Female Creatives in Advertising, the adgirls ponder the endless debate.

“85% of brand purchases are made by women, yet only 3% of advertising agency creative directors are women.”

Picture 1
(Tiffany Rolfe, among her Old Navy mannequins)

Last week, Tiffany Rolfe of CP+B wrote an interesting article for Creativity. Entitled: Female Creatives Need to Step Up and Promote. In response to the fact that she is always asked this question: Why aren’t there more female creative directors in advertising?

She doesn’t answer the question, necessarily. Instead, she poses a solution:

Women are hardwired to kick ass and nurture at the same time. But unfortunately the advertising business isn’t known for nurturing. It’s competitive, it’s fast and it’s filled with insecurities. We don’t want to be replaced by the newer, younger, better model.

But maybe if we were better mentors for young people, they’d see a reason to keep us around when we were past our prime. If there is one type of person who could both juggle their own life/work balance, as well as nurture new creatives, it’s women. Think about it — if every female creative in a management role could mentor and promote just five other women, each of those can help five more, and onward, and before long we’ll be in the hundreds. Call it a pay-it-forward meritocracy.

So, in a nutshell, she’s telling other women to be better mentors and to promote. She’s asking women to change the industry for other women.

Well, lali, being, as you know, “two adgirls trying to make it in a world of madmen,” has been sent this very article by many people. So we felt we needed to respond.

What’s it like being an adgirl?

When we first walked down the walkway of Chiat Day, we had a decision to make. Do we try to blend in with the boys? Or do we embrace our girliness? As you can guess by the subhead of our blog, we went with the latter. And we’re glad we did. It’s not because we’re being feminists, or we’ve got a chip on our shoulders, or because we want to use it as a way to climb some sort of ladder. It’s because that’s who we are.

And maybe it’s opened some doors and closed some others. It gives us an immediate cache, a one liner kind of personality to hang onto and to define us. Minus youngbloods, we’re the only girl/girl team in the building. It makes us stand apart. When presenting, our “girliness” tends to create an immediate level of comfort and openness.

On the flip side, sometimes being female creatives, we’re not taken as seriously. And our ideas aren’t either. And we have to be conscious of what we wear, and how that changes perceptions. When we look around an office full of talented women (less in number than men, but still better than a lone Peggy Olson), is it a coincidence that a lot of them are attractive? That fact could be a weapon or a curse.

At RPA, I got asked to work on a new account – La-Z-Boy – because they were targeting “women” buyers. And the client had specifically asked for female creatives. At Chiat, we were asked to work on Diet Pepsi (much to our delight), targeting midwest moms. Again, the client and agency specifically felt female creatives would have a better insight on that work. Maybe we did. But it doesn’t mean we couldn’t have just as many insights on college football, which we’ve worked on. Or a car targeted at millenial males. Which we’ve also worked on, and which also got me, the copywriter, condemned for being sexist. We’re just being chameleons, talking to different people – just as sincerely, but from different view points.

Does being a female creative make us better at that then male creatives? Worse? Or the same? I don’t have an answer. Maybe a blog reader will.

I can say that while we may have worked with an at-the-time female ACD, (xo Xanthe!) with a bunch of female teams, at the end of the day, men were responsible for the final creative work inside the agency and men were responsible for approving the work that got produced. Which leads to the next topic…

Why aren’t there more female creative directors?

As with anything, it’s probably a combination. And seeing as we aren’t creative directors and haven’t really been in the industry that long, we don’t hold the definitive answer on that subject. But I can sure write at length about it.

Babies. Probably the easiest thing at which to point our fingers, and rightfully so. We work long hours. We work hard hours. We never know when we’ll be here til 6p or 6a. And when you’ve got kids at home, it’s just a societal fact that women are more often the ones at home with them. Some by choice. Some by society’s programming. We can’t all be Margaret Keene, popping out a baby and then marching off to shoot a commercial.

WPP creative consultant Neil French said: “They [women] don’t work hard enough. It’s not a joke job. The future of the entire agency is in your hands as creative director. You can’t be a great creative director and have a baby and keep spending time off every time your kids are ill … Everyone who doesn’t commit themselves fully to the job is crap at it.

He then was forced to resign, but he still said it.

Was he right? Even if he could have phrased it better (the feminist in me prickles in indignation)? Or does it lead to another reason why there are far fewer female creative directors than males: Advertising is, still, a boys club. With more men at the top, it’s more up to men to promote and hire. And this industry isn’t gentle, it’s more cutthroat. Age-old prejudices about the simple fact that I may end up pregnant and on maternity leave and distracted whether I am now or not probably still exist. As well as the standard cliches about women as leaders. Not to be crass, but we’re either gentle and therefore weak or bitchy and therefore bitchy. Or our skirts are too short. I’m not saying I agree with these viewpoints, but maybe they still linger in the back of people’s minds, never voiced but ever present.

Or maybe it’s just that when there’s a bunch of boys around making jokes and coming up with ideas, they just GET other boys’ ideas better than they get girls’ ideas. Comfort and familiarity. Get-along-together-ability trumps talent every time.

So, do we as women not want the role of creative director? Or do the men not want us to have it? Or both. Inherently, in an industry that would create the environment where those questions would have to be asked, there’s a lot of work to be done to both answer it and change it.

So what do we do?

At our old agencies, we’d never worked with a female creative director. Why? Because there weren’t any. There were women who headed up departments, just not the creative department. So when we walked into Chiat Day, with giggles and lalipops and matching pink lamps, we were glad to find a whole host of female creatives, and a select few female creative directors.

So first, let’s celebrate our fellow adgirls. The CDs we’ve worked under. Margaret, for her undying dedication not just to her job (which is undeniable) but to loving everyone who works beside her as well (which is also undeniable). Xanthe, for her persevering quest to be the best creative director she can be. The partners we’ve had. Liz, for always being on top of it. Chelsea, for having an artist’s soul. Ariel, for being more than a partner, for being a best friend. To the beautiful and talented ladies of Chiat Day and Night, Shawna, Kristina, Suzanne, Mindy, Michelle, Helena, Kat, Denise, and more, who make great work but more importantly make this a great place to work.

And second, let’s not let our gender get in the way of ourselves. Stand up for ourselves if something’s unfair, but more importantly, just be ourselves and it’ll probably be more fair. Good creatives are good creatives regardless of whether they pee standing up or sitting down. And great advertising that comes from good insights is just that, great advertising. Whether it’s for tampons or beer. And remember, adgirls, we can make great ads for both.

The Tiffanys and Margarets and Xanthes have made things better for us. We can make things better for the girls behind us.

And while the fact that 97% of creative talent probably is NOT male (sorry guys), we can change it and change it we will.

In the meantime, we’re just gonna try and produce some work and have some fun. And listen to some Regina Spektor too.


PS For information, inspiration, questions and some answers, visit adwomen.org
Their quote: “If the great advance of the 20th century was the inclusion of women as equals in society, then an even greater advance in the 21st century will be the incorporation of women’s thinking.” Amen, sister.



Filed under lali

14 responses to “Female Creatives in Advertising, the adgirls ponder the endless debate.

  1. Anonymous

    is there a cliff notes version of this?

  2. Great article girls. Really does spark some good conversation. It’s been a tough road. The job that got me the job at Chiat was “boy’s job”- I did ESPN and bowling for that matter. X Games too. My first boss- the great Court Crandall – hired me because I could think, not because I was a “female.” He wasn’t trying to fill a quota or advance women for the sake of advancing them. Do you need to be a guy to work on “boy brands”? Sometimes it seems like that even though it couldn’t be further from the truth. You just need to be a good thinker and problem solver. You don’t have to play video games to sell them. You don’t have to grab your nuts and chew tobacco to sell baseball. Same goes with “feminine” brands. So many guys bristle at working on “girly” products but it’s the same drill. You don’t have to be a girl to know how to market to them. You simply have to be a thinker. How deep sexism goes depends on the creative director. Some like women and some couldn’t be more threatened by a woman with an opinion. I do better with the ones that see women as brains, not chicks. I’ve found the more secure the man, the more likely he is to promote a woman. The more insecure, the more he would like to keep her in their place. To the Lees and Robs of this world that see talent instead of gender, I raise my glass of Chardonnay. To the knuckle-draggers in the boys club, I say, watch out, we’re on your heels and we’re going to pay-it-forward faster than you think. Grrrrrrl power.

  3. Anonymous

    Male or female doesn’t matter. You just have to be good. And not take your job so seriously. Which probably means not writing blog posts about your job. Sure, some of the greats have written books on the subject of advertising, but this was followed by decades of actually doing great advertising.

    You two women are clearly ambitious, thoughtful, and earnest. But are you good? Let the work speak for itself. The rest will sort itself out. It always does.

    • Hey anonymous….

      In an industry where only 3% of creative directors are women, it’s a subject worth talking about, regardless of whether the work is good. And while male and female shouldn’t matter, that statistic alone means it does.

      We’re talking about it not because we know everything about it, but because we want to have a discussion. And to grow that 3% instead of ignore it. And I agree, the work has to be good. And we’re still doing work. We’ve got a link to our portfolio from the blog.

      Of course we care about the work. And maybe we’re good. We’ll definitely get better. And while the work is always the end goal, learning how to operate as women in our industry is important still. We spend a lot of our lives dedicating ourselves to this business, and we’re gonna keep blogging about it and talking about it and encouraging people like you to tell us what you think. And then we’ll get back to making ads.

      Thanks for the comment, and for having an opinion.

  4. gillian murrell

    Hey Xanthe! Are you referring to the late Courtney Crandall of Boston (Cabot Advertising) or his son?I started my career at Cabot Advertising with Courtney and he was a delight! Anyway, I love your blog, lali! So much food for thought and stuff we’ve been chewing on for years…some things take longer to disgest. I have been fortunate to work with both great men and great women. The best ones are just really healthy (mind and spirit) people that are comfortable in their own skin. So, I applaud your direction to just be yourselves. Authenticity goes a long way to achieving a break-through.
    One more thing to chew on…as both men and women move more fluidly in an out of the paying workforce to care for family members or just take a sabbatical to live a different adventure, it will produce a more innovative workforce because rather than create a less committed worker, it will produce contributors who can make a difference precisely because of what they learned outside of the paying workforce. I see that in spades with women and men who have returned to the paying workforce after spending a very concentrated period of time raising their children and volunteering their educational and professional experience for non-profits and their communities.
    The wealth of knowledge, skills sets, insights, and renewed sense of energy to their careers brings needed innovation to the management table.
    Lastly, your work is already speaking volumes! Love it!

  5. christopher

    Well written! Very topical issue, there was a seminar on this in Cannes: Beyond Mad Men: Gender Balance in Creative Roles. They ended it by saying to change the system, it’s not solely the women’s responsibility, more men need to change their views and be inclusive. I know I certainly wouldn’t be where I am without being lucky enough to work with talented women like Xanthe and Michelle. Discussion, awareness, and opportunity is where change starts. Here’s an edited video from it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cu1-sxRuMJ8

  6. Nice post LaLi! Amen to everyone who says the way to the top is by working hard, being smart, and just doing good work, and to leave gender out of it. I don’t think people think about the role of gender in advertising before they start putting a portfolio together. In my Advertising Design major at Syracuse University, there were five guys and twenty girls in the program. Look at the graduating class of VCU, Miami Ad School, etc. I’m not sure they are perfectly balanced, but they are certainly not 97/3. Were these schools male dominated 10 or 15 years ago? Maybe women are just late to the party and will be taking over the ad world in the next 20 years. I haven’t done the research, but maybe that’s part of it.

    I also think this conversation is about more than just gender, it’s about work-life balance. Traditionally, women would take care of the children, and therefore exit the business before they got promoted to the ranks of CD. But it’s becoming more and more common for men to stay at home and raise the kids. Gender roles are being redefined across career fields as the number of women in college surpasses the number of men in college. Perhaps advertising is no exception. The role of creative director demands so much of an individual, I have never met one who didn’t struggle with their work-life balance regardless of weather they were male, female, married, or single.

    For me, the stats are just more motivation to keep working hard to work my way up. But, if in the future I should decide to stay home to raise the kids that I will someday have, I am glad to be in an industry where freelance is an equally viable option. But most importantly, I will have no shame in trading in my Communication Arts for Good Housekeeping because women who make mothering their priority are just as honorable as those with a fancy title.

    (p.s. I wonder if male nurses and male teachers have the same conversations struggling as the minority)

  7. toomuchfluff

    to me the female mind has always been elusive. perhaps it’s too broad and complex to be treated as a single entity. when I write I hope there’s some human collective I can appeal to beyond male and female.

    Nice blog you have here. I’m wondering if as art director and copywriter you guys are solely involved in maintaining a consistent voice and appropriate vision/feel, or if you get to be involved in creative and conceptual aspects also.

  8. Michelle

    Ladies, I hadn’t had a moment to sit down and read this blog post until now but I’m really glad I did. I believe you wrote it while I was in Cannes… which was a particularly interesting place to be as a young female creative.

    I met a lot of new people in Cannes and, as it’s an industry convention, it’s no surprise that the first question of almost every conversation was, “So, where do you work?” I would answer “Chiat LA” and 9 times out of 10 the response would be, “Oh, are you a producer?”

    I didn’t notice it the first time. The 5th time, I found it a bit odd. And by the end of the week, I was ready to spit fire. Of course there’s nothing wrong with being a producer – and I’m quite glad that segment of our industry has so many kick-ass women in it – but the constant assumption that I was a producer (and the constant, subsequent flash of surprise when I replied that I was a writer) did kinda get me down in the dumps about the global acceptance and prominence of female creatives in advertising as a whole.

    At Chiat I’ve been lucky to work with so many amazing women. Women who were respected for their talent and abilities and, from my vantage point, not pigeonholed as “female creatives” at all. Sure, I’ve encountered sexism here and there and def dealt with a couple of true assholes, but for the most part I’ve never felt like my gender came before my work. When I went to Cannes, I expected the festival to inspire me about the future of this industry (which, in many ways, it did. Technology, creativity, possibility, etc.) but it also felt very much like a bastion of sexism of the past. I was groped. I was talked down to. At the CP+B seminar, I sat and watched as several men left the theater the moment Tiffany Rolfe took the stage and started talking about chicks. I know I can be a bit feminist… and I wish I had some perspective as to whether other female creatives at Cannes felt the same way but, except for Margaret, I didn’t know or meet another female creative there. Grr…

    However, regardless of its dirty past, I do think we are in an industry where the best idea (and the team of people who can best sell it) ultimately rises to the top. It’s just not profitable to be prejudice and I don’t think that companies or people who choose to hire or promote based on gender or race or religion will ultimately succeed. They will always be beaten out by the people who prioritize talent and hard work instead.

    Truly loved reading this post. ☺


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  11. Eloise

    Great writing, I myself am in a female creative team in the UK. Currently in my last year studying but as a project focus for my dissertation I am actually looking at how women are perceived within the UK advertising industry, as similarly during work placements myself and creative partner also noticed the huge lack of female creatives.
    Much like yourself, I do not want to come across as a feminist, bitter about the statistics. But it is a subject well worth discussing, and in need of changing.

    Really enjoyed this post, and it has been a great help in research for my work, as I can prove it is a subject very much relevant.


    • Thank you for this genuine, intelligent comment! We would be so curious to read your dissertation!

      It’s a conversation that needs to be ongoing and thank you for contributing!!

  12. KahlenJ

    Thank you so much for this post! Speaking as a young, female creative (ACD) I’m looking up at not only a glass ceiling but a grey one as well! And where I’m from, there are virtually no doors that open when many close. Considering that get-along-together-ability definitely trumps talent in many instances…What’s a young ad-girl to do?

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