The 3 Percent Conference Equals 100 Percent Valuable Conversation

Back when it was first announced and details were scant, I made mention of the 3% Conference, an effort to call attention to the lack of female CDs in the ad industry.

Since that time, conference founder Kat Gordon not only organized a successful conference in 2012, she’s doing it again this year. And she recently took her “Where are all the Donna Drapers?” presentation here to Seattle for an evening which also featured a discussion panel of local CDs. I attended, and I was one of only 5 or 6 guys in a room of 100 or so. (Which is truly is an odd feeling.)

Kat’s presentation is pretty brief but statistic-heavy to back up her assertions: That women are dominant as consumers, social network participants and even gamers, yet woefully underrepresented in agency conference rooms and corporate boardrooms.

She makes a very convincing case, but more than that, it’s clear she’s thought through many of the common criticisms people bring up whenever someone tries to advocate for this issue: That CDs hire the best book, regardless of gender; that more women choose to get off the corporate ladder for family reasons; and that women in creative departments are either too passive or too bitchy vs. being confident and assertive. And she goes to great lengths to insist men aren’t the enemy here.

I won’t get into all those issues — having worked for many (yes, many) female creative directors, I certainly have opinions to share another day.

Admittedly, I came the presentation to see if Kat would touch upon what I’d consider to be the core, thorny issue at the heart of this: The white male dominated award show/industrial complex, and the idea that what often gets considered the best advertising comes from a male perspective. Because for decades now, that perspective has shaped our collective creative output and influences what younger creatives imitate as they find their voices.

Kat does address this, briefly. She uses this Minute Rice ad as an example of smart marketing to women:

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On her blog, she gives it a “Warm Blanket” Award for its resonance with its intended audience. But until more work like this receives equal praise at high-profile awards shows, we won’t see more work like this. Is it the best ad in the world? Probably not. But it’s more resonant than some jerk-off visual solution or something with more attitude — the kind of work that would ordinarily win for a product like Minute Rice. It’s only unworthy of awards because of our industry’s own ingrained awards biases.

As long as middle-aged white guys proclaim themselves the ultimate arbiters of award show worthiness, then vote for their own work and that of their friends to win, the cycle perpetuates itself. And right now, young creatives need to get the credit for their work, win awards, and make a name for themselves in order to advance and make more money. We all play the game in some regard, which means gaming the system and for many female creatives, it means learning to play it like a man. During the discussion, some on the panel and in the crowd acknowledged that they once did ads specifically to win awards, not ads that reflected their own perspective or voice.

Ultimately, this means many female creative directors, and some of the work they’d champion, won’t make much progress. If there are more female CDs throughout the ad industry, and making decisions come award show time, you’d see different kinds of work prevail. And students and juniors entering the industry would look to that work for inspiration. I think it’d be better for advertising all-around and we’d be more valuable to our clients.

But the award show discussion is only a small part of what Kat and the 3% Conference is about. Kat offers other suggestions for clients, agency management, and creatives to help recognize female talent. But it’s entirely possible that the answer won’t come from within the current industry structure. As Cal McAllister of Wexley School for Girls said on the discussion panel, the system was built that way and can’t be fixed — it needs to be broken. Which is why he’s running his own agency his way. Maybe the 3% would be 50% if female creative directors made themselves female agency owners. And then you’ll see real changes.

Find out more about this year’s 3 Percent Conference here.

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About Dan Goldgeier

Blogging on AdPulp since 2005, Dan Goldgeier is a Seattle-based freelance copywriter with experience at advertising agencies across the U.S. He is a graduate of the Creative Circus ad school, and currently teaches at Seattle's School of Visual Concepts. In addition, he is a regular columnist for TalentZoo.com. Dan published the best of his TalentZoo.com columns in a book entitled View From The Cheap Seats: A Broader Look at Advertising, Marketing, Branding, Global Politics, Office Politics, Sexual Politics, and Getting Drunk During a Job Interview. Look for it on Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.

  • Katherine M. Gordon

    Great piece, Dan. And thanks for coming to hear me speak. One fascinating thing about award shows that came out at The 3% Conference was a comment by Karen Mallia, an Advertising Professor. She reported that award shows were initially started so that creatives knew who the other creatives were, in an era before LinkedIn or the Internet. Now that we have countless ways to find/discover one another, what purpose do award shows serve? They are huge money makers for the shows themselves, yet your post bears out a central truth: we’re awarding stuff that a tiny demographic likes, rather than stuff that does what it’s supposed to do: sell to women.

    • DanGoldgeier

      Hi Kat,
      That’s a great observation — nowadays, there are more ways to get yourself known to other creatives. But the shows still maintain a hold on the creative community’s collective definition of great work. I’ll be curious to see how the CLIOs work with more balanced juries next year.