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Only 3% of Ad Agency Creative Directors Are Women: Is That The Real Problem?

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On Thursday, 28 February, a bunch of talented people from our industry got together to discuss the shocking fact that only 3% of the nation’s advertising creative directors are female. That was put out there with the other big, bold fact… 80% of all household purchases are determined by women.

When you look at that on the surface, it’s an obvious paradox. Surely, with 80% of the purchasing power in the hands of females, we should have more females controlling the output from the advertising agencies that are trying to influence those women? And that would result in better, less condescending advertising, right?


Well, not so fast, my partners in crime.

I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there are many truly talented women in this field, and in the complementing fields of design, PR and marketing. The fact that there aren’t more female creative directors is a real fucking tragedy. Seriously. I’ve written a whole article on the subject. I’m a believer.

But we need to concentrate on the facts being presented to us right now. Yes, only 3% of creative directors are women. There is a greater percentage of women in creative roles within agencies, but again, it’s not equitable. Not even close.

Stats from a comprehensive study done in 2009 (best one I could find, sorry it’s a few years old) show that only 19.1% of creatives in ad agencies are women. And although 46.7% of employees are women, only 16% are in the top roles. Still, it’s all a little better than the paltry 3% that are creative directors. The figures are not good.

And yet, as I analyze all of this, there seems to be an enormous elephant in the room that most people are choosing to overlook. And being the unpopular prick that I am, it seems reasonable that I should point it out.

Question: Who Works with the Ad Agencies?

Corporate America is not quite the same as it was in the 50s. Women make up a sizable chunk of the workforce now, and there are some stats I’d like to share in that regard. You’ve seen the negative figures. But there are positive ones. For instance, the Department of Labor shows that 60% of PR managers are women. And better yet, 61.1% of advertising and promotions managers are women. Andy Dougan, group account director of KLP, said back in 2009 that “there is a 60/40 split of women to men. We’re seeing more and more women come into the marketing industry and they are climbing the ranks too”.

Anyone here think that in the last three years, women suddenly left the marketing and advertising workforce in droves?

From personal experience, most of the meetings I’m in, with various clients spanning many different industries, are dominated by women.

As a creative, draw upon your own experiences. How many client meeting have you been in that were made up of just men? I can’t remember one. I can remember thinking, “Wow, why are most of the creatives men, but most of the clients women?”

I don’t have the answer. I’m not claiming to know why. But here’s what this is leading up to.

The BIG Question: Who’s Buying the Ads Aimed at Women?

Answer: It’s NOT the creative directors. It’s the client.

And most clients employ more women than men.

Let’s backtrack a little.

When I started my career at the tender age of 21, there were two female teams in the agency. There were two teams that were mixed. And there were seven all male teams. I suspect that was a better batting average than most agencies at that time.


The female teams were put on female accounts, because it was felt that they knew the products better, would have an affinity with the client, and would be more comfortable on the accounts.

I saw great campaign after great campaign get rejected. The male teams had a crack. Same story. The female clients in charge of these accounts were not out to do radical work, redefining the industry. They wanted the same old shit. And they got it.

The male creative director pushed for the most interesting work. The work that resonated most with the women in our own agency and, dare I say it, with focus groups. It was killed. Seriously beaten to death.

After months of reworking, the end result was bland, vanilla vomit. The sort of manure that includes women parachuting when they’re on their periods, and female friends discussing life over a pot of fucking yogurt.

Fast-forward to today, and it’s still going on. Ads aimed at women, created by women, bought by women, are just as crap as ads aimed at women, done by men and bought by men.

Remember the failed TV show The Pitch? (Well, it should have failed.) There was an all female agency on that one—Womenkind. Female creative director, female creatives, female account teams. They knew just how to market to women. They were inside women’s heads. They did better work than DIGO, their male competitors, for C Wonder.

They lost the pitch.

Now, in all fairness the head of C Wonder was a man. A complete douchebag of the first order, although his executive marketing team was a mix of men and women.

But this is the real problem.

Clients, by and large, are afraid of change, they don’t like to rock the boat, and they don’t want something that hasn’t been done before.

If we reversed the 3% tomorrow, and 97% of creative directors in this country were female, do you think we would see a vast shift in the way we advertise to women?


Clients buy more shit work than good. They ask for more mediocre campaigns than breakthrough ideas.

Always have. Always will.

At the end of the day, ad agencies will always bow to the whims of the clients, to keep the account.

No amount of women in the creative department will ever change that.

This is a cross-post from The Denver Egotist.

Felix is a site contributor, ranter and curmudgeon for The Denver Egotist. He’s been in the ad game a long time, but he’s still young enough to know he doesn’t know everything. If he uses the f-bomb from time-to-time, forgive him. Sometimes, when you’re ranting, no other word will do. In his spare time, he does not torture small animals. He's been known, on occasion, to drink alcohol by the gallon. Do as he says, not as he does.

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