Only 3% of creative directors are women. Here’s why.

Peggy Olson

 Women influence 80% of consumer spending. Yet, women make up only 3% of advertising creative directors. Through any lens, it’s a ridiculous representation, but there are very real reasons for this surreal imbalance. What are they?

1. Comfort

We know what advertising creatives look like: white guys with goatees and messenger bags. (There have been more dreads and tattoos of late, but you get the idea.)

“There’s no conspiracy…it’s just a bunch of dudes being comfortable with the familiar.”

There are more women in creative departments than ever, but due to lingering stereotypes, we’re still not totally comfortable with the idea of women creatively running an account, creative group or creative department. (Of course “we” includes the women who themselves are hesitant to pursue leadership roles.)

As Shanteka Sigers, my agency’s Executive Creative Director says, “There’s no conspiracy…it’s just a bunch of dudes being comfortable with the familiar.”

And not only does Sanders\Wingo have a female ECD; a woman has been an owner/partner in the company since 1983. (First, Beth Galvin, a creative director, then Michelle Cromer an account director, and for the past decade or so, my fellow managing partner Leslie Wingo.)

An ad agency culture that doesn’t blatantly discriminate against women isn’t the same as an environment that actively encourages them. Putting women in charge of agencies helps send a message that women can be in charge of creative.

2. Pregnancy

This goes beyond advertising, but a woman leaving to have a baby puts a wrench into a process driven by timelines and deadlines. But the prevailing assumption, even in the best companies, is that it’s her problem.

We know from insurance coverage that pregnancy is considered a disability. A disability? Really? I don’t recall anyone leaving the hospital with a cooing infant kidney stone, or having a baby shower for his or her coronary bypass.

We tend to treat women like they’re going off to spawn a gargoyle or some other species, rather than a human being just like us. A more civil society would behave a little more holistically, wouldn’t they?

An ad agency culture that doesn’t blatantly discriminate against women isn’t the same as an environment that actively encourages them.

For all our progressive values, the advertising industry can do better.

3. Work/Life Balance

Much of the reason for few women leaders, in or out of advertising, is that it’s too much pressure and responsibility. We know from the many conversations — op-eds, Sheryl Sandberg’s book — that balancing a family with an intense career is not for everyone. Most women feel they are bungling one or both of them.

Granted, women have strong innate nurturing tendencies and ties to home; men are more able to “compartmentalize” their career life, home life, etc. But women are held to dramatically different standards and expectations than men in terms of parenting — which compounds their conflict, second-guessing and self-doubt.

For many women creative directors, married or single, with kids or without, it’s just not acceptable to be on call 18 hours a day, or in a different city every week. Even when her family tries to be supportive, it’s hard. Husbands (like me) say we’ll do the laundry, the dishes and our share of childcare, but in the end, most of it is still on Mom’s shoulders.

You can’t blame her for not wanting that kind of life.

Then there’s Demian Fore, one of my former colleagues, who left a successful advertising career to be a stay-at-home dad. His wife Elizabeth is the breadwinner. Demian doesn’t work. He’s doesn’t freelance. He raises and takes care of their kids, period. It’s the best decision he has ever made.

Few men have the courage, maturity or healthy enough ego to do this. I don’t.

4. Sexism

Whether we admit it or not, we don’t trust women in leadership positions. Especially those as complicated as that of an advertising creative director. There is a century’s worth of male creative director stereotype — aptly depicted in Don Draper — that to this day, maintains a powerful aura.

Likewise at the time, most people on the client side were men, so agencies needed male CD’s to keep the boys club secure and their credibility high. Of course that’s changing. While female CMO’s are still a minority, half of the most influential marketing leaders are women.

In any case, there’s an underlying belief that women are too fragile to handle it. This same canon dictated that women rode sidesaddle, were forbidden from competing in marathons, were summarily unqualified for military combat, and so on.

In truth, there are people better suited to lead, to make presentations and to run a creative department full time. There are people better suited for working behind the scenes or focusing on their craft full time.

Some of those people are men; some of them are women. Personality, not gender.

5. Creative Bias

From the chauvinistic print ads of the 40’s and 50’s to the “Bud Light” style slapstick of the 90’s, “Guy humor” has dominated the advertising industry for decades.

Much of this advertising, biased or not, was and is, pretty good. A lot of people liked it. Women laughed because that was all they had to watch. (It was either that or the condescending babies-and-puppies stuff on daytime TV.)

For all our bluster, the advertising industry follows cultural progress rather than leading it.

There’s a misconception that women creative can’t do humor in advertising, which just isn’t true. And that they don’t want humorous advertising targeted to them, which isn’t true either.

For all our bluster, the advertising industry follows cultural progress rather than leading it. Not only do women control the lion’s share of consumer spending, but also they report vast dissatisfaction with the ways they are marketed to. Clearly the 97% male disproportion in creative directorships comes at a cost.

We can do better.

* * *

In the end, confronting our own creative comfort zone is its own reward. David Kennedy and Dan Wieden exemplify this in how they built their agency and the resulting creative work. (And by the way, W+K’s Portland ECD and global ECD are both women.)

The three highest-ranking creative directors in my agency — group CD Tynesha Williams, group CD Rhonda Dore and ECD Shan Sigers — are women. This is due 100% to their own talent and leadership. But I still take pride in it.

In the end, confronting our own creative comfort zone is its own reward.

the 3% Conference stages events throughout the country, making the case for women CD and the benefits that await the agencies that grow them in their ranks.

The 3% Conference stages events throughout the country building the business case for more women CDs — and the benefits that await agencies that grow them in their ranks.

The idea of more women as creative directors isn’t about equality or political correctness. It’s about smarter business — and more effective, intelligent advertising.

That’s why, in a week, I’ll be on Austin’s 3% Conference Panel, along with Carlotta Stankiewicz, Shanteka Sigers and Stefani Zellmer. We’ll be addressing and discussing these issues.

Perhaps women will never make up half of all advertising creative directors. Perhaps not 40% or even 25%. But we can do a whole lot better than 3%. At a time when a woman leads the US Secret Service, surely more women can lead the advertising industry.

Today, women have an overdue and increasingly greater voice in the marketplace. The question is, can the advertising industry keep pace with reality?