Equality Within Creativity: Ad Agencies Work Toward Greater Gender Diversity

When national organization She Runs It (formerly Advertising Women of New York, founded in 1934) partnered with EY and LinkedIn on a global study called "Accelerating the Path to Leadership for Women in Marketing and Media" to analyze the differences between men and women as they progress in their careers in the industry, the results were somewhat surprising: Nearly 50 percent of employees at media and creative agencies are women at the entry level, but that number then drops—in a hockey-stick pattern—to just 25 percent at the executive leadership level.

The study—which encompasses nearly 4 million people and more than 4,000 companies across seven subsectors—promoted the proverbial eyebrow raise around “the pervasive and dramatic angle of the hockey stick,” says She Runs It president and CEO Lynn Branigan. “Companies look at that and they’re baffled. They know what’s happening but they’re not sure why, and they’re not quite sure what to do about it.” 

“I believe even over the last couple of years, the drop-off has become worse,” says Amber Guild, managing director of Martin NY. “Something is clearly going on.”

Unearthing the issues

In an age when gender parity and breaking the glass ceiling are topics at the front of workplace discussions, the questions remain: Why do women leave? What is holding them back?

First comes the obvious. “People talk about how we lose women in the ‘messy middle’,” Branigan says. “While our study revealed another, later exit or stall for women—a lot of women get close to the executive leadership level, then leave their role or pause in their advancement—there is no denying that current policies and practices do not make it easy for people to start their families and maintain their career trajectories.”

“It’s an environment that’s very demanding and urgent oriented. If you are either a mother or a father and you want to be involved in your children’s lives, it’s not always easy to schedule to be there. Women have traditionally taken lead responsibility in getting kids to and from school, and it becomes a juggling act that’s very difficult. When it’s time to decide to go back to work, we as an industry don’t make it easy for parents to re-enter the workforce,” notes Nancy Hill, president and CEO of the 4A’s (American Association of Advertising Agencies).

However, the She Runs It study also revealed that women lag behind when it comes to building a personal brand, fostering relationships within professional networks, taking ownership of being recognized for good work and actively endorsing each other.

Part of it could stem from a lack of role models. “There are moments when young women tell me, in their first couple years in the industry, that they look around and don’t see anyone who looks like them. It’s heartbreaking and demotivating,” Guild says. “I want to help be the change that other people see and I want to lead by example.”

A solution in progress

“We really wanted to unearth actionable data points that companies and women could embrace when there are barriers at the top,” Branigan says of the She Runs It study. To that end, She Runs It offers educational programs including workshops, mentoring programs and training programs throughout the year for both women and men. This year, She Runs It will dig deep through a qualitative study into the causes and solutions. In February, 4A’s launches a six-week program, Mothers@Agencies, during which executive coaches offer tips on finding balance between parenting and career responsibilities. And a range of related initiatives, from the 3 Percent Conference to The Girls’ Lounge, have emerged as champions of female leadership and a platform to engage in an ongoing dialog—and the results are being felt.

“In the last year, the discourse has been loud and constant, and I’m very happy about that,” Hill says. “We’ve seen a lot of progress. There have been a number of women elevated to senior positions in agencies, especially in creative departments. I am encouraged that we’re starting to address that head-on.” Guild, a participant in a recent 3 Percent Conference, agrees: “It’s very empowering to be in this environment,” she notes. And women’s voices continue to be strongly represented in organizations like the Clio Awards, which has a commitment to 50-percent female/50-percent male jury.

To continue the conversation, in 2017, the 4A’s is planning to conduct a benchmarking study to aggregate and anonymize industry data as it relates to gender, ethnicity, LGBTQ and other factors. Beyond that, Hill notes, “agencies are working hard to create cultures—people being involved in their lives. Recognizing that people are whole people and not just who they are at work is starting to change agency culture.”

The agency of the future

As campaigns themselves and their channels of distribution advance, so will the offices that turn out such innovative work to be more wholly inclusive of different backgrounds and perspectives—and gender is just the jumping off point.

“Advertising is an important piece of how we help clients build their brands, but it’s not just that. The way people choose and interact with brands has evolved in the past decade. Who are the people we’re trying to build these brands for?” Guild asks. “We’re solving for them; we’re innovating. The talent within our doors should reflect the human beings of our world—and we’re not there yet. One of the things we always hear is it’s about the work. But it’s people that make the work, not the work that makes the people.”

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