Fifteen years ago, Kat Gordon recalled, she was a copywriter on a car account when she realized she was the only woman working alongside sixteen men. It was a ratio as comically unbalanced as it was depressingly common.
"At that time, I remember thinking there's something very wrong with that representation," Ms. Gordon said between sessions at the 3% Conference, her three-year-old event inspired by, and dedicated to exploding, the tiny space women still occupy in the upper reaches of agencies.
The San Francisco conference (there are plans to move it to New York City in 2015) is the brainchild of Ms. Gordon, founder and creative director of Maternal Instinct, a six-year-old Palo Alto, CA-based agency dedicated to reaching women. For two days, more than 500 women and a smattering of male allies (or, "manbassadors," as participants called them) took on the problem of under-representation.
The event itself is meant to be corrective with panels titled How Change Happens, Enlisting Men, and What's Kids Got to Do With It? and abundant networking time and structured sessions of "speed mentoring" (picture the eagerness of an informational interview combined with the pressure of a speed date, repeated 20 times in a small hotel conference room) to give younger female creatives a chance to meet and be inspired by the women they hope to work with some day.
During one of the informal networking breaks, Mary Olivieri, senior VP-exec creative director for Chicago's CBD Marketing, was chatting with Kat Michie, and Rose Tash, both of San Francisco's DigitasLBi.
"I had a pretty hard go of it to get the ECD level," Ms. Olivieri said. She told them about the time a superior asked her, "Mary, are you a barracuda?" Ms. Michie and Ms. Tash laughed at how inappropriate that was.
"I don't think you should liken me to a fish," Ms. Olivieri recalled thinking. "But I am your creative director on your biggest client."
"I was really enraged by that," she said.
Now, Ms. Olivieri's known as "Mama Creative" in her office. She said she brings a mother's fierceness and protectiveness to her people and her projects, qualities that may not be "barracuda-like," but serve her well all the same.
Ms. Tash, a senior art director, agreed that maternal qualities, as well as other stereotypically "female" traits like empathy, collaboration, communication, and "the ability to read a room," actually make for a better leader -- male or female.
And yet, she admitted, it can still be difficult to be out front. "It's hard to have a voice in front of men, not just in 'the secret office' -- the ladies room. We have to vocalize what we want and not say 'sorry,'" she said.
"No one ever talked about me being a creative director someday until I had a female boss," said Ms. Michie, an art director. "Having people who look like you helps you think it's possible."
A few hours later, entrepreneur, serial provocateur and former agency chief Cindy Gallop brought some of the crowd to tears with a rousing keynote called Why 2015 Won't Be Like 2015. Starting with an edited version of Apple Computer's iconic '1984' Macintosh ad that featured an insurgent woman smashing apart a routinized dystopian gathering of men, Ms. Gallop offered concrete suggestions for changing the advertising industry not in 10 years ("None of us have 10 years!") but in 12 months.
"Women challenge the status quo because we are never it," she said. "We are the new creativity."
According to Ms. Gallop, it was in the hands of each attendee to "create the industry we all want to work in."
"Don't go back to business as usual," she insisted. Ms. Gallop also encouraged them to speak out using social media. In the 3% Conference's booklet, she implored attendees to "Tweet the fucking shit out of this conference," and many of them did throughout the two days.
The question period following Ms. Gallop's speech became a kind of group affirmation session, with attendees at all stages of their careers and from all over the country offering statements of mutual support and solidarity. Shameka Brown Barbosa, a New York-based freelance creative director and writer who's worked on accounts for Beats by Dre and Troika Design, stood before the mic and said, "In 2015, I'm not gonna work for any job that doesn't work for me." At that, the crowd erupted in applause.
A few brave men even took to the floor and thanked the group, telling them they'd be back next year and bring "all the other guys."
"It's obviously changing," Carrie Ingoglia, creative director at Possible, New York, told Ad Age between sessions Tuesday. Ms. Ingoglia, who has twelve years of experience and participated as a mentor during one of the speed mentoring sessions, was hopeful about her industry's ability to adapt to the present and move into a more balanced future in which the female to male ratio is more than a rounding error.
"It will always be changing," she said. "You can only be Mad Men for so long. This is our Age of Aquarius moment."