A Woman's Place May Just Be in Digital Shops

How the Digital Revolution Might Finally Bring Diversity to the Creative Department

By Published on .

Karen Mallia
Karen Mallia
While everyone was busy tweeting, watching viral videos and ogling mobile apps, a quieter digital revolution may have been taking place behind the scenes. Nobody seems to have been paying serious attention to who is making all this exciting digital work, or how.

A host of digital agencies and hybrid agencies have been lauded for pioneering some of the most amazing new ideas of the past decade: Avenue A/ Razorfish, Big Spaceship, AKQA, Digitas, R/GA, The Barbarian Group and Anomaly, among others. These players didn't just pioneer new kinds of advertising. They built their own ways of working. Without the baggage of traditional agency structures and cultures, they began at square one and formed their own methods for creating ideas and content. And while they probably never intended to build a more female-friendly environment, they might have done so.

Partly because of the complexity of developing digital work, most digital agencies generate and develop ideas in larger, more diverse teams. Typically, three to five people work together, many with titles that don't even exist in traditional shops: project manager, designer or art director, copywriter, Flash developer, technologist. Functions are more siloed in traditional agencies, and ideation is still done by the time-honored pair: a copywriter and an art director. Bill Bernbach started the system in the 1960s and it's how most traditional agencies -- even digital groups inside traditional agencies -- still develop creative ideas. Later, when they begin to execute those concepts, producers and technologists will get involved.

Research shows that working in larger, more diverse groups is more favorable for the advancement of women and minorities. Groups comprised of people with diverse skills and demographic diversity are more innovative and better at problem solving. Digital agencies have those larger groups that are certainly diverse in skills, if not in personality, gender and race.

The creative process in most digital shops is also more collaborative than in traditional shops. According to management researchers, workplace collaboration is more associated with women and transformational style leadership. Traditional agency creative teams tend to be more competitive, in part due to the power derived from the ownership of ideas. In traditional creative departments, your ideas are fiercely guarded as your stock in trade -- what gets you noticed in the agency and the industry, what wins award shows, and makes or breaks career progress.

Women need a different environment
Creative directors often foster internal competition on the assumption that it spurs creativity. Most men thrive in that kind of work environment; most women don't. In the traditional ol' boys creative department, women get fewer plum assignments, fewer networking opportunities, are less likely to be hired than a drinking buddy, and find little or no access to family-friendly policies. It's a masculine culture where women either adapt or leave. It's why only 18% of agency creative directors are women, even though equal numbers of men and women start out from portfolio schools and college and university ad programs.

Not only do digital agencies develop ideas quite differently from traditional advertising agencies, they manage themselves quite differently as well. Workplaces and policies are less rigid. They are much more likely to be open to telecommuting and flextime -- work/life arrangements that encourage female advancement. Digital shops tend to be more open to hiring creative people from all realms, not just the portfolio schools, which brings diversity in background and skills as well as demographics.

Two digital trends are also working to finally favor female creative leadership as well. First is the explosion of social media. Women consumers have long controlled 85% of the country's disposable income. Now, they've embraced the blogosphere big time, and that is a powerful combination. Social media are fundamentally about building community and sustaining relationships. Duh. Who's ideally suited to lead that charge?

Marketers and agencies may at last surrender to the inevitable logic in having women not just create, but manage the development of conversations with other women. If ever there was a red flag signaling the need for high-level female creative leadership, it was the recent mommy bloggers' assault on Motrin's "wearing your baby" campaign.

The other trend that may impact the fate of creative women is the rise of advertainment. Women know how to create content that other women want to watch, as their success in Hollywood has proven. As more advertising is developed as programming -- like webisodes -- it follows that women will ascend in the agencies where it's being done.

Is it the digital world truly a better place for women? Only time and further research will tell. As Forrester Research calls it, "the great race" for dominance between traditional and digital agencies is underway. Who leads -- and how -- will make a difference.

Perhaps the digital revolution may finally do what feminism, lawsuits and affirmative action couldn't: bring real diversity to the creative department.

Karen Mallia is a former copywriter and creative director who teaches creative strategy, copywriting and advertising campaigns at the University of South Carolina. She previously taught advertising at the City College of New York and at Fashion Institute of Technology/State University of New York. Her New York agency career spanned two decades and numerous agencies, among them Ogilvy; Scali, McCabe, Sloves; TBWA/Chiat/Day; and a host of smaller shops. She worked on brands ranging from cars to cosmetics, Fiberglas to fragrance to financial services. She continues to do strategic and creative consulting.
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