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]