How Do Women Climb To The Top Of The Creative Ladder?

/ Comments (39)

Let’s start with a quick test.
I want each of you to think of five great creative directors. Five stellar talents. Quick, you have thirty seconds. Got 'em? Good.

Now, how many of them are women?

I would be very surprised if even 5% of you had listed just one woman. I would be even more surprised if two women had made anyone's list. But why? It's not like women don't have talent, dedication or drive.

As a quick example, if I had the chance to work for Tiger Savage (who just launched Tiger's Eye by the way) then I would crawl across broken glass to do so. She's a living legend.

Unfortunately, she's in a small minority of creative women in advertising who are easily recalled. I wish I could rattle off a list of stunning female creative directors, but the usual suspects always come up first, and they're all men.

I saw a stat recently that had me pondering deeply: "85% of brand purchases are made by women, yet only 3% of advertising agency creative directors are women." I believe they’re talking the major ad agencies here, the Madison Avenue variety, but still.

This all seems more off-balance than a one-legged unicyclist. And while I'm not sure it's completely accurate (85% of brand purchases…really?) it's definitely closer to the truth than saying that the lead creative roles in the ad world are a 50/50 split between men and women.

Watching "Mad Men" on AMC gives you a quick glimpse into the chauvinistic era of advertising, when men were men and women served the coffee. Even though the show does have a female copywriter, she's got about as much chance of filling Don Draper's shoes as I do of, well, partnering with Tiger Savage.

Some will say we have come a long way, and it's true. Women are definitely taking their place alongside men in this business, with female art directors, copywriters and designers filling the agencies in droves. But how many of them make it to the top spot? It’s a small percentage. And it all seems quite unfair.

It’s not easy to point the finger at your own industry and realize that it is behind the times. The corporate business world has promoted women into the top ranks for many years now. Again, it’s not yet equality, and the pay scales are different, but women are holding top positions in some of the biggest corporations in the world.

And yet in advertising, an industry that works hand-in-hand with those businesses, high-ranking creative positions are still dominated by men.

Are we still in a chauvinistic business that hides behind a façade of equal opportunities for all?

Is advertising Neolithic?

Right now, I would have to say yes.

The very fact that I have worked alongside some amazingly talented women who should have been promoted years ago (you know who you are, and I doth my cap to your endless creativity) is evidence to me that something is not quite kosher here. Indeed, if the women I had in mind had been born with hairy gonads, they’d be running their departments right now. They’re not. And that sucks.

Advertising is still something of an old boys network. Just look at the major creative directors currently gracing the top 100 ad agencies around the world. It’s like the cast of The Expendables.

A wise old advertising owl once told me “consumers will buy from men more easily than they will buy from women.” I’m not sure if it’s a trust issue, or something else, but why would this be? I, for one, am a sucker for a good pitch, and I don’t care who delivers it.

Well, except for stand-up comedy.

For some reason, I find men funnier than women, and I am not alone. Stand-up comedy is dominated by guys. With a few notable exceptions, the world of stand-up comedy is a masculine world. And that really made me wonder if there are parallels here that could explain the lack of women at the top of either profession.

Both industries demand originality, creativity and self-confidence. They also require an instant affinity with the audience, whether it’s a cold crowd or a cold boardroom. It takes a rare breed to win over the hearts and minds of an audience drunk on booze or a room drunk on corporate power. Is that something that men have more success with? Are men more likely to sell a great idea or tell a great joke? It seems like that is what the world is telling us.

But even as I write that, I can recount meetings where guys shook like Jello when pitching their creative work, and women owned the room. I myself have almost blown creative meetings and have been saved by my female counterparts, who charmed the client and sold the work I was having trouble selling.

So now I’m back where I started. Why aren’t more women in the top creative ranks of the advertising world?

Bottom line, I think advertising is taking longer to catch up to the rest of the business world. One hundred years from now, when I am a corpse rotting in some dank grave, I hope the biggest ad agencies have the best creative directors at the helm. And that should always be dictated by talent, not gender.

As one final note, I am a guy, obviously. I would like to hear from the women out there in advertising. Do you feel like you could one day be the CD of a major ad agency? Do you believe your ladder is way harder to climb? Have you already experienced some of the prejudices I have touched upon here? And more importantly, what do you think we can do as an industry to help change the tide?

I want our ad agencies to have the best creative people steering the ship. What are the odds that 97% of the best creatives in the world are guys?


Felix Unger is a site contributor, ranter and curmudgeon for The Denver Egotist. He's been in the ad game a long time, but he's still young enough to know he doesn't know everything. He'll give his opinion, you can take it or leave it. If he uses the f-bomb from time-to-time, forgive him. Sometimes, when you're ranting, no other word will do. In his spare time, he does not torture small animals. He has been known, on occasion, to drink alcohol by the gallon. Do as he says, not as he does. Email him at


thank you

Interesting piece. But I think you're missing something. This isn't outright discrimination; it's in the culture and it has to do with time and priorities.

Both female creatives and comediennes have to choose: spend time with loved ones at home or climb the career ladder. Men can juggle both (or neglect the former), but often women aren't able to.

Can the ad industry accommodate moms' busy lives? By which I mean, can we accept creative leaders that aren't workaholics?

BR, you're missing something. Men have to juggle home responsibilities, too, in today's culture. How many dads do you know who have wives that work as well? Juggling family falls on both pairs of spousal shoulders in this economy. And to assume a man is somehow almost expected to neglect anything in this equation is insulting to all the men and women who work hard to make ends meet in a business that is only getting harder as consumers get smarter.

Have to agree Anonymous, while men can't physically have the babies, we are way more involved in their upbringing these days. Not as much as we'd like to be, but we're not playing golf and going to strip clubs while "the little lady" stays at home changing diapers. And BR, it still doesn't explain how women have done so much better in other careers.

1. Women are smart enough not to put up with the bullshit.
2. Women generally lack the oversized egos required to participate in the pissing contest that is advertising.

Great piece, Felix. I've often found myself in a conference room full of extremely smart, driven, creative, strategic professionals with whom I work and to whom I'm presenting, and realize I'm the only guy there. Sometimes if a presentation was scheduled with a client team we knew was all-female, I'd attend simply because I had a penis.

Of the awesome people I've had the honor to work with, I can count more women who were smarter than their position than men who belonged at or above theirs. That ain't right. As a guy, I don't know what exactly is happening, but I would say that I'd be more apt to promote someone I related to if I were running a firm -- and I relate more to other guys. Maybe that's something?

And, by the way, I still have a penis.

For at least the last 15 years, award shows have favored ads with male-oriented humor and shock value.

Creatives (mostly men) who mimic those ads the best, win more awards. --> They get promoted. --> They judge more award shows. --> More men who mimic those ads win more awards -->Etc.

Wash, Rinse, Repeat.

And since Creative Directors are chosen by whom has the most golden phalluses sitting on his get the idea. And of course, he's going to want to surround himself with other like-minded giggling fratboys.

By the way, that doesn't just hold women back. I am a man, and I favor a more intelligent and mature approach to advertising. I have to deal with constant rejection from CDs looking for the most hilarious poop joke scam ad to submit to Cannes.

Proud to point out that K\H has a female CD.

As creatives like to do little funny projects and exercises to keep us agile and break us out of any repetition - why not get out of the mold of promoting buddies and take a chance on a working relationship that may be less comfortable at first, but ultimately more rewarding male or female. We are always talking about culturing ourselves and adding variety to gain perspective.

i'm a female copywriter. most of the people i've teamed up with have told me i have the makings of cd. even my past cd. but the higher-ups could never see it. i think just because i wasn't brash, going around telling everyone how brilliant i was. this could be a female trait. or an excuse.

eventually i got tired of waiting for a promotion and opened my own agency. sometimes you have to take things into your own hands.

another thing i've noticed is that when women do get to the top they have very little time to mentor others. there is a cd in my market who is a fellow mom who champions great work and commands attention in client meetings/board rooms, etc. but she's never so much as had a "hello" for me, even after i've proven myself with promotions, awards, etc. we should be nurturing talent.

Neil French couldn't have said it better real!

Right on, Haberdashery! I was thinking about this column yesterday and all of the talented female creatives I know that are successful freelancers/small agencies. Why would they devote the brain damage to breaking through a broken system and "prove" themselves to those at the top that inherently don't respect them due to their gender? This is showing The Boy's Club way too much respect that it doesn't deserve.

And Felix, when I read this at first, I immediately put Sally Hogshead in that group. Not just because of what she's done as a 'traditional' agency rockstar, but all that she's done since, beyond advertising. Helping clients think of interesting and creative big-picture ways to look at their businesses. And if anyone feels trapped and stuck in a miserable job, pick up her book "Radical Careering." It'll be that dose of poison you need.

Dang Felix, I thought youz gonna say you're starting to cross-dress to get in touch widda 85% of the market.

You can download "Radical Careering" for free right here everyone. Well worth a read.

Early in my career, as a copywriter in Seattle, I felt I was due for a promotion to sr. copywriter. When review time came around, I filled out my self-evaluation very thoughtfully and thoroughly, calling out my accomplishments over the past year. When I got into my review, my white, male CD ridiculed me for it, letting me know that Jim, the white male ACD/writer, makes jokes in his answers rather than taking the evaluation process seriously. So I asked him, well, what can I do to become a senior writer? He told me I could organize a pizza party for the creative department.

So yes, I have experienced a lot of what is outlined above. But it still never feels cool to play the gender card. It sounds like an excuse.

Since then however, there just have been too many examples that all point to the same issue. I have had a career of watching these kinds of guys be hired over me. I have been at the ACD level for over 7 years. So I guess I'm good enough to make it that far...maybe after 10 years I'll be good enough to make CD?

And to address the BR comment, outside of the obvious sexist view of it, it's not a question of can we accept busy mom's who aren't's how can we create work environments and shift our thinking, so that all parents are set up to succeed and they can put in more hours working (i.e. on-site child care, flex day from home etc.). We need to value our top creative talent and do everything to keep them in the workforce producing great work, regardless of if they are parents or not.

I'm just thankful I'm not an african american woman. I can't imagine what it would take to get to the bottom rung that I'm barely clinging to now if I were.

"We need to value our top creative talent and do everything to keep them in the workforce producing great work, regardless of if they are parents or not."

You know what? Big shock. The world does not revolve around you and your kids. You chose to have a child/children. You chose to keep your job. Your demands to have it both ways only results in me having to subsidize you by having to take on more workload. And I, for one, am tired of being the single guy at agencies who has to bear the burden of the glaring inadequacies of all the frazzled Mommies and Daddies around me.

Hey Childless CW, I used to feel that way too. And then I had kids. Doesn't make me love my job any less. Nor am I putting in fewer hours.They just don't always happen at a desk between 8:30 and 5:30. Why should they have to?

Peggy Olsen "Nor am I putting in fewer hours.They just don't always happen at a desk between 8:30 and 5:30. Why should they have to?"

Well, that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about daddy day care senior art director who wasn't able to concept for a huge campaign, making me work a 100 hour 7 day week concepting, only to be yelled at by my CD for not picking up more of daddy day care's slack. I'm talking about getting an assignment and a creative brief on friday evening I was supposed to get on tuesday morning, from mommy who's kids had the flu. And the campaign was due monday morning, period.

And so on. Those are only two of a vast number of examples. Not to mention, that single people are often the first ones laid off at agencies regardless of merit, due to management not wanting to "feel bad."

I think it's great that people want to have kids, I respect their decision, and I'll even play "got yer nose" with their kids when they come to visit. But when companies have to subsidize working parents, it's not like the agency CFO is going to be willing to hire more people or anything. The single folk are the ones who bear the burden, and we get treated like Benedict Arnold if we want recognition of that fact.

Just graduating ad school, one name comes to my mind right off the bat: Tiffany Kossel

@Childless CW: Sorry you've found yourself being the one covering for people with kids but, you know what, we all take our turns. It may feel like you're the one taking the turn more often but I'm sure there were times when you had a commitment that couldn't be broken and you did, in fact, leave work. And someone else covered for you, and maybe that person had kids. We all take our turns. And, like Peggy said, often times the turns put in by those of us with kids are during off-hours.

@Anonymous: Correction: K/H has a *terrific* female CD.

Male/female, children/no children, whatever. It's the ability to own the room, read the clients, grow the talent, and rock the creative. Always. No excuses. And yes, you have to complement the team dynamics – old boys network or not.

In case you missed it, Felix captured the essential creative director traits earlier:

I feel like this blog perpetuates the immature, frat boy mentality by posting lots of boobies and lame, neolithic male humor and work. That shows no respect for your female readers or your female counterparts. Plus, every single one of your featured posts, except for one recent one by Carmel Hagen, have been by men.

I'm male and even I'm sick of it.

Thanks, Jason. Someone needed to say it.

Big hairy balls don't make for a great CD, but the ones that have the balls enough to say that they're great are typically men. Women, in any line of work, when told, "Hey, great job on that project!" tend to reply with courtesy and accolades for all that helped.

Men generally just say, "Hey, thanks!" And there's absolutely NOTHING wrong with that!

If a CD leads the team to a win, he or she should be congratulated for the skills that it took to do so.

This is obviously not the root of the problem, but it hints at it. We don't sell ourselves well enough, and we don't accept credit when it's due. Women are taught from a very early age that humility is ladylike, but so is the gracious reception of a compliment.

Change of this nature takes time, but it is slowly coming around. Women in advertising, I implore you to own up to it when the work is great. Being a team player is a beautiful thing, but being able to lead takes something that the rest of the team does not possess. Otherwise, everyone would be a CD.

If someone tells you that you look smoking hot in a pair of jeans, say thank you. If your boss tells you that so-and-so is happy with the work that you've done, say thank you. Don't make excuses. You wouldn't say, "Oh, it's those new padded butt jeans, it's not me."

Maybe, except you actually have to be in the situation where good feedback is being offered - which is ideal. I've been in amazing situations where my work was respected, but I've also been in situations where men will do everything they can not to give me any sort of satisfaction of a job well done - deferring to my male counterpart even when they knew I did 95% of the piece - and then what? Objecting and reiterating your role is the right thing to do, but many times if that person already doesn't care to hear you - it's wasted breath - and can unfortunately secure your role as as a bitch or whiner. So, you have to have an exit plan. Either setting out alone... like many women on this post already have done or seeking out better opportunity.

I suppose to keep yourself sane, you chalk it up to a learning experience and it will help make you bomb proof when you take the risk of moving in a new direction

Childless CW makes a fair point, and one which I'd appreciated seeing Felix address in another rant at some point. While some folks balance work and their responsibilities to their children well, many more that I've worked with get a free pass because they've chosen (no one had a gun to their head that I know of) to have kids.

Sure Jeff, I'll address it. I have kids myself, I'm sure you are going to just love my response to that one. Until my actual post, what I will say is that I don't think anyone gets a free pass; they just have a different way of working. And by the way, no one put a gun to your head and told you to get into advertising or design. The industry is what it is, and it will make allowances for this thing we call life. Not many, and not often, but it will. If you don't like the fact that some people "slack off," you should take it up with them. But no one should be married to their job. Loosen up dude.

@Andy Campbell: "I'm sure there were times when you had a commitment that couldn't be broken and you did, in fact, leave work. And someone else covered for you, and maybe that person had kids."

Actually, in my seven-year career I've missed a grand total of four days due to illness and I've never been allowed to use even half of my allotted paid vacation time in a given year. "Vacation not feasable at this time" and such. So no, nobody covers for me. I'm not allowed that luxury.

I am not saying all parents are bad workers. Worked with some wonderful parents, and I wish them nothing but the best.

What I object to is the entitlement mentality that parents have : "I DESERVE the right to abandon my duties whenever I feel like it and my company should just absorb it."
Your agency is never going to say "Okay I guess we don't have to make money this week, because ____ had an issue with his kids." Someone else has to cover for you. And this certain someone is never recognized for his slack picking-up, and if he voices a peep of displeasure about it he gets treated like a pariah.

@Childless CW: Fair enough. It sounds like you're a very hard worker and I hope someday you find yourself in a more positive environment that rewards you accordingly. Now, back to the topic of this thread: female CDs. If you have any further views on the inequities that Felix mentioned I'd love to hear them.

Just read all of the above, and I agree the topic has got a little lost!

After 19 years in the industry I am now a CD and female (and a single mother of 2!!). I believe I have got where I am buy having a professional balance of work and life that makes me enthusiastic on all levels. Yes, there have been times when I wish I had been with my children more... but, it was my choice to take the career path I did and so I went for it.

I have worked with many talented female creatives that have balanced work, life and family... but, equally many men too! Male, female it makes no difference. If people are 'slacking off' or taking the easy way and using kids and family in order to do so then that's down to poor management surely...

I also agree on the above comment regarding working hours - why should a creative be sat at their desk for hours on end - or even worse - 9 to 5. I encourage our creatives to do the opposite - wherever helps them to be creative and open their mind to the brief in hand. It's a completely different role than 9-5.

Erica - I agree with your comment about if it were that easy anyone could be a CD. I like to think it's about having ALL the attributes that is required to be a CD, creativity, management skills to motivate and bring on talent, industry understanding etc etc....

As a young designer I can remember when I was pregnant with my first child and passing one of my directors in the hallway and he said 'congratulations... another one bites the dust!'. That was ten years ago and in that time I believed that as a young woman I had no chance of climbing the ladder. The male/female divide is changing generally as work ethics are changing in the work place, I just think our industry is taking a while to catch up.

Thank you for this article, very important and valid points made. As a female in the industry I've experienced a lot of the boys club mentality.

Because design is my passion, and it was either give up or forge ahead, I decided to make my own way. I think it's going to take more women running their own companies and not waiting for the advertising world to change, so that women are able to advance into the type of positions they desire/deserve.

I believe the quote you mention seeing at the beginning of this post was from a speech I gave at the 140 Conference in SF last month. I used it to introduce a new conference called The 3% Conference, gathering together the elusive 3% of female creative directors (I am one) to show brands how necessary our skills are to connect with female consumers. My personal belief is that the vampire hours that creative departments work are so un-family friendly that women bow our during their child-bearing years -- precisely the time they are eligible to earn the CD title. That was when I left Hal Riney to start my family. Hope everyone on this thread will follow @3percentconf on Twitter and participate in the conference.

@ Childless CW: "Actually, in my seven-year career I've missed a grand total of four days due to illness and I've never been allowed to use even half of my allotted paid vacation time in a given year."

Sounds like you need a new gig.

And a life.

Obviously this issue is not unique to the ad world: Here's an interesting take from the perspective of women in tech start-ups...
Why We Need to Reframe the “Women in Tech” Debate

...via Mashable

Creativity is a shared sex trait. 50/50. Why there aren't more gals, I dunno. The girls I've run across in various creative departments are full of ideas and the talent to back it up. Are there less females going into conceptual art direction/copywriting? Just like the CU grads coming-out of the marketing program wanting to go into "marketing" - they end-up as as account folks. I'm guessing the majority are female by the number of applicants/resumes I've seen on my desk and who various current and past agencies actually hire.

There's a trend though.. and this is true... there's a difference between a DESIGNER and ART DIRECTOR.. and in 20 years, there are fewer women with writing/copywriting/advertising education/desire than men. The women I've interviewed and seen at the local schools are more in the "designer" realm. And the path to Creative Director is blazed with people more on the conceptual side. And most come from copywriting backgrounds. Sure, some ADs go on to be CDs.. like me.. but it's prolly 60/40 in favor of writers..

I used to think arguments like this were ridiculous. I figured that most of the (unsuccessful) female employees who brought them up just couldn't see what traits they lacked and were making excuses. I have pretty good reason to think this way as most of the women I am surrounded by in my family and socially are extremely successful. I had it all figured out until I found myself working for my current employer. He treats every female employee here like his personal secretary. Such a douche-bag.

I guess you can make an argument that this is somewhat of an isolated incident and not all employers are like this, but I'm sure a lot of these executive geezers are similar.

Eff That

Now my comment is going to shock a few people as I am sitting in Pakistan, being a female creative director and a happily married mother of two. Yes we are very far from being Madison avenue but majority of creatives in Pakistan and especially in all global agencies are women and considering that Pakistan is known to be a country where women are supressed and bearded men rule. I am happy to state that the battle of the genders has been lost by our male counterparts in this land. Touche'

Thank you for this article and the subsequent comments.

I'm a female CD at a very large digital agency in New York. I'm also the ONLY female CD at my agency. I too have looked around and wondered, how come there aren't more women CDs in the business?

Yes, it is a boy's club in lots of ways, but that never stood in my way. It all boils down to your talent and your drive, your confidence and if you play well with others.

I agree with Erica that far too many women don't know how to accept compliments and sell themselves for fear of coming off as bitchy or narcissistic. But climbing the ladder doesn't have to be so nasty. You just have to have the confidence that comes along with years of doing rock solid work. It also doesn't hurt to be funny. A prissy sanctimonious woman will never rise to the top in this business. (I think I'm more raunchy with a fouler mouth than most men.)

I've had the good fortune to work under 2 brilliant, sharp women CDs who possessed the qualities Felix wrote about in his posts about good CDs. They had those qualities in spades, in fact. They were hilariously funny (really dirty funny too). And what they also had were the mentoring skills that helped me realize I could one day be in their respective positions.

I read a couple years back, "You really haven't completed the circle of success unless you can help somebody else move forward." In both my interactions with male CDs I work with and with the younger creatives (both male and female) on my team, I try to be a good example of what a female CD is so that it inspires the younger ones to have the confidence to 'move forward' as well as break down any notions that women bring anything less than stellar creativity to the table.

I tried to email Felix to thank him for writing this article. I have new found inspiration. Thank you.

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