So, Only 3% of Ad Agency Creative Directors are Women. Is That The Real Problem?

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On Thursday, February 28th, a bunch of talented people from our industry got together to discuss the shocking fact that only 3% of the nation’s advertising creative directors are female. That was put out there with the other big, bold fact… 80% of all household purchases are determined by women.

When you look at that on the surface, it’s an obvious paradox. Surely, with 80% of the purchasing power in the hands of females, we should have more females controlling the output from the advertising agencies that are trying to influence those women? And that would result in better, less condescending advertising, right?


Well, not so fast, my partners in crime.

I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there are many truly talented women in this field, and in the complementing fields of design, PR and marketing. The fact that there aren’t more female creative directors is a real fucking tragedy. Seriously. I’ve written a whole article on the subject. I’m a believer.

But we need to concentrate on the facts being presented to us right now. Yes, only 3% of creative directors are women. There is a greater percentage of women in creative roles within agencies, but again, it’s not equitable. Not even close.

Stats from a comprehensive study done in 2009 (best one I could find, sorry it’s a few years old) show that only 19.1% of creatives in ad agencies are women. And although 46.7% of employees are women, only 16% are in the top roles. Still, it’s all a little better than the paltry 3% that are creative directors. The figures are not good.

And yet, as I analyze all of this, there seems to be an enormous elephant in the room that most people are choosing to overlook. And being the unpopular prick that I am, it seems reasonable that I should point it out.

Question: Who Works with the Ad Agencies?

Corporate America is not quite the same as it was in the 50s. Women make up a sizable chunk of the workforce now, and there are some stats I’d like to share in that regard. You’ve seen the negative figures. But there are positive ones. For instance, the Department of Labor shows that 60% of PR managers are women. And better yet, 61.1% of advertising and promotions managers are women. Andy Dougan, group account director of KLP, said back in 2009 that “there is a 60/40 split of women to men. We’re seeing more and more women come into the marketing industry and they are climbing the ranks too.”

Anyone here think that in the last three years, women suddenly left the marketing and advertising workforce in droves?

From personal experience, most of the meetings I’m in, with various clients spanning many different industries, are dominated by women.

As a creative, draw upon your own experiences. How many client meeting have you been in that were made up of just men? I can’t remember one. I can remember thinking “wow, why are most of the creatives men, but most of the clients women?”

I don't have the answer. I’m not claiming to know why. But here’s what this is leading up to.

The BIG Question: Who’s Buying the Ads Aimed at Women?

Answer: It’s NOT the creative directors. It’s the client.

And most clients employ more women than men.

Let’s backtrack a little.

When I started my career at the tender age of 21, there were two female teams in the agency. There were two teams that were mixed. And there were seven all male teams. I suspect that was a better batting average than most agencies at that time.

The female teams were put on female accounts, because it was felt that they knew the products better, would have an affinity with the client, and would be more comfortable on the accounts.

I saw great campaign after great campaign get rejected. The male teams had a crack. Same story. The female clients in charge of these accounts were not out to do radical work, redefining the industry. They wanted the same old shit. And they got it.

The male creative director pushed for the most interesting work. The work that resonated most with the women in our own agency and, dare I say it, with focus groups. It was killed. Seriously beaten to death.

After months of reworking, the end result was bland, vanilla vomit. The sort of manure that includes women parachuting when they’re on their periods, and female friends discussing life over a pot of fucking yogurt.

Fast-forward to today, and it’s still going on. Ads aimed at women, created by women, bought by women, are just as crap as ads aimed at women, done by men and bought by men.

Remember the failed TV show The Pitch? (Well, it should have failed.) There was an all female agency on that one – Womenkind. Female creative director, female creatives, female account teams. They knew just how to market to women. They were inside women’s heads. They did better work than DIGO, their male competitors, for C Wonder.

They lost the pitch.

Now, in all fairness the head of C Wonder was a man. A complete douchebag of the first order, although his executive marketing team was a mix of men and women.

But this is the real problem.

Clients, by and large, are afraid of change, they don’t like to rock the boat, and they don’t want something that hasn’t been done before.

If we reversed the 3% tomorrow, and 97% of creative directors in this country were female, do you think we would see a vast shift in the way we advertise to women?


Clients buy more shit work than good. They ask for more mediocre campaigns than breakthrough ideas.

Always have. Always will.

At the end of the day, ad agencies will always bow to the whims of the clients, to keep the account.

No amount of women in the creative department will ever change that.


Dicks n chics? The dicks rule the world....for now.

how many are not white males-that would be another question

This is really thought-provoking and I am so grateful the author wrote it. I am the founder of The 3% Conference and trying desperately to bring clients into our movement. I agree that there is a severe shortage of clients willing to try something novel and new. I've argued that clients should win at the Clios, not just agencies.

My personal experience has not been that clients are largely women, but I would welcome some stats on that. This recent research report ties Super Bowl advertising to mostly male, white CDs, but I don't see a breakdown of the clients shopping for the work.

In researching conditions for The 3% Conference I encountered many stories of female creatives (often not at CD-level) being excluded from guy meetings/trips with the clients, who were mostly male. Women either weren't invited along, declined due to the spot chosen for the outing, or due to a lack of free time to participate (a quote I heard: "Men go for drinks, women go to pick up the dry cleaning.") Times may be changing and/or specific regions/agencies may achieve more diversity than others (Boulder being quite a progressive city). What's critical here is that we have a diversity of talent creating work and a diversity of client-side decision makers choosing what gets aired.

Thanks for a really interesting perspective piece.

Great perspective. Thanks for this.

I'm very proud to say that my company is 100% female driven—creatively and in every other role. This was never deliberate, but just the result of naturally gravitating towards like-minded individuals to add to our rapidly growing culture.

One thing I've noticed amongst women, particularly those who balance work and family, is simply a greater ability to multitask and prioritize. We work smart. We have a plan. We stay organized and communicate well. We avoid falling into panic or committing to grueling hours. And we do in fact still find time for a beer or two after work.

I am exceptionally proud of and grateful for the people with whom I work. And what a lovely coincidence that we're all chics.

Why is it that women can't be successful as women instead of imitating men? Just because men have created corporate culture doesn't mean that this culture is the best most productive use of our energy....besides making money...what are these corporate cultures contributing to the world?

Sorry Sheryl, won't being joining you...

For the best work, I don't believe it's an either-or proposition. It's female + male; more balanced. And yes, on both sides, agency and client.

Sadly, as my career has progressed, the fewer women that are present in high level meetings (typically). Surviving and thriving in that environment as a women is an art.

This is just my personal opinion, but I feel that woman don't thrive in upper management/executive positions because they don't bullshit as much as men do. The executive women I've met are usually serious, rigid and have no-nonsense attitudes about their job. The male executives I've encountered are usually cracking stupid jokes at the beginning of meetings, blabbing about some hot new bar they've been to or are cracking completely inappropriate jokes. And usually, that's the kind of behavior they value in their counterparts. Thus, the lack of female leadership positions. Why fill it with some "frigid bitch" when you can fill it with some other d-bag who cracks the same dumbass jokes as you? I believe this is called the "good ol' boy" syndrome, and women just don't have it.

Umm, anonymous. Your personal opinion is about as slanted as the so called old boys network you reference. I've sat through plenty of meetings with women who bullshit with the rest of them, and can't wait to talk about anything other than the job at hand. I work with plenty of women who are in way more senior positions than most of the men in the department, and they did it through backstabbing and corporate politics. Women and men alike are just as bad as each other, they all want more, they all want success (sometimes at any cost) and they will screw their mother for a bonus and a parking space. Don't kid yourself, this is not about that. One of the main reasons women are not in the top spot is because they are thought of as weaker, less aggressive, more emotional, and might just drop out of the workforce for 6 months to have a kid. Is that right? Nope. Is it a fact? Fraid so.

Smart and thought provoking for sure!

Absolutely no suprise. This surfaces and re-surfaces in 8-10 year cycles. It's probably a hot topic because of the book "Lean In" by the Yahoo COO, and it should be. But similiar statistics apply to black creatives male and female combined. White men hire who they associate with, white men, regardless of whether they listen to Jay-Z or were fans of Michael Jordan. Because many of these very people that I'm criticizing are acquaintances/friends of mine, I would say with conviction, these people are not the "R" word. What I would and have told them is that they have engrained prejudices that they need to recognize in order to address. It's a very uncomfortable conversation to have or hear. They are smart people and hear what I'm saying, but think it's everyone but them.

I was at a conference 2 weeks ago and a fantastic industrial designer echoed this very thing. She was 1 woman of 100+ men, all white. She also went a step further to say that when "minority set-asides" and I cringe using that given it's .(point) percent of 1%, were in the crosshairs of the company, she was contacted by sales to find out if she was a black also.

Until those in a position of power are willing to step just slightly outside of their comfort zones, these numbers will change little. I've been fortunate to have the most unlikely mentors of several races and ethnicities, that fought for me. They were not uncomfortable because true creativity see's a challenge as an opportunity.

Ironically while I type this I'm listening to the Talking Heads, Once In A Lifetime.... Same as it ever was....

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