Are General Market Agencies Creatively Incorrect?

They're not Going to Change Without a Fight

By Published on .

Tiffany Warren
Tiffany R. Warren
If DNA is the blueprint of human life, then the idea is the blueprint for the advertising industry. We even have a conference dedicated to it. The idea powers the growth (and decline) of the industry, builds legends within, and creates cultural norms which in turn define what we say, what we buy and how we dress. In reality, no two blueprints or ideas are alike. So why, in the very departments that generate ideas and create our industry's DNA, is there a woeful under representation of the gender and ethnic diversity that is the foundation of the human race?

In the words of Valerie Graves, chief creative officer at Vigilante "the advertising industry is creatively incorrect"

Several years ago, I had an inspiring meeting with four young women of color who were nearing the end of their Four A's MAIP internships. They each had sought-after internship placements within top-tier general-market agencies and at the beginning of the summer, these remarkably talented women were infectiously optimistic about their prospects; they were sponges ready to soak in everything the agencies had to offer them. All of them had recently graduated from college and graduate school. Two of them came from one of the best creative-portfolio programs in the country, the University of Texas at Austin's graduate creative program; one was a graduate of New York's School of Visual Arts; and one refined her natural artistic gifts at the University of Minnesota. They had called this meeting with me to get some advice about their next steps, some concrete direction about their future as female, multicultural creatives and they were anxious with the end of the internship being one week away and no job offers in sight.

As I sat with these ladies, I heard emotional stories about the typical neglect all interns face in the "get-it/find-it/do-it-yourself" world of creative departments, the missed opportunities to shine, the mostly male cliques, the cut-and-paste projects and the after-thought comments like "we need a Hispanic translation only, no strategy involved please!" made by well-meaning colleagues. I also heard of one-of-a-kind visits to commercial sets, honors and accolades received for internal creative projects for pro-bono work, an inspiring meeting with a chief creative officer or agency president and the long hours spent putting the finishing touches on the rewarding and collaborative intern project.

For all the anecdotes they relayed to me, the one comment that cut me like a knife was "We didn't see anyone like us at the top, middle or bottom. Do they really want us there?" The light had left their eyes, and their motivation to succeed in this business waned in ten short weeks. They discovered, painfully, that the lack of gender and ethnic diversity in creative departments is the shame of our industry. My advice to them was that their internship will help create unique opportunities for them and that their ultimate success and proven track record in the advertising industry will pave the way for future creative professionals of color, male or female.

History has proven that it has never been an easy road for racial and gender pioneers. If young women like these don't get down in the trenches of the creative departments and fight, there will be another batch of creative interns stuck in the same conundrum a year, five or ten years down the line. What compounds this is the fact there are other industries -- some more financially rewarding -- where the barriers have already broken down. Leaving the advertising world for greener pastures is not only counterproductive to the progress of the gender and racial equality movement within advertising, but it gives potent ammunition to those who say we don't have what it takes for the long haul.

Until Neil French put it on blast in 2005, the issue of the lack of diversity in terms of gender in general market creative departments was never truly exposed so publicly. In 2005, French, a former worldwide creative director for a major holding company, famously said "women don't make it to the top because they don't deserve to." He then defended his remarks by saying, "A belligerent question deserves a belligerent answer, the answer is, they don't work hard enough. It's not a joke job. The future of the entire agency is in your hands as creative director." I agree with Mr. French about one thing, the idea is king in the advertising industry no matter who it comes from. The funny thing is I have often thought that there is this nasty urban myth out there that if agencies keep winning clios, effies, andys, addys, gold lions and new clients, they don't really need to diversify the creative department, let alone the rest of the agency. I hope I am wrong and that is just a myth.

Although Mr. French's politically incorrect statements opened a brief window into a major problem in our industry, it did not sway the dreams and ambitions of those four young female creatives of color. Two of them are now a sought-after team at DDB, one is a copywriter at Saatchi & Saatchi and one is a broadcast producer at McCann Erickson. I have no doubt that they will continue to succeed and creatively correct the percentage of female and/or multicultural creative executives in the DNA of the advertising industry some day.
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