There's no shortage of talk these days about the challenges faced by female ad execs when it comes to the challenges of ascending through the ranks in agencies. The 3% Conference, built around the notion of the lack of support for female creative leadership in advertising, is once again upon us. Naturally, that has me thinking about what it means to be a woman in advertising, specifically one who works on the creative side of the building.
The fact that there's a steady drum-beat of discussion in the media and at conferences about this topic is a good thing; we should find ways to address the challenges women face and overcome them. But truth be told, what isn't helpful is that a lot of the talk in these circles and on social media too is starting to veer towards being negative all the time. It's not constructive. So here's what I'm not going to do in this letter. I'm not going complain that there aren't enough of us. I'm not going to talk about how you can generate ideas and can contribute just as much as men over the course of your advertising career. That's obvious.
Instead, I wanted to dispel a few myths. And share a few key -- and positive -- learnings that I can see quite clearly now. Because I think it's actually an awesome time for women to be doing this crazy job.
1. Like He-Man, YOU have the power. Here's a little secret. The world is desperate for amazing female creative talent. If you are very talented, very confident, and a decent human being, agencies are dying to hire you. Too often, the conversation around the lack of women in top creative jobs turns into a downward spiral of hand-wringing and self-victimization. I firmly believe we need to rethink our position on this, women. If you play victim, the world will see you as one. I am telling you this as someone who sits on the hiring side of this equation. Creative recruiters and creative directors today are really jonesing to add new perspectives to their department. It makes a more interesting pool of brains to draw from. But people want to hire confident, ambitious creatives who love what they do and know they can crack any brief six ways to Sunday. What's the fastest way to kill this confidence? Throw yourself a pity party or engage in "it's not fair" sessions. So, if you'll allow me a Cher-in-Moonstruck moment… Snap out of it! This leads to point #2.
2. Be your own advocate. Fight for what you want. Don't be a dick. Just know if you've got the goods and remind yourself of that, and others from time to time. Be clear when you need something or want dibs on an assignment. I've never met a CD who didn't love a creative who was willing to keep asking for more work. Warning, though: At first, this may mean you need to work on your own assignments and then get cracking on some extra credit plum opportunities in your spare time. Everybody has to do this at some point in his or her career. Is it worth it? It all depends on how much you really want it. So…
3. Know if you want it or not. This is a tough job. It requires passion, hard work, exposing your feelings, and getting trounced. It requires stamina, fire and maybe a bit of unhealthy ambition. I've seen a lot of people (women and men, but mostly women) bust their asses through their 20's, only to realize in their 30's that they never really liked this job in the first place. They then go on to find other creative pursuits to follow and are much happier. Hey, life is too short! And this job is too demanding. Me? I happen to love it. But you may not, and if you suspect you don't, listen to your gut.
4. Demonstrate you're open-minded about the kinds of assignments you want to work on. This will make it a lot tougher to get stuck exclusively on the tampon account or be the expert "mom" in the room all the time. Yes, you're a woman. You have a woman's experiences. Maybe some experiences you'd rather not have. But that doesn't mean you're only cut out for working on women's products. You can use all of your unique experiences to add a different flavor to almost any brand. I actually think it's fun to put unlikely creatives on stuff, to not typecast assignments. You end up with totally out-there thinking, which is the really fun part of the job. Ladies, if your higher ups are putting you only tampon work and you are unhappy about it, see point #3. However ...
5. Do help your agency improve the quality of ads targeted at women whenever possible. With a few exceptions, ads for women are some of the most boring, vanilla, predictable, lazy ads out there. Formulaic. Antiquated. Fluffy. They either treat women as mindless buying machines or prey on our insecurities. They have for decades. Enough. So if you did get assigned to do a fabric softener campaign targeted to homemakers, your job now is to make it the most interesting fabric softener campaign targeted to homemakers that you can think of. And that means you bring whip-smart insights to your CDs and clients so they have no choice but to go with better ideas. Allow the women consumers of the world the satisfaction of somebody giving a shit about them. Treat them like humans beings with fully-functioning minds and senses of humor. I'm realistic. This one is gonna take some time to achieve. But if we each make them just a little more interesting each time, ads targeted to women will someday be allowed to have the same care, craft and creativity that ads targeted to men do.
6. Yes, you can have a family and keep advancing your career. It's tough, but not impossible. If you truly love this job, you don't have give it up. You can still be a good creative and a good mother. Yes, most of your bake sale contributions are going to come from the local bakery. Yes, you will need your partner/husband to be as invested in your home life as you are. And you're probably not going to sleep much. But you can set hours that you want and need to be at home and with your family, and then find ways to work around that. Make yourself invaluable to your company and set the rules that have you home in time for dinner/bed/bath. There will be exceptions – production, pitches, etc – but you CAN be home most nights, if you are firm. The first few times you leave a meeting mid-way is gonna hurt. Trust me. But, soon people will understand your rhythm. The catch? You must always deliver, even if that means staying up later than you would have had you just stayed at the office. But it's really quiet in the wee hours at home, and you can always have a glass of wine while you work.
So, that's it. This is an interesting moment for you, Young Female Creatives in Advertising. The ground is shifting. I'm confident that someday soon you'll just be seen as Regular Ol' Creatives in Advertising. But in the meantime – if you are talented and ambitious -- you are a highly in-demand species of creative. Take advantage of that opportunity. I am looking forward to hearing you roar.
Executive Creative Director at Pereira & O'Dell, San Francisco/Female
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