus of voices crying uncle and saying this is just untenable, things don’t change.”

So men, speak up. The next 3% Conference takes place in November this year in San Fransisco.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time.

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I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.