Women to Watch

Ad Industry Hits 'Inflection Point' on Women. Now What?

After Years of Talk, Movement to Get More Women Into Executive Suites Gears Up

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When Hill Holliday Chairman-CEO Karen Kaplan speaks to groups, she sometimes asks the audience whether anyone is left-handed, then discusses how the world caters to right-handed people with things like dinner table settings. "It's similar in business -- the default is male," she said she tells them. "You have two options: Get better at playing the game despite disadvantages, or change the game."

Whether it's sexist slurs as alleged in the lawsuit against former J. Walter Thompson CEO Gustavo Martinez or unspoken and even unconscious biases, the ad industry's male/female divide persists. For all the applause when women such as DDB's new North American CEO Wendy Clark reach the top of the ladder, there are jeers over the low percentage of women in roles from copywriter to creative director.

But the Martinez suit has kicked into gear a determined, if nascent, movement to stop talking the issue over and truly, as Ms. Kaplan put it, change the game. Its efforts include initiatives to help women advance by offering more childcare assistance, destigmatizing flex time, correcting salary inequalities, implementing bias training and accentuating the positive by spotlighting women's accomplishments.

"The discussion over gender and diversity finally hit an inflection point," said Nancy Hill, president-CEO at the American Association of Advertising Agencies, who used part of her opening speech at the group's March conference to push for change within the industry.

"Our goal is threefold: to keep the conversation front and center, to raise awareness regarding female and diverse experiences in our industry and to offer programs that advance the careers of female and diverse professionals," she told Ad Age.

Getting to the numbers
Astonishingly, there are no comprehensive numbers quantifying gender disparities in advertising, even if there's a visible lack of women in senior roles.

"Without data you really can't talk about the problem," said Advertising Women of New York President-CEO Lynn Branigan. "Are we being successful? We can't really say."

That's why AWNY commissioned research on the number of women in the industry. Its partners on the project are LinkedIn, the media entertainment practice at professional services firm EY and the U.S. chapter of The 30% Club, a group of business leaders working to increase women's representation on S&P 500 boards to 30% by the end of 2020.

They plan to use the findings, which are due later this summer, to inform a new plan for the industry. The 4A's is also conducting research on topics including how women are treated at agencies and the way ads portray them.

There are a few bright spots, if you can call them that. Across industries, women hold 23% of leadership posts at U.S. businesses, up from 21% a year earlier, according to a Grant Thornton report released in March. While that's an increase, the report also pointed out that 31% of U.S. businesses have no women in senior management. Of the women in senior management roles, 11% are chief marketing officers, the report said.

In fact, women are better represented in the marketing suite than elsewhere within corporations. "About a third of marketing leadership is women," said Caren Fleit, senior client partner and leader of the Global Marketing Center of Expertise at Korn Ferry. "That sounds low, and of course we'd like to see it be higher, but in actual fact it is higher than it is for CEOs, it's higher than it is for CIOs, higher than it is for everything except for CHROs, which tends to be about 50/50 male/female."

Creative conundrum

One of the biggest gaps seems to be in the creative department, a fact highlighted by The 3% Conference, named for an estimate of female creative directors when the group was formed. Its survey last fall, called "What Women Want," found that women make up 46.4% of the advertising industry as whole but only 11% of creative directors. The movement, dedicated to supporting more female creative leadership in agencies, reached out to 328 women in both creative and non-creative roles for the survey, 60% of whom said their current employer falls below the 11% mark.

Even Ms. Kaplan, who is trying to even the scales at Hill Holliday, admits that "where we've struggled, and everybody in our industry has struggled, is in the creative department." She said it's a "stubborn problem" with causes that are hard to pinpoint. Her shop is making strides, though, increasing the proportion of women in the creative department to 40% as of this March from 20% two years earlier.

"It really takes a focused effort," Ms. Kaplan said. "Agencies need to measure it and hold people accountable. It won't just happen."

Margaret Johnson, executive creative director and partner at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, recalls getting congratulatory messages when she became the agency's first female partner in 2012. Two that stood out were handwritten notes from women she had never met: Margaret Keene, at the time an executive creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi and now executive creative director at MullenLowe L.A., and Susan Credle, then chief creative officer at Leo Burnett USA and now global chief creative officer at FCB. "I'll never forget -- the first line of that letter was 'Welcome to the club,'" Ms. Johnson said of the note from Ms. Credle. "They were kind of pulling me up with them."

Margaret Johnson
Margaret Johnson Credit: Courtesy of Goodby Silverstein & Partners

At GS&P, 64% of department heads are women, which Ms. Johnson said can be inspiring to those who are climbing the ladder. GS&P has also seen positive feedback from women since Ms. Johnson's promotion. In annual career-satisfaction surveys from 2012 to 2015, female staffers' agreement with the statement that they "feel empowered" more than tripled, the agency said.

Marlena Peleo-Lazar, who left McDonald's in 2014 after 14 years as U.S. chief creative officer, believes it can be tough for women in creative roles. When she joined the marketer from Ogilvy & Mather, a "bitter guy," in her words, told her she only got the job because she was a woman. These days, Ms. Peleo-Lazar spends her time on projects including writing a book, mentoring and collaborating on "Joy of Mom," a site focused on inspiring and empowering mothers.

Perhaps the best argument for increasing the ranks of women in high-level marketing jobs is that it is plain good business. Badger & Winters Chief Creative Officer Madonna Badger, who began the #WomenNotObjects initiative in January to counter the objectification of women in advertising, said 91% of women say they feel disconnected to ads they see. That could be remedied by having more women at the marketing table, she said.

According to a review of about 22,000 publicly traded companies across 91 countries by EY and the Peterson Institute for International Economics, businesses that expanded the representation of women in the C-suite to 30% from zero correlated with a 15% increase in profitability. "We know that women at the top leads to an addition to the bottom line, and we know that taking a stand and aligning with her values is about smart business decisions," Ms. Badger said.

But she doesn't think the ultimate solution is dividing leadership roles evenly between the genders.

"It's not about creating gender equality, although, yes, we need that," she said. "What I'm trying to get at is that it doesn't matter what genitalia you have; we have to change our mindset and changing that will lead to success," she said.

One way to shift that mindset may simply be to stop talking about the lack of women in top marketing roles.

What works

"I have a theory that when we started asking 'Where are the women in advertising?' we helped create the problem," said Ms. Credle, who began her career filling in for BBDO receptionists. "I wouldn't have gone into this business if I thought it was difficult for women."

It has helped women move up in creative roles, in contrast, to push for equal representation on juries for industry awards such as the Clios.

Last year, Ms. Credle served as a Clio Awards jury chair, where she met Swati Bhattacharya, a juror on another Clio panel. The two may not have connected had they not been part of the event. In February, Ms. Credle named Ms. Bhattacharya as chief creative officer for FCB Ulka, the agency's Indian operation.

"The small things that seem somewhat insignificant are huge," Ms. Credle said. FCB's global leadership includes five women and eight men. Its top leader is a man, Carter Murray. Along with Ms. Credle, female leaders include Chief Client Officer Erika Darmstaedter.

Susan Credle
Susan Credle Credit: Billy Siegrist

Ms. Credle believes she was noticed for her Leo Burnett USA chief creative officer job because Mark Tutssel, the agency's worldwide chief creative officer, heard her talking about her work when he was on an ANDY jury. A few weeks later, he called and asked if she would be interested in the job.

Not just about women

The U.S. is one of the only countries in the world without a nationalized maternity leave program, and according to Ms. Badger, "Without family leave, none of this matters." Women start off in the workforce evenly represented with men, but their numbers dwindle significantly after their childbearing and rearing years, she and others said.

The "What Women Want" study found that while 38% of participants were mothers, they said their work environments are not conducive to mothering, according to Lisen Stromberg, acting chief operating officer of The 3% Conference and CEO and founder of PrismWork consultancy. Ms. Stromberg said The 3% Conference has interviewed dozens of ad agencies about their childcare options, and very few have any solutions for staffers who are parents.

Hill Holliday recently started a working mom seminar called Moms@HH, where staffers can support each other and discuss the challenges they have as working mothers. The agency also started an initiative called Save Your Saturdays, which was designed to help men and women in the office accomplish errands midweek that usually take up their weekends, like doing taxes or going to the tailor.

Aside from ubiquitous parental leave policies, Ms. Stromberg said agencies must have unconscious bias training in place and zero tolerance policies regarding sexual harassment. One in four women surveyed for "What Women Want" said they have personally experienced gender discrimination. The 3% Conference is in the middle of another survey, this one called "Elephant on Madison Avenue," and plans to release results at its annual event in November.

Many women stressed that diversity is not just about the number of women in big roles, but ensuring that a wide variety of cultural backgrounds are represented at marketers and agencies. "There is no doubt that across the industry an increased focus on diversity is really important, but I wouldn't say that it's specifically about women. In general, we want a diverse workplace," said Shelley Paxton, VP-global marketing and brand at Harley-Davidson.

"It takes longer to find the diverse people because they don't get the coverage that other people have gotten," said Ms. Credle, who aims to consider a diverse list of candidates before filling a position. "It's a little treasure hunt. You have to go look a little harder, but when you look, they're there."