It's a sad truth known throughout the industry: most creative departments are dominated by men. That fact inspired the 3% Conference, which next month will hold its sixth annual meeting to change the ratio for the comparatively small number of female creative directors in the U.S. Upon its founding, only 3 percent of U.S. creative directors were women, which is now up to 11 percent.
But some agencies have managed to beat that percentage, among them Hill Holliday, which has more than doubled the number of women on its creative team since 2014. The agency's creative department is now 22 percent women creative directors, double the average, and of the agency's entire 81-person creative team, nearly half are women.
"In 2014, we were 20 percent women in the creative department versus 50 percent-plus everywhere else in the agency, so we said 'We have to address this,'" says Kaplan. "If you really lean into something and make it a focused effort, you can affect positive change."
We asked her for three ways other shops can accomplish that shift.
Listen to women already on the team
One thing the agency started doing in 2014 -- which it could and should have done sooner, Kaplan says -- is invite input from creative women in order to hear their concerns and needs and allow them to ask questions.
"You have to make institutional change," says Kaplan. "The default setting in the world is for right-handed people and the default setting in corporate America is male, so when we hire creative women, we have listening sessions and talked to them about benefits and what would be helpful to them."
Some of the requests were for obvious things, like flexible family leave, but others included career development desires, which is why Hill Holliday allows staffers to move between departments. For example, a woman in digital strategy recently shifted to the creative department as a junior creative.
"You can't accommodate everything everyone is asking for," says Kaplan, "but listening is learning."
Create a place for 'emotional' safety
Kaplan suggests creating an "environment of emotional safety" where people feel like they are able to speak up about things, even if they're seemingly small. During one of the agency's listening sessions, a woman said she felt that the senior male creatives on the team weren't making eye contact with her and she didn't like that they referred to the team as "the guys."
By creating this transparent, trusting atmosphere, staffers who jump to other companies have a stronger chance of "boomeranging" back to the shop, says Kaplan, which is why Hill Holliday maintains contact with former employees. It actually also creates a pipeline of potential hires that it finds at creative schools and personal networks.
"A pipeline is something you are always working on – it takes time to cultivate - it might not result in hires for months or even years, but you always have to be working on it," says Kaplan.
Be aggressive with recruiting
When it comes to finding female talent, especially in creative, Kaplan says you have to be aggressive. Hill Holliday is sending 15 of its 602 staffers to the 3% Conference in a few weeks and the agency is planning on recruiting during the conference.
The shop has also hired a dedicated creative recruiter – a woman – who focuses solely on recruiting diverse talent.
The one question Kaplan says she still can't answer is why the female numbers are still so low in agency creative departments. "For years I've been asking people for insights into why this is an industry problem - why are creative departments the most stubborn to have gender balance and I can never get a good answer," she says.
And while all departments and industries should aspire to have gender balance, Kaplan says the creative department is really important because these are the people who have the most impact on the work. "You have to have diverse perspectives in the creative department," she says. "If it's bro culture, you'll put work in the world that doesn't represent women in a positive way. You have to make change and you don't move what you don't measure."