Somewhere in the world, a room full of advertising agency professionals is brainstorming about ice cream or air freshener or headache remedy. And if the data is correct, there’s an 89% chance that everyone in the room—or at least those making the decisions—is male.
The enlightened among us know that this is both ridiculous and pathetic. It’s intellectually and creatively wrong, as well as culturally deaf and maybe ethically bankrupt. And yet, it’s perfectly normal. Over the course of almost two decades in advertising, I’ve driven brand strategies for breakfast cereal, cell phones, cookies, quick-service restaurants, sneakers, luxury clothing brands—and on and on—all targeted towards women.
As agency leaders, we contend with this bald-faced fakery in a handful of ways. We craft elaborate, gender-aware research plans for our clients’ brands. We deploy qualitative and quantitative insights to prove we can “get inside her head.” We self-consciously cast pitches and key client meetings with strategically-placed women. We dial up HR training in unconscious bias. And we hitch our creative wagons to woman-focused causes and pro-bono campaigns to win awards and wrap our agencies in warm, femvertising fuzzies.
Are these confessions hitting too close to home?
To me, agency life has for years felt like a real-life version of The Truman Show, where our clients are Truman, and we’re the ersatz residents of Seahaven, all of us carefully staging an intricate fiction that we came to believe ourselves. The gender balance of our focus groups somehow compensated for the utter absence of it in our offices.
The industry has moved from a total of 3% female creative leadership to 11%. Nothing to sneeze at. And yet, as nine out of 10 account planners will tell you: 80% of buying decisions in the US are driven by women. So, I kindly wonder: Are you freaking kidding me with that 11%?
Thanks to Kevin Roberts and Cindy Gallop, most agencies today are on high alert, if not truly woke, to the pathetic state of affairs in the male: female ratio of agency leadership. Because they are savvy— they’re marketers, after all—they’re making the right noises, and taking steps in the right direction. Teeny, tiny baby steps. The industry has moved from a total of 3% female creative leadership to 11%. Nothing to sneeze at. And yet, as nine out of 10 account planners will tell you: 80% of buying decisions in the US are driven by women. So, I kindly wonder: Are you freaking kidding me with that 11%?
As a managing director and a gay guy in a passive-aggressively heteronormative business, I know a little bit about being on the wrong side of the industry demographic curve. But if I was going to place a bet—and I hope I’m not outting anyone here—I’d wager that there are substantially more gay men in senior agency roles than there are women in the same roles.
But change is coming at last. I was recently in a chemistry-check meeting with a potential client. After 30 minutes or so the client, let’s call her Michelle, looked at me and my two colleagues—all of us males—and observed pointedly, “But our customer is female, and you’re all guys.” Chem-check fail.
I feel extremely fortunate that in July I joined an agency where our CEO is a woman. Our CFO is a woman. And our CCO is a woman. 38% of our creative leadership (ACD and higher) is female. My own office in New York City is now 60% female.
I’ve been in advertising for 17 years, and that’s the first time a woman had ever just flat out said it: The emperor is buck naked. It hurt. And then the epiphany smacked me in the face: In a business driven by white men talking to white men about white men, as Cindy Gallup says, meaningful diversity will happen when—and only when—smart clients demand it.
There is reason to be encouraged. HP’s CMO Antonio Lucio has driven real and rapid diversity within the agencies that serve his brand, and other huge advertisers like Verizon and General Mills have followed suit. I sincerely hope those blips become a landslide. And I feel extremely fortunate that in July I joined an agency where our CEO is a woman. Our CFO is a woman. And our CCO is a woman. 38% of our creative leadership (ACD and higher) is female. My own office in New York City is now 60% female.
As for me, I’m no dummy. I won’t have another traumatic chem-check like that again. Ever. So, I’ll be the guy who’s hiring that woman ECD. And her girlfriend. And that lady CD. And that female head of marketing science. And on and on until The Truman Show gets canceled. In case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night.