It never fails.
Time and again, during a speech at a college or at an industry gathering, I'm asked the same question: Why aren't there more female creative directors in advertising?
Stats report that a shamefully small number, 3% of us, are women. I know the question is coming and I try to prepare, but I always flub it. Because there is no good answer.
Is the world sexist? Maybe. Do women want to have families, which can be hard to juggle with work? Sure. Are women's sensibilities and humor just different than those of men? Often they are, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
What's most ironic about the woeful number of women in top creative roles is that the advertising field is all about solving problems creatively. It's our job to change perceptions and culture, yet we haven't been able to change this one.
I'm optimistic this is a problem we can solve, as long as we stop simply observing the problem and focus more on solving it.
And that requires a practical appreciation on behalf of all agencies -- and marketers -- to appreciate what's valuable about the female creative mind and ensure young women starting in this business don't feel they are set up for failure.
When I started out in advertising, I was naive. I didn't know the percentages or realize the hurdles. There was no posturing, no observing of how to play with the boys, no brushing up on the latest football stats. I was just a chick working my ass off, like every other creative out there trying to get promoted.
Recently, I read Tina Fey's hilarious and insightful "Bossypants," which pokes fun at gender stereotypes but also revels in the fact that women can be women and achieve great success. As Tina puts it, the best course of action is to "do your thing" and pray that people will notice how great you are. Luckily, in my case people noticed. But clearly all that praying isn't working for everyone.
For the past couple of years I've been running the Old Navy account, and the creative team just happens to be mostly women. It's made me a huge fan of the female creative sensibility. They have all the gender-neutral characteristics that a good creative should have -- smart, confident, and funny. But there are some other incredible things I've seen from my team that keep me hiring and promoting more women (aside from the fact, per a recent Forbes article, that women make 80% of all purchase decisions).
I made one of my senior creatives an associate creative director just a couple of months after she had her first kid. Becoming a mom actually made her a better creative. When she's at work now, she's highly focused and doesn't waste time; her ideas come more quickly and, importantly, her leadership skills are more fine-tuned. It turns out that her "mom gene" kicked in and is working for her job, as well as her new baby. Being a mom isn't a liability. It is an asset.
Recently a female creative director and mom rushed to work after a diaper had exploded on her -- she didn't want to miss an early meeting. I went to give her a hug hello and she stopped me, warning not to touch her -- she thought she had poop all over her. I couldn't help but think how well that would prepare her for a particularly tough upcoming client presentation. That's the kind of training all of us in advertising, men and women, could use.
Women are hardwired to kick ass and nurture at the same time. But unfortunately the advertising business isn't known for nurturing. It's competitive, it's fast and it's filled with insecurities. We don't want to be replaced by the newer, younger, better model.
But maybe if we were better mentors for young people, they'd see a reason to keep us around when we were past our prime. If there is one type of person who could both juggle their own life/work balance, as well as nurture new creatives, it's women. Think about it -- if every female creative in a management role could mentor and promote just five other women, each of those can help five more, and onward, and before long we'll be in the hundreds. Call it a pay-it-forward meritocracy.
This starts to change how we think of our accomplishments. We start basing our personal success on how successful other women are as well. Women at my creative level, including myself, get caught up in feeling that part of our success is based on the fact that we made it in an industry where we shouldn't have -- that maybe we got there because we have a guy's sense of humor or because we're tougher. Or maybe because we don't have kids.
That's wrong. We made it because we are great creatives and great leaders. And having a fulfilled life can only help our work.
So it's women who can change this industry for other women. And even for men, too. We live in a world now where moms and dads are reversing and integrating roles, so it's not as simple as separating it into men vs. women. Men and women both deserve successful careers and families.
If our field is about understanding what motivates people and marketing products that make life better, we should take advantage of the perspective offered by our own real lives.
That's great creative leadership.