I spent a few days in San Francisco last week. I was there to address a session of the 3% Conference, which is usually all about the topic of sexism in the ad industry. It is called the 3% Conference because a few years ago, the conference founder—Kat Gordon—realized that only 3% of mainstream ad agency Creative Directors were women. That seemed to indicate discrimination to her, because she was pretty sure that more than 3% of consumers were women. Since she began publicizing this disparity, the ratio of female CDs has risen to 11%.
Anyway, thanks to me (I think) Kat added a session on ageism this year. I presented along with the Emmy- and Cannes Lion-winning Hélène Côté. Of course, there is no ageism conference; if there was one, it would have to be called the 0% Conference, since there are virtually no over-50 creatives in hands-on roles at big agencies.
I heard two recurring themes. The first was that women—who (duh!) still carry most of the child-rearing load, even in modern families—were often excluded from the all-night creative sessions that are part of ad agency culture. And, participant after participant complained that while they’re now present in agency creative meetings, their ideas often don't seem to get heard in group sessions.
In one panel session, I watched two women sparring on the topic of work-life balance. A Late-Gen X mom was refreshingly honest when she told the audience, basically, "I handle this issue by being exhausted all the time." Her Early-Millennial co-panelist just blew off the entire concept of work-life balance. That's not for winners, any more, I guess.
After a few hours listening to variations on those themes, something really bugged me: No one stood up to say, "Look, the reason ad creatives are called upon to work through the night isn't because there's anything inherently emergent in the ad creative process; they are called upon to pull those all-nighters because the people (men, by the way!) who manage ad agencies are incompetent."
I was disappointed that the women in attendance seemed to have bought into the notion that the big ideas come at 3 a.m. and if they couldn't be there alternating beers with Red Bull, eating cold pizza, and making giddy, exhausted fart jokes with the bros, they were destined to be left behind, career-wise.
Bullshit. For every good 3 a.m. idea, there are 99 shitty ones (and at least nine perfectly good 3 p.m. ideas.)
The idea that women are producing their share of great ideas, but that they don't push their ideas forward as aggressively as men was the whole premise behind the hash tag #takethemic. Kat Gordon mentioned that she'd met one presenter when she took a coaching workshop called, "Silence your inner critic."
In Q&A sessions, participants stood up to say, "When the agency gets together to pitch ideas, mine don't get picked." They got advice like, "Make sure you don't begin statements with phrases like, 'You've probably already thought of this but...'" or, "Stop making statements with a raised pitch at the end, because it makes you sound uncertain."
It occurred to me that I was in a room full of people from the first generation in which everyone got a trophy in school. I resisted the urge to stand up and say, "I've got some bad news: Half of you are, by definition, below average. So right away I can explain why a lot of your ideas aren't getting picked."
But in their defense, the ad business does over-reward presentation skills. And it is a gender trait that women tend to collaborate and seek consensus while men aggressively push their private agendas. That's a problem because the corollary of over-rewarding presentation skills is under-rewarding ideas.
So again, I was frustrated that no one stood up to say, "Let's change the business." Instead, the advice women gave women was, basically, "Be more like men."
Irony #1: If the conference succeeds in convincing those women to adopt the same strategies used by the men in their ad agency, they will have succeeded in changing a creative process that currently discriminates against women into one that discriminates against a different 50% of the population: introverts. It would be a hell of a lot better if the industry was actually capable of determining which ideas were better, not just which ideas were better presented.
When I was researching my book Build a Brand Like Trader Joe's, it occurred to me that every industry faces its own defining problems. I coined the term Gardiner's Paradox to describe the way that each industry promotes the people who can best adapt to those challenges. The paradox part comes in because the people who thrive on those problems are the ones least likely to change business models in ways that will eliminate them altogether.
In the ad industry's case, two of those defining problems are chronic mismanagement—leading to the sort of chaos that forces creatives to work all night—and an arbitrary and unscientific approach to testing and evaluating creative—which turns brainstorming sessions and client presentations into verbal wrestling matches between egomaniacs. It almost certainly is true that men, as a group, are more likely to thrive in those settings, and it's precisely because the industry's male-dominated that it hasn't ever eliminated those fundamental problems.
Irony #2: It was a man, John Gerzema, who presented an extensive research project proving that both men and women, in countries around the world, believe that business and government would be more profitable and effective if they were managed in a "more feminine" way. (For example, corporate CEOs overwhelmingly agree that their businesses would be more profitable if management was more empathetic.)
The whole premise of the 3% Conference is that the ad industry does a disservice to its clients through its underrepresentation of women. In that sense, the business does 'need' more women, but it doesn't need more women who think and act like men. It needs to get more feminine.
Of course, by the same logic, it also needs a lot more input from mature creatives, too.