The Creative Cost

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Written for TCNJ’s Business newspaper, The Bull, Bear & Lion. View the full March 2018 edition here.

The lack of women in advertising agency leadership roles is no secret. Look at many of the biggest ad firms in the United States, and you will see a disparity in the ratio of men to women in their leadership teams. The issue is even more dire when looking at the creative departments within these agencies. This imbalance has been so widely accepted that no major research had been done on it until 2016. That summer, non-profit She Runs It partnered with LinkedIn and Ernst & Young to conduct the most comprehensive study yet about the lack of women in leadership roles in the marketing and media industry.

She Runs It, the recent rebrand of the Advertising Women of New York, is an organization that works to improve the status of women in the marketing industry nationwide. The study the organization spearheaded finally put numeric results to the well-recognized industry problem. Women make up 41% of early stage professionals in the marketing and media industry. However, this number drops in each career rung thereafter: first by 2% for mid-career professionals, and then by another 4% for non-executive leaders. Finally, only 25% of women occupy executive leadership roles. This trend covers the large range of jobs that fall under marketing and media. Publishing, advertising, and broadcasting professions alike exhibit this drastic decline, making it clear that this is an industry-level problem.

These challenges are far more than the statistics presented above. They define the real experiences of the women in these professions. The sexual harassment reckoning that has been going on in Hollywood, the political sphere, and the corporate world is also warranted in the marketing industry. A study conducted by The Agency Circle of media firms in Australia reported that 42% of women marketers had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace during their advertising careers. A majority of the women surveyed ranked the industry gender balance as being “between mediocre and terrible.” Two-thirds of respondents also said that discrimination and harassment were the basis of jokes in their workplace. These numbers imply that the tolerance for the power imbalance between men and women is far higher than it should be. It is highly likely that similar statistics would carry over to the United States, and that is unacceptable.

Many agency professionals have become aware of the problem at hand and are making progress toward promoting gender equality in the industry. One of the most well-known movements for improving the gender balance in ad agencies is the 3% Movement. Originally named after the industry percentage of women creative directors in 2008, the 3% Movement’s mission is to “find the best people, so we can make the best work, and ultimately, the best profit” when hiring more women and people of color. The advocacy organization has made waves in the industry by coordinating national and international conferences, mentorship programs, and consulting work and research. Token Man, another program specifically working to end the creative director gender gap, aims to make men more aware of the challenges that their female colleagues face. Through interviews, training, editorials, and leadership events, Token Man teams convey to businessmen what it would be like to be the only man in the room, a circumstance that women face every day.

There are numerous reasons why advertising agencies should be hiring more women, but perhaps the most compelling argument is that women make up a huge portion of all consumers. Women control over 80% of purchasing decisions and account for over $20 trillion in annual consumer spending. Even those with the most limited knowledge of marketing can see that this is a market segment that should be catered to. So with this being the case, why is it that 90% of women in a 2016 study said that they are not connecting to the advertisements geared toward them? It all leads back to the lack of women in creative positions. Men are creating a huge proportion of all ads, meaning they also create a high percentage of ads for women.

By overlooking women leaders and letting gender inequality remain, firms are only hurting themselves. It has been confirmed that there is a relationship between companies with women and minorities in their upper ranks and better financial performance, a phenomenon referred to as the “diversity dividend.” Firms that take steps to protect and promote women, and implement better family practices, are more likely to retain employees of all genders. While keeping things the way they have always been may seem like an easier option, advertising firms and creative departments that become better employers for women will be more successful overall.