This Conference Wants To Reward Advertising Agencies That Promote Gender Equality


Ok this is a seriously awesome program that everyone needs to know about! The 3% Conference began in 2012 and was started by creative director Kat Gordon, who has worked in the advertising industry for 20 years. During her career she learned many things about how this industry can have a major impact on the messages that consumers see, and how it is lacking.

The main issue she felt advertising agencies weren’t addressing was gender inequality within their own work spaces. This revelation came from years of experience and noticing the trend of women being left out of pitches and important meetings. A conference website description says her “ah-ha” moment came one day when the agency she worked for pitched and idea to Saab with 16 men and only 1 women, yet they were baffled as to why they didn’t get the account. We aren’t told what other factors may have been involved in that decision, or how many women worked at the company for there to be such a gender disparity, but we don’t live in a ‘Mad Men’ era and this type of inequality shouldn’t be happening.

The 3% Conference was launched in the Fall of 2012 and saw roughly 800 advertising industry folk come to hear from a range of experts and speakers talk about how they can even out the gender balance in order to best serve the needs of clients, and in turn consumers (hey, that’s us!).

At the time of the launch, the total number of female creative directors in the US advertising industry capped out at a meager 3%. Today it has grown to 11%, but clearly that number is a long way from being equal.

The reason Kat and her organization believe this is an important issue to focus on, is simply down to numbers. The female consumer is a very powerful entity yet the advertising industry is not necessarily reflecting that in the creative leadership choices they make, meaning it is mostly men deciding what women should buy and consume.


“There are only three consumer categories where men dominate purchases, yet agencies still talk about ‘women’s accounts’ as mops and makeup. The truth is that women are the superset, not the subset, and the rate at which women are amassing wealth and exerting influence is unprecedented. Yet the work that is supposed to motivate them springs almost entirely from a male perspective. The advertising business is a $33 billion industry. Misunderstanding female consumers, from a business perspective, is sheer lunacy,” she says on the website.

Their mantra is diversity and and creativity equals profitability. They hold events, use market research, work with other big organizations such as Lean In, and engage in the wider advertising community through social media in order to help move the needle when it comes to women in creative leadership positions in the industry.

What we love most about their mission is that they eventually want to “put themselves out of business” as stated on their site. They want to get the industry to a place where advocacy for gender equality is no longer needed. We love that!

So at the 4th annual conference held in New York this year, they announced an important program that could continue moving that 11% upward. They have introduced a certification program that will reward agencies which set out to change the gender imbalance by taking actionable steps.

Any agency can apply to be certified, and 3% will work with them to come up with realistic goals and find effective measures to make it happen. They will also look at their salary breakdown and the number of male and female employees in leadership positions in order to make an assessment. If the agency can start hitting their personalized target goals, they will then become certified.

It is not a mandatory certification by any means, but given how influential the 3% Conference has become in the industry since its inception, we have a sneaking suspicion this could be a very effective way not only to implement gender equality, bu also have a trickle down effect in the work they are doing.


“By earning that [certification], you’re sending the message out that says, ‘Hey, this is an agency that really honors and respects diversity, honors and respects respects women,’ and that is a talent-acquisition tool like there is none,” said Accelerating Women founder and CEO Lisen Stromberg to AdWeek.

The impetus for the certification program came from a study the organization conducted which showed them more women in leadership positions led to happier and more balanced work places. The study asked 328 women from leading advertising agencies what they wanted to improve in their companies. It showed that while 56% of women reported they were making an adequate salary ($100,000 a year or more) and 78% stated they were satisfied with their current roles, 30% have no female leaders to look up to. An additional 60% reported that their agency was below the new standard of 11% of females holding creative director roles.

Not surprisingly, at agencies where women make up at least a quarter of the creative leadership, women reported higher levels of job satisfaction, better pay and fewer instances of discrimination than other agencies.

“Integration of data and the importance of having analytics to drive what we are talking about just became much more important. It became less abstract and more concrete. We were able to track what happens when the leadership ratio goes up a bit, and we’re seeing a real impact,” said TWTW Companies president Erin Carpenter.

We know that the idea of quotas, or any form of gender equality mandate can make some feel uncomfortable. We have no doubt that most of us agree people in positions of leadership have to be chosen on merit, not on gender. But under that umbrella, when companies look to a more wide-ranging talent pool and consider women and minorities, they are not just looking for the best person for the job but are also looking for a candidate who can bring diverse and unique ideas to the table, something which can hardly be achieved if an entire boardroom is filled with straight, white men.


So how does this affect us as consumers? Whether you care about advertising or not, if affects all of us. Advertising influences the everyday decisions we make on our purchases, it frames our perceptions of the world, and can also have a profound effect on how we view ourselves.

In her documentary film ‘Killing Us Softly’, Dr. Jean Kilbourne examined the portrayal of women in advertising over the past 20 years and how sexualized and objectified they are. She looks at how “advertising traffics in distorted and destructive ideals of femininity. The film marshals a range of new print and television advertisements to lay bare a stunning pattern of damaging gender stereotypes — images and messages that too often reinforce unrealistic, and unhealthy, perceptions of beauty, perfection, and sexuality” according to the description.

If you want proof of how influential advertising images and messages are to us as consumers, you should watch this video, and also read why this Australian publication started a campaign to implement strict guidelines as to what advertisements can contain in order to prevent young women from being bombarded with negative and damaging messages.

We can rail against “the system”, as many did when Protein World launched a series of “beach body ready” advertisements which were banned from the UK after many people protested they were perpetuating a harmful narrow image of women’s bodies, or we can get right to the root of the problem and celebrate the men and women who are working to make change from the very industry’s core. Yes, men are absolutely a vital part of the 3% Conference’s mission and we are happy to see how they are taking action against gender inequality, because at the end of the day more women in creative positions of leadership in the advertising industry means we as consumers will benefit.

That sounds like a win-win situation. We hope many agencies will agree to take part in their certification program.




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