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."
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."