Women in Advertising: San Francisco (Part 1)

By Egotist / /

It’s a topic that seems to come up all the time and create quite a bit of discussion – women in advertising. But no one ever seems to have the answers for why they’re underrepresented, especially in creative departments nation wide. So we sat down with five veteran SF ad women and got their take on the problem, discussed whether the Bay Area is any different, and talked about what we should do about it as an industry (if anything).

Linda Harless is an Associate Partner and Director of Creative Resources at Goodby Silverstein & Partners. She was the 16th employee of a company that’s currently more than 800.

Shira Bogart is a Group Creative Director at AKQA whose work has been recognized in The One Show, The Clio’s, Communication Arts, Archive Magazine, Cannes, The London International Show and the Icon Awards.

Jaime Robinson is a Creative Director at Pereira & O’Dell. Her résumé includes the first social film – “Inside” for Intel and Toshiba and the award-winning LEGO CL!CK campaign.

Kat Gordon is Founder and Creative Director at Maternal Instinct, an agency that specializes in the mom market. She is also the creator of The 3% Conference, highlighting the importance of female creative directors.

Cathy Campbell is a long-time San Francisco freelance Creative Director who has graced many local agencies including TBWA/Chiat Day, Digitas and Saatchi & Saatchi.

Ok, let’s start off not assuming anything and cut to the chase: Do you feel like women are underrepresented in advertising as a whole? And do you think the Bay Area is any different in that regard – for better or worse?

SHIRA: It depends. On the agency, city and discipline. As you mention later, women often dominate Account Services and Media, but have a more meager showing in Creative.

San Francisco is its own species. Equality and possibility are in our DNA, so it’s not surprising to see women have a meaningful presence in agencies. Women are provided opportunity here. It’s up to us to accept the challenge. It’s just that sometimes we don’t want to.

CATHY: Yes, women are underrepresented in advertising. And no, I don’t think the Bay Area is any better or worse.

JAIME: Underrepresented in advertising as a whole? No. Creative departments? Probably. As the guys with their names on the door? Clearly. I feel like the gender make up in Bay Area advertising is probably on par with the rest of the advertising world.

KAT: The lack of women is especially pronounced in creative departments. And I have a hunch that the Bay Area is neither better nor worse than other cities. I interviewed two female CDs in Europe this summer – one in Paris and one in London – and the same gender inequity exist there.

LINDA: I do think that there are fewer women in this business than men. I’ve never done any polls to support my impression but I do feel there are significantly fewer women across all disciplines. But I also believe that there are fewer women in the business world in general, especially at higher levels of responsibility. I would guess that the Bay Area is typical of the rest of the country and not particularly better or worse.

Now the tough question: Why?

KAT: You mean other than because women aren’t as creative as men? (That theory always makes me laugh.)

I see two key reasons that keep women out of advertising creative departments. The vampire hours of advertising simply aren’t family-friendly. Since most women are eligible to be CDs around the time they want to have kids, many of them “lifestyle” out. Midnight concept sessions simply don’t work with the rhythms of a young family. In 2009, an Ad Age article revealed that there are no American female ECDs who have both a husband and kids. And in 2008, just one advertising agency (Arnold) appeared in Working Mother magazine’s list of “100 Best Companies”.

Secondly, I have a hunch that certain guys are more comfortable doing concept work with other guys, letting them blurt stuff out with no edit filter. And they should! What they need to realize is that really creative women can be just as rude and brilliant as guys. We aren’t easily offended.

JAIME: There are a lot of theories floating around. The one closest to my heart these days is the one that Neil French famously got a lot of shit for mentioning a couple of years ago. Something to the effect that, at some point, women want to “go suckle something.” Man, that guy had a point! He was burned in effigy but I’ll tell you this: I have two small babies. They are the light of my life. And they make my job really difficult to do. Not impossible, though. Just really difficult. For a lot of people, “really difficult” for advertising isn’t worth it. But, I happen to get a kick out of this job. I’ll make up for it by sleeping less. For me, sleep is way, way less important than both my amazing family and the job I love doing.

Of course, it helps to be at a point in your career where companies and co-workers will make sacrifices because they really value the work that you, specifically, do. In theory, I have four-day work week at Pereira O’Dell, something I worked out with PJ and Andrew so that I can spend more time with my little girls. Do I actually have Fridays completely off? Occasionally. But most Fridays are a combination of me working from home for a few hours and spending a few hours with the kids. Of course, some Fridays I have to travel. And that opens a whole different can of worms. My husband is a Creative Director, too. He travels a lot. Sometimes our travel schedules create a perfect storm and it gets a little hairy. So, maybe one of our parents flies in to watch the kids. Or, one of us figures out a way to do it remotely. Our biggest fights have always been about who “gets” to work late. Our non-advertising friends think we’re nuts.

SHIRA: It’s a tough business. The hours are long, the clients are demanding and the deadlines get shorter and shorter. It’s hard to get in. And even harder to stay in. It takes perseverance and a touch of insanity to embrace the lifestyle. And in the end, you need a lot of balls, especially if you’re a woman. Add in a family and sometimes women just need to cry Uncle.

Anecdotally, it seems like women are at least somewhat represented in areas like account management, media and public relations. But what about the creative department?

JAIME: I am not sure why a lot of women pick those areas to go into. I respect their choices, though. If they love working in those departments, great! I wouldn’t want to be there. Poor account people have the hardest job on the planet. Everybody yells at them. Media people have all of those color-coded charts that give me a headache. PR seems like a fun thing to do, but it rarely involves working with orangutans. As a creative, I’ve been lucky to have 2 orangutan shoots under my belt!

CATHY: A few reasons:

1. The nature of women the nature of men. (I’m sure this will be condemned as sexist, but has been proven by behavioral scientists.) Women are collaborative by nature, men are competitive by nature. This is a business that rewards the latter. A stronger desire to be better, stronger, faster is the goal. Not to all move up together. “Winning” wins. Especially in the creative department. The reason more women are broadcast producers and PMs and such? They are the den mothers that take care of everyone and keep the group moving forward.

2. Again, this is probably sexist, but as soon as I became a mom, my priorities changed. The drive to be at the top of the creative heap, and the bandwidth required to do so instantly diminished. I was always the one in the creative department rolling my eyes when the moms in the group had to dash out of the office early to pick up their kid. Staying all night if necessary was always the price of entry for being the best creatively. If you are not willing to pay that price, sorry. (I still believe this. As much as I’d RATHER go home to be with my kid, I know the price is often that I don’t get the coolest creative projects, and I’ll never be the cool creative gal. I do have a few friends who ARE the cool creative gals. They have stay-at-home husbands.)

3. This last one is the result of the first two. Because historically men have been viewed as “better” there is a slight bias toward assuming that they will, in fact be. This is changing however. (Hmm, an interesting experiment: Take the exact same creative book, assign it to a male AND a female, and see who gets more interest.)

LINDA: The most intensely competitive years coincide with childbearing years. That means tough decisions and more pressure for life/work balance. Having children keeps women from their jobs longer than it does men, and means coming back to a new set of competitors, new partnerships with new and compelling distractions. I think there may be less tolerance of gender discrimination in our industry than others. But it definitely exists.

SHIRA: I began my career the only girl in a sea of men – talking sport, competing in annoyingly witty banter, and hot girl spotting over lunch. It was a boys club and I loved it. But not all women do.

The women creatives who survive have an inner strength. They can separate work from self and don’t take their failures personally. They can navigate the stress and create balance, even with the demanding schedule. They can play with the boys without giving up their femininity. But most importantly, they can write, think and design like guys.

I find this less true in Digital and Design shops, where you find a higher concentration of women. Both require a broader range of styles, so women can find their fit and grow. In fact, at AKQA SF, we stand mighty at 4 female Creative Directors and in NYC/DC women hold down half the creative leadership positions.

What kind of changes (again, for better or worse) have you seen in regards to women creatives through the years?

SHIRA: Women are Creative Directors. Young women begin their careers knowing there is a path to the top. The twenty-something girls in my department often admit they are as inspired by my position, as they are by my creativity and leadership. They can see the breadcrumb trail to success and it gives them hope. They are looking at advertising long-term.

I also think the bitch vs. flirt wars have taken a reprieve. About a decade ago, there was a mantra circling estrogens clouds across the country, ‘They either need to fear you or want to f**k you.’ Happy to say, I find most creative women today surviving on talent.

CATHY: They are getting better, bolder and more outspoken. Just read an interesting interview on Susan Credle and she made some comments that I would never have expected a few years ago. Women are more emboldened to tell it like it is. Is it the Chelsea Handler effect?

JAIME: I’m not sure if it’s a “through the years” thing or a seniority thing. For most of my creative life, I didn’t think much about it. I just really wanted to be the one who cracked the brief. Sometimes I was. Sometimes, somebody else thought up something better. But that was more than enough to keep me up late at night, without having to have hang-ups about being a woman, too.


Right now, at this level, I think it’s actually a benefit. I mean, YOU care about what I have to say on the matter. Why? I guess female CDs are a fairly rare breed. And what happens to rare breeds? They get skinned and turned into coats. No, that’s not right. I meant to say they become a commodity.

LINDA: The most exciting change I’ve seen over the years is in the degree of shared involvement in home and family responsibilities. Also flex time, shorter workweeks, childcare, nursing rooms for new moms, and the acceptance of working from home are more common.

We don’t think anyone is claiming that all creative departments are outright sexist, but have you seen smaller, more subtle things that people might not even realize are happening? (Example: women only given the opportunity to work on women’s products.)

JAIME: The easiest and dumbest thing a Creative Director can do is typecast for their assignments. And of course, it happens all the time. It’s easy, because you can pretty much guess what kind of work you’re going to get when you put someone on an assignment specifically because of their gender/race/age/personality-type. But that’s why it’s also so dumb. Creatives aren’t stupid. They know they’ve been typecast, and they don’t want to let you down. So they give you the kind of work that you are expecting. Expected.

It seems to me that the work that gets famous is the work that comes out of left field. The stuff that makes you say, “WTF? Where the hell did they get that idea????” What’s cool about what we do are the surprises. Don’t you want to be surprised?

LINDA: More consideration is given to experience and general knowledge of a category than to whether it’s a men’s or women’s product. I think it’s more about common sense than sexism.

SHIRA: For the record, I love men. They have raised me throughout my career. They have championed me. And battled me. But I was often the exception.

Women have to present themselves differently to win trust. When a guy stands up for his idea, he’s viewed as passionate. When a woman does, she’s being difficult. Many male CDs are also often paralyzed by the perceived effort it takes to tell a woman her idea is bad. I remember at my second agency overhearing a guy bring a book into the ECD’s office and tell him, ‘she’s not a real girl, she’s one of the guys, like Shira.’ Apparently, that was a selling point.

CATHY: Not really. As noted above though, when all the creative superstars are men, one just assumes that the top talent will be male. And that the winning work will be created by males. For a huge new biz presentation or project, I think any ECD will assign the best or more appropriate team, male or female. The stakes are too high and competition too tough not to.

KAT: I think the real myopia is that too few agencies realize that “women’s products” are cars, banks, airlines, and healthcare. Female consumers make 85% of household spending decisions. I have seen an agency pitch a car account with an all-male team, then shake their head when they didn’t get the business. It truly never dawned on them that the client (a Swedish car company) might have seen their pitch team as ill equipped to speak to their audience of buyers.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of the interview.