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Where Are All The Women Creative Directors?

Women control a whopping 80% of consumer spending, yet only 3% of creative directors are female. Here's why, and what it may take to change the ratio.

Every once in a while at Fast Company, we come across a statistic so counterintuitive, we need to investigate further. Like this one: Despite the fact that women control 80% of consumer spending, only 3% of creative directors (and we're not talking about celebrity CDs) are female. This came to our attention courtesy of Kat Gordon, founder and creative director of Maternal Instinct, a marketing agency focused on helping brands connect with mothers.

For Gordon, necessity was the mother of Maternal Instinct. "This is not a gripe fest. It’s more about how the [traditional] demands of creative roles get untenable for moms when they need more predictability." She says it’s no secret to those in the industry that the upper echelons of the ad world are still very much a boys' club. "Most people assume Mad Men is a quaint time capsule," she says. "The wardrobe has changed and there’s no smoking and no bourbon, but if you really get down to the nitty gritty we haven’t made nearly the progress we should."

That’s just bad business, says Gordon, considering that women are driving the economy by bringing in more than half the income in 55% of U.S. households and dominating social networks. "There is a study in which female consumers were asked if brands understood them and 90% said no," Gordon says. Even though brands like Tide are including men in their advertising campaigns, she contends that while men may be doing more grocery shopping, they are "field foragers," buying from a list that is drawn up by the lady of the house. "We haven’t reached a tipping point yet," Gordon says.

Though she applauds the likes of Mary Alderete spearheading the Levi’s initiative to take some 60,000 3-D images of women’s rears in an effort to design jeans that worked on a variety of figures, don’t get her started on those Playtex Fresh + Sexy wipes (incidentally, led by a female creative).

"We all scratch our heads and say how can this be the case in an industry focused on communicating effectively to the public," says Gina Grillo, president and CEO of the Advertising Club of New York. "Women are challenged with balance in a way that our male counterparts are not," she adds.

The media tends to focus the gender gap on the tech industry, where there’s a dearth of women from entry to top level positions. According to Gordon, men and women start out in equal number in advertising but advancing to senior positions often dovetails with starting a family for many women. Although she founded her own agency to better balance the demands of parenthood with her career, even women without children don’t advance, in part, Gordon says, because of a lack of mentorship.

"I’m actually one of the lucky ones," says Kathy Delaney, chief creative officer of Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness. From the time she was a student at School of Visual Arts, Delaney says she had a mentor. She credits Lynn Giordano (now at Ogilvy & Mather) for helping her get her first position as an art director, but Delaney says she’s had male mentors, too. "I always worked for people who were less old school and more about results and the work," she observes. Delaney doesn’t have kids of her own, but she has been married for nearly 20 years. "I believe that great ideas don’t happen while you are sitting in the office. Usually my most creative time is when I am cooking or working out, doing things that balance and ground me."

Unfortunately, she says, the advertising industry hasn’t progressed enough to foster a balanced life for many women with families. "I see a lot of brilliantly talented women kept from sharing their vision and forced to make that choice [between family and work]."

Delaney believes clients are "missing out" when creative teams lack that strong female vision and point of view. "It’s a shame, actually," she says. "When clients think about hiring an agency they need to be asking who is going to work on my business, who is the person to be the voice for my brand targeting women."

At Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, where clients range from the American Heart Association to Boost, Delaney says she’s got teams that "feel very healthy." For example, four women make up the leadership team working on Latisse, the prescription treatment for skimpy eyelashes marketed to women.

Fifty five-percent of the staff at Deutsch NY is female, according to CEO Val DiFebo, but the number of women goes down the higher up the ranks you go. At the partnership level, there are 62% men versus 38% women. Though DiFebo says there are more women on the digital side of creative, "I wish there were more women to interview for creative directors," she admits. "If you could find them, you would hire them," because strong creative comes from insights from both genders. "If you don’t go out and buy chicken, you don’t know if one brand is better than another," DiFebo contends, which would make it hard to market the product. The consumer has to feel "Oh, they get me. That is what is really important," she says.

DiFebo also believes the reason there are so few women creative directors is the lack of work/life balance. "As someone doing this for 30 years, it’s not really a guess," she says. With so few female role models, she says women don’t have a clear path to follow. "How can I be a mom and a creative director?" she posits. As more women like her are taking on CEO roles, DiFebo says it would only take a few more in a creative leadership position to bring a "flood" of other women. "But it has to be someone who believes in the balance, that has a family or interests outside work that take up their time," she argues.

To foster a more equal playing field, DiFebo says Deutsch NY hires between 30 and 40 interns per year, split equally between genders. Women are introduced to all departments, something DiFebo believes is valuable to this new generation of workers. "Women need to feel like they can do things the guys can do."

There are signs that the tide is beginning to turn. Gina Grillo notes that the Ad Club of New York has a mentoring program. "Whenever we put out a call for people to mentor young professionals and students women are very generous with their time," she says. Grillo says this may be due in part to the six-month time limit placed on the mentorship. "So you don’t have to sign up now through forever," she quips, and the mentoring can take place virtually.

For her part, Gordon started the 3% Conference, an annual gathering of industry folk concerned about raising awareness and making a change. Gordon says the first event was a success and she plans to have a series of smaller "road shows" starting this month in Boulder, Colorado and moving around to Austin, Toronto, and L.A. with a presentation cheekily dubbed "Where are all the Donna Drapers?" "I want to make sure this issue is not forgotten," she says, but also that it’s the greatest opportunity for brands in this decade.

"I live in Silicon Valley and I see people trying to eke out 2 percent gains," she says, "And I want to wave my arms and say, you'll be rich beyond compare if you figure out how to market to women."

[Image: Flickr user Namelas Frade]

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  • So as a man I lack the ability to shop on my own? Plus here in Canada there are tons of female CDs and they are some of the best in the business.

  • Peter Wise

    Here in the UK advertising industry, I can think of two reasons. The divide happens even before the family/work balance comes into it - the placement set up is geared more towards young men, working silly hours for silly money.  And two, because on the whole, women are better at organising/detail/client-side - better than men often. Which is why the majority of account people are women.

  • fortyminstofive

    Dear moderator. If you had confidence in your article you wouldn't need moderation.

  • fortyminstofive

    What a poorly researched, badly written, sexist, biased piece of crap. This belongs between the pages of a glossy magazine, not on
    This leads us down the path of 'positive' discrimination where able-minded creatives are denied opportunity because they don't fit a pre-determined quota based on race, gender etc.

    Do me a favour.

  • Gabie

    Don't worry, I'm still in school. Give me some time and another one of us will rule the world. ;)

  • Laura Eisenhauer

    This is unrelated, but it's such a pet peeve of mine when people misuse "women" for "female"; would you say "man creative director" or "male creative director"?  "Man police officer" or "male police officer"? This might as well read "Where are all the lady creative directors?".

    When making a plea for gender equality, you'll garner more support if you learn your gender pronouns and modifiers.

  • Jean Grow

    A great article. I would add that women also make 80-85% of all consumption choices. So, do we need more women in creative? You bet. And while I get where DiFebo is going when she says, "Women need to feel like they can do things the guys can do,” I suggest we turn that on it's head. Why not "Men need to feel like they can do the things women can do"? After all we make most of the purchase decisions and stepping in our shoes might teach men a thing or two about female consumers - and colleagues. It might also open a few more doors to women. The more we ask both women and men to lean in (I used this a long time before Sheryl Sandberg) the better off we will all be.

  • brainsponge

    Please define your search of women. Some ache for advancement while others know they will make due  I, for example, am no longer on the grid of advertising creative directors. I went client side.

    Truth is, I got old (42) and expensive (70K) and they had people in line before me at every agency I worked. Maybe this is an anomally but the companies always hired management from outside. Now, mind you I have no kids, no husband but no MBA. Then again, no one who ever

    I do know as a career-focused woman, the offers I get are more female centric, more copywriting intensive (thanks to the market excuse). "we're looking for a female to work on our grocery store, tampon, vodka....etc, .... account.

  • Tundeze

    Even rarer: African-American CDs of either gender. I've worked in so many shops as the lone African American, it's just disgraceful. Meanwhile, some of the most creative minds I've ever met were among the overstuffed classrooms of inner-city Oakland, when I was a substitute teacher in the mid-90s. Were agencies to focus efforts on recruiting and development in public schools starting at an early age, we wouldn't need to have 5 - 10 Brits, Aussies, and Kiwis working on green cards in every firm. (Or is it that the Clients find the accents adorable?) If agencies wanted to, or saw the value in it, they could diversify and gender balance with rapid success. Think about it...far more foreign nationals than African-Americans...something wrong with that picture.

    At the very least, many agencies are brimming with female producers and account-directors (some of the most talented advertising minds I've met have been female account directors). I've yet to walk into an agency brimming with African-Americans, other than Translation LLC, a firm which just happens to be killing it these days, with AOR for both State Farm and Bud light. They had to make the leap from being pigeonholed as an "Urban" agency, yet on the strength of their work, they have been trusted with mainstream "youth" campaigns.

    Interesting article, nonetheless.

  • Tami Anderson

    Great article. I think these are actually two separate but important issues: 1) more female CDs; 2) better marketing to women.  Often the argument is made that there should be more female leaders in certain industries because of the spending power of female consumers.  While on the surface this is a strong financial argument, the reality is that agencies hire Creative Directors to deliver award-winning creative vs. to address a particular market.  A talented CD should be able to take insights from planners and turn those into creative and engaging work, regardless of gender and regardless of target market. We would not take kindly to the idea that women couldn't effectively market to men. Talking about the value of female CDs in the context of simply being more effective at addressing female consumers marginalizes them from the beginning.  Spotlighting the innovative work of women CDs and creating more of a pathway to develop talent is the real opportunity and it sounds like the 3% Conference is beginning to address that, which is great news. 

  • Tami Anderson

    Great article. I think these are actually two separate but important issues: 1) More women in creative director roles and 2) better marketing to women.  I find that women executive leadership and the market of women as consumers often get linked, which actually takes away from the importance of each.  When the argument for more female CDs is made by citing the spending power of female consumers on the surface it feels like a strong financial argument, but ad agencies hire creative directors to develop award-winning creative, not to address a particular market. A talented CD of either gender should be able to leverage insights from planners to develop campaigns to effectively address any target.  To say that it takes a woman to market to one marginalizes the role of the female CD from the beginning. We certainly would not want men saying that women can't create campaigns to target them.  The focus here should be showcasing and demonstrating that the creative developed by female CDs is as innovative and strong as that of their male counterparts.  I was excited to learn of the 3% Conference and think its a brilliant idea to begin to spotlight the great work of women CDs and create a path for emerging female talent.

    In order to more effectively market to women, brands (and agencies) need to better understand the nuances within the female target.  This is an important discussion as well.  But both of these topics are better served when they are addressed on their own.

  • Naeled

    And Neil French was forced out of his job for mentioning this a few years back?

  • laura stepping

    I'm less interested in pure gender divides. Everyone misses out when the voice or perspective of any group is left out of the mix. As for advertising, isn't it just about pushing products & creating a false sense of need? I imagine it becomes less appetizing the longer you're in it. Maybe the nature of the industry loses its appeal to women, or doesn't sit right with their moral standards.

  • Bill

    So, based on the above article, women writers and art directors shouldn't be allowed to work on any men's products.  Because even though we all are trained to put ourselves into the mindset of the target audience, each gender can only understand their own gender's needs.  

    Most large brands have research about the key triggers for each target audience segment that goes into the development of the creative. The triggers for women's or men's shopping habits and needs would be a part of that research and input into the creative development.

    If you did research with male consumers, there would likely be a similar 90% that said brands don't get them.  The structure of most research does not reflect the real world of shopping.  It puts consumers into a false situation that tends to make them hyper-critical of advertising and everyone interviewed states that advertising doesn't affect them, or speak to them  When, in fact, we see the results in response that tell the opposite story.

    As for the gender gap in advertising jobs, it cuts both ways.  In most agencies it is getting harder and harder to find any male writers or account executives.

    Male-bashing by female writers is going too far.  How about a balanced and more knowledgeable article next time if you're talking about an industry you don't know.

  • fostermarketing

    Having been in and around the creative services market for the better part of 25 years, I think you may have your figures mixed up a bit.  I deal with, and know of a number of, marketing services and creative services businesses run by women, or with women of incredible talent in senior positions.  Maybe you should look beyond the old-school ad agencies and check out the SMM, Marketing Services, Web Design, and other women owned businesses that are flourishing in today's (other than advertising) marketing support businesses.  Check out (Melissa McDil - presidentl) for packaging, and (Denise Ryan - ceo) for social and web, (Zee Zaballos - president) for PR and marketing.    


    I beg to differ.

    I'm a 28 yr old female single creative working in a department of teams of men.

    My work (ideas/concepts/taglines etc.) goes up against theirs for pitches and client reviews on a regular basis, and 99% of the time mine is the work the client buys - complimenting its great insight and originality in many cases.

    In my experience (and I only vouch for my personal experience here), female creatives out-think male creatives and help brands to build a rapport with their audience - whereas many male creatives will just ignore the audience and do what they think is witty/shocking/etc.

    So I'm genuinely intrigued, Carolyn, as to what you can support that comment with?

  • MD

    Men with experience are sort after. Women with experience are "old." That's always been the thinking in advertising and I don't see it changing.

  • Gina

    I missed a few years of the latest SEO and Photoshop techniques while in the mind-numbing world of breast pumps and Teletubbies. I'm a CD now but I can see how this delay could have prevented me from ever getting here at all.