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Recruiting and Retaining Female Talent - Are Agencies STILL a Boy's Club?

There is a woeful number of women in top creative roles. Statistics reveal that despite the fact that women control a whopping 80% of consumer spending, only 3% of creative directors – who create the brands behind that spending – are female. It appears that the agency world, like many other areas of business, is dominated by men, especially when it comes to the top-level positions. According to The Guardian it’s because the upper echelons of the advertising industry remain predominantly young, white and male.

The statistics don’t reveal a pretty picture. The number of women at managing director level or above in UK advertising agencies plummeted by more than a quarter last year, falling to the lowest proportion since 2003, according to a report by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.

The IPA, which represents advertising and media buying agencies accounting for more than 80% of the UK sector, found that women accounted for just 13.5% of the 415-odd executives designated as a chair, chief executive or managing director at a UK ad agency.

According to the IPA, the 13.5% share of top roles held by women is the lowest proportion since its industry-wide survey of 2003, when they held just 11% of the top-tier jobs. With the number of women in top ad agency jobs falling by 26%, an explanation needs to be offered for why this is occurring.

1. Where are All The Creative Female Entrepreneurs?


Where are all the female creatives? Where are all the female creatives?

“I stopped counting several years ago the number of times I saw women in agencies — even senior women — sit in the chairs or on top of the radiators along the edge of a conference room rather than at the table where the clients and their male colleagues sit,” said Farrah Bostic, founder of The Difference Engine, a marketing and innovation strategy company.

It seems that one thing that could help change a lot of these issues is having more agencies that are started by women. “By becoming entrepreneurs and doing things their own way, women can create their own business cultures, build a business around a life, as opposed to the other way around,” said Bostic.

So as a creative industry professional, what can you do to support female entrepreneurs?

  • Encourage the women in your life to become entrepreneurs, branch out, and start their own agencies. Often, the idea of running an agency never occurs to someone until a friend or mentor points it out. By planting the seed in knowledgeable, talented women, you could create a shift towards more female-led agencies.
  • Create support groups locally, or online, where women in creative industries can meet and discuss issues and problems. Invite women in leadership roles to speak at this group.
  • Organize local events when female agency leaders come to talk about their challenges.
  • Partner with female-led agencies to produce high-impact client work.
  • Encourage female leaders in your agency to be more visible in press.
  • Create a local forum / community where female entrepreneurs can get together and share their experiences. This is a great way for women to start growing a professional network and share tips and ideas.
  • Encourage potential leaders to join networking groups like Venus or BNI. Surrounded by other successful businesspeople, it's hard not to feel inspired to action.

2. Women Don't Pursue the Higher Management Positions


How to get women to take on more leadership roles? How to get women to take on more leadership roles?

Kat Gordon, founder and creative director of Maternal Instinct, says that men and women start out in equal number in advertising but advancing to senior positions often dovetails with starting a family for many women. Although she founded her own agency to better balance the demands of parenthood with her career, even women without children don’t advance, in part, Gordon says, because of a lack of mentorship.

Margaret Keene, executive creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi LA said that she’s been lucky enough to work with a lot of great women who have guided her throughout her career, and that talking to them about balancing work and life helps her. But clearly, women, far more than men, are often forced to pick one or the other — their career or their family.

“Women are hardwired to kick ass and nurture at the same time,” says Tiffany Rolfe, the co-executive creative director of CP & B. “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 every female creative in a management role could mentor and promote just five other women, each of those can help five more, and before long we'll be in the hundreds.

Fifty five-percent of the staff at Deutsch NY is female, according to CEO Val DiFebo, but the number of women goes down the higher up the ranks you go. At the partnership level, there are 62% men versus 38% women. Though DiFebo says there are more women on the digital side of creative, “I wish there were more women to interview for creative directors,” she admits.

So what can you do to help encourage other women to pursue higher management positions in your agency:

  • Create a managerial benefits package that offers flexibility and other benefits to working mothers. If you show that a higher-level position doesn't mean a compromise in family time, then you'll see more women take an interest.
  • Make it clear that flexible options, like flexible start/finish hours and telecommuting, are possible. This makes any role more appealing to mothers.
  • Create mentorship and leadership programs within your agency to encourage those with promise to pursue additional responsibilities, perhaps partner with senior staff to work on more challenging projects.
  • Encourage women to become mentors. Become a mentor yourself.
  • Encourage women already in higher positions to seek a higher profile, through speaking at events and participating in online discussions.

3. The Industry Needs More Female Leaders


Get creative women when they're young and train them from the start to be leaders. Get creative women when they're young and train them from the start to be leaders.

DiFebo also believes the reason there are so few women creative directors is the lack of work/life balance. “How can I be a mum and a creative director?” she posits. As more women like her are taking on CEO roles, DiFebo says it would only take a few more in a creative leadership position to bring a “flood” of other women. “But it has to be someone who believes in the balance, that has a family or interests outside work that take up their time,” she argues.

To foster a more equal playing field, DiFebo says Deutsch NY hires between 30 and 40 interns per year, split equally between genders. Women are introduced to all departments, something DiFebo believes is valuable to this new generation of workers. “Women need to feel like they can do things the guys can do.”

There are signs that the tide is beginning to turn. Gina Grillo, president and CEO of the Advertising Club of New York notes that the organisation has a mentoring program. “Whenever we put out a call for people to mentor young professionals and students, women are very generous with their time,” she says.

Partners + Napier, a creative agency, boasts a much more equal gender makeup. Women make up 40 percent of its senior management team, 50 percent of its creative directors, and 55 percent of the agency itself.

“It would be great to see more women at the table, but an absence of female leaders isn’t preventing me or any other woman from growing and taking on more responsibilities,” said CEO Sharon Napier. “We look for smarts and passion and hire the people that fit our culture — whether they’re women or men.”

How can you foster a more equal workforce in your agency?

  • Look for women leaders at the internship level. Interns are the future of the industry, and it is at that time that women (and men) are most looking for direction and inspiration for their careers.
  • Create programs to encourage women to apply for internships at your agency. Get involved with the next generation at the design school level. Focus groups, panel discussions, workshops are all great ways to meet and cultivate future talent. Look at the way the agencies in this piece are tackling the issue of unbalanced genders.

It appears that even though agencies are still very much a boy’s club, it’s women that can change this industry for other women. Small, positive changes in the industry are being made through mentoring, strong female leadership and the recognition of a work/life balance.

Have you experienced a boy’s club culture in the advertising industry? How did you deal with it?

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