March 08, 2018

Where are All the Female Creative Directors? A Conversation.

In a very thoughtful 2016 piece about agencies and diversity, Fast Company writer Brandon Burns shared that Wieden+Kennedy’s creative floor featured a large sign that read “Girl Wanted.”

First of all, I would highly recommend reading the whole piece. It shares some frank wisdom on bias and why agencies applaud diversity and movements like Black Lives Matter, but don’t always do anything to change the status quo. But aside from his larger point, the image of the sign has always hung out in the back of my mind. Why does it have to exist?

I’ve definitely been spoiled in my agency career. I’ve worked in environments that have included at least 50% women, including creative departments. I’ve had men and women alike mentor me and take chances on me, and it’s gotten me to where I am today. But I also want to be aware of how I can help others without pulling up the ladder behind me.

Recently, I discovered that my co-worker, Director of Strategy Meredith Engelen, actually did her master’s research on how we can pave the way for more female Creative Directors. We sat down and talked about her academic findings, and how they match up with my own experiences.

Becky: Why did you decide to research female Creative Directors?

Meredith: I had worked with a lot of awesome female talent in traditional creative roles: writers, art directors and so forth. But I also noticed that they were often in the minority in many agency creative departments. I started asking questions and wasn’t getting answers as to why. So, that’s why I dedicated my master’s research to understanding why there weren’t more women in creative departments or in creative leadership roles.

Becky: What did your study involve?

Meredith: First, I looked at existing research. I read think pieces and books like Lean In and The Athena Doctrine.

But when it came to actual female creatives, no one had gone in and talked to these women and asked them, “How do YOU define success?” So I did.

I conducted a small survey of women in creative roles around the country. I did a number of in-depth interviews with women who worked in creative roles at different levels, and did a content audit of agency job posts. How are they talking about their agency culture? How are they positioning these jobs?

In my study, I asked them, “What do you need out of your company culture to be successful and thrive?” Overwhelmingly, they wanted an environment that was respectful, supportive and positive. That sounds obvious, but it deviates from a typical awards and recognition-driven agency environment.

Women in my study also lamented about the fact that creative departments are not flexible in terms of work-life balance. They advertise ping-pong tables over livable hours. It’s not creativity that turns them off—it’s the environment we’re told it comes from.

Becky: I’m curious, since you’re a Director of Strategy, do these problems exist in that department, too?

Meredith: This is anecdotal, but I have worked with more women in strategy than I have in creative roles. In the three traditional agencies I’ve worked in, I estimate about 70-80% of the strategists were women. And Heather LeFevre’s Strategist Survey shows about a 50/50 split. The situation is much more dire in the creative department, where, as the Three Percent Conference cites, only 11% of creative directors are women.

Becky: That’s interesting. What is it about the creative department that alienates women?

Meredith: It’s not for a lack of interest. If you look at ad, journalism and design schools, there are usually an equal number of men and women coming out of them.

Historically, creative departments have been about selling—both ideas and egos. Many are also driven by awards, as I said earlier. Those things are not what women, at least those in my research, were motivated by. They’re much more collaborative. They want to work in teams and solve problems. I don’t think that’s true of the stereotypical creative department.

Awards in particular have been stacked against women, with predominantly male juries up until recently. Over the last five years, Cannes has doubled the number of female jurors. Still, only 43.5% of jurors and only 8 of 23 jury presidents were women in 2017.

Also, there is this point of view that the best creative work comes when you’re working doctor’s hours and you’re staying up all night in the office. But research shows us that family burdens are more often placed on women than they are on men. Not just kids, but family members and friends, caring for elderly parents and such. That’s another reason women turn away.

Becky: What about mentorship?

Meredith: There is a lack of mentorship for young women and female artists, whether you’re an artist or creative in an ad agency. One thing my research showed was that the more women you work with, the more likely you were to consider yourself successful. Same thing with more women in leadership.

Also, the women in my study attributed their own success to their talent and mentor networks equally. We need formal or informal networks to support women. I don’t think they’ve been around, and if they have been they’ve been really small. It’s been great to see MPLS MadWomen and The Coven really come to life. Hopefully they’ll bear fruit in the next few years.

Becky: What about men? How do they play into this?

Meredith: The men who have helped me have been vigilant and aware of the issue—acting on the problem, for example, seeing where a pay disparity could happen and preventing it. We don’t need people who are aware of the issue. We need people to act on it. There’s a need to also give women their space. We need a place to talk about these things.

Becky: What has already changed since you were younger? Has progressed happened?

Meredith: One thing we’re seeing is a movement away from trying to be a boy on the boys’ team. Now, we’re doing things our own way.

Becky: Agreed. For me, it’s less about teaching women to dominate a team than it is about celebrating women making things for the sake of art and creativity itself. When we don’t cultivate that, advertising misses out on a lot of real talent and perspective.

Meredith: Exactly. Most advertising is still aimed at women. We need to bring more women into the creative department to make our work as relevant, empathic and interesting as possible.


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