Brandspeak: How to Elevate Women to Creative Leadership Positions


Brandspeak Angela Johnson Ogilvy

The following is a guest post by Angela Johnson, Worldwide Managing Director at Ogilvy & Mather:

There were many percentages thrown around at the 3% Conference held in NYC on Nov 3-4 this year—some small, some large, but all with one key theme: the issue of gender equality in advertising agencies. Sadly, advertising agencies, particularly in creative departments, still skew toward an overwhelmingly male workforce. This must change.

No matter what some high-profile members of the industry espoused earlier this year, the debate about equal representation of women in creative departments and as leaders in agencies is not over. The stats released in the 3% Conference’s “The Elephant on Madison Avenue” report painted a very clear picture:

  • 90% of women in advertising have heard demeaning comments from male colleagues, with 60% hearing them monthly.
  • 58% have felt excluded from important business meetings.
  • 60% said they were less well compensated than their male peers.
  • 54% have been subjected to unwanted sexual advances in the course of their careers.

The assertion that the gender debate is “over” clearly finds its roots in fiction, not fact. The 3% Conference’s very name is a clear indicator: when founder Kat Gordon first started the conference five years ago, 3% was the proportion of women on average employed in leadership positions in creative departments of the ad industry.

Since the 3% Conference first made headlines, the statistic has moved up to 11%. This is good progress, but the flipside of this statistic is that 89% of all leadership positions in creative departments of the ad industry are still filled by men—a far cry from equality. Asking Kat if she thought if the issue could be solved in her lifetime, her response was emphatic: “If we act now, we can get to equality in five years.”

Action undertaken in the name of achieving gender parity in creative departments must be carried out by three groups: women in creative roles, agency bosses who create the agency culture in which women can either thrive or perish, and men who work in the creative field.

Thus, the question becomes how creative companies can hire, promote and retain women. Below are a few of the approaches that Ogilvy has implemented.

For women in creative roles: Do great work, then build relationships with sponsors.

First, build up your performance currency (which you get by doing good work). Then, build up your relationship currency with sponsors that know you and can speak up for you, those leaders who will be in the room when promotion/pay increase/opportunities are being discussed. No longer is it enough to do good work and hope that it will be noticed—it is vital for women to have sponsors who will go to bat for them when the big judgments are taking place.

For directors and bosses of women in creative roles: Build a culture that supports women.

Unconscious bias exists—directors and hiring managers must hold training to help everyone see their own bias and work to mitigate the effect of that bias in the workplace. For example, when hiring, these directors must request female candidates on the interview list. Additionally, don’t perpetuate an office culture where people feel like they have to stay at the office late to move ahead in their career, but instead perpetuate a culture where strong work is strongly rewarded.

One of the speakers at the 3% Conference went as far as to say: “We don’t have a recruitment issue in the industry when it comes to female talent, we have a retention issue.” Retention of talent through building a culture that supports women will benefit the business and the work overall.

For men in the creative field: Become a “manbassador”

In a big shift for this year’s 3% Conference, there was a large focus on male involvement, including a special track for “manbassadors”— largely male creative directors and agency bosses looking to get a handle on the best ways to act to change the ratio. Crucial steps for these manbassadors include:

  • Lose the bro culture: Stop hiring in your own ilk and instead seek to build a diverse team.
  • Have zero tolerance for sexual harassment: Don’t produce advertising that objectivizes women, much less objectify women in the workplace.
  • Adopt flexible working arrangements: Whether it’s caring for elderly parents or children, it falls mainly on women to take the time off work and suffer the penalties.
  • Address the pay discrepancy issue: If women are paid less than their male counterparts, it pushes them to be the ones to who would stay home as caregivers.
  • Address the paternity rights for fathers: If fathers are prevented by policy from being equal caregivers for their children, it will perpetuate women being forced to play that role.
  • Give the best maternity benefits possible: When one large creative tech company increased its maternity leave from 12 to 18 weeks, the rate at which new moms left the company fell by 50%.

For all of these groups of stakeholders, these actions are absolutely crucial—and the effects of gender parity on business success are quite clear. A 2015 McKinsey Report showed that amongst 366 pubic companies, those in the top quartile for hiring with gender diversity had a 15% increase in returns versus the industry mean. A similar finding was published in a recent global report by Credit Suisse of 2,400 companies, which pointed to a correlation between having at least one female board member and higher net income growth.

Talking about the issue of inequality in creative agencies is clearly no longer enough. Instead, we must act. Bosses must hire women on potential not just proof, and pointedly ask for women to be included.

Women creative must work up your relationship currency once you’ve achieved your performance currency, and get yourself a sponsor to represent you when the judgment calls are made. All of us—and our businesses—will be more successful for it.  

Angela Johnson is Worldwide Managing Director at Ogilvy & Mather


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