“You take what is flowing down the testosterone train or get left behind”
Is advertising agency culture so ‘pro-bro’ that it ends up becoming ‘anti-woman’?
In the past few years, more and more women have been appointed to helm departments and agencies, and the ad agency world has been patting itself on the collective back, trumpeting these gains of female leaders in the industry. At the same time, awareness of the lack of female representation and the outright discrimination women have faced over the years has begun to grow, thanks to entities like the 3% Conference, the efforts of Cindy Gallop, the work of the 4As, and some public bad behavior examples by male ad executives— all of which had the collective effect of bringing the conversation about women in advertising to the fore.
But while the glass ceilings of leadership had been broken in the past few years, awareness of representation issues had risen, and knowledge of bald-faced discrimination had grown— day-to-day life on the ground floors of advertising seemed to stay subterranean for many women I knew in the business— feeling more like a windowless den or sports bar, the kind of place where “the guys” hung out all day. Despite all the gains, ad agency culture still seemed to be staying the same. In different cities and types of agencies across the country, the culture of advertising seemed to make itself plain: invite one to participate by being “one of the guys,” or be left to feel outside of it.
Over the years I worked in the business, it had seemed one of the best ways for women to be valued was to “bro” it up, too. The more senior women (who were successful in being recognized and rewarded during the most discriminatory decades of the past), seemed able to succeed by playing along with— and being a part of— a “guys-guy” culture. Many of the older women I’d met over the years with letters in their titles were sarcastic, cutting, no-nonsense ladies who were the first to laugh at a colleague’s borderline-offensive joke, and could sling a discriminatory slight like champions. This might not have been true to their preferred mode of behavior, but it seemed to us younger women a natural inevitability— what happens when women are immersed in a masculine company culture that prizes masculine values and personalities, modes of thinking, and ways of behaving.
And what if women didn’t want to go along with, or even be a part OF, any culture that was “all-bro-most-of-the-time”? I had heard personal stories in my years in the business from female friends and colleagues about the consequences of being viewed as an ‘outsider’— amounting to ‘major shade’— for instance, being left out of plumb assignments, not invited to the informal bonding of drinks or dinners, and shut out of decision-making meetings. The culture of the ad agency seemed to have power to either give influence (to those “in) or take away influence (to those “out”)— the effect of which, it seemed to me, might amount to something that could hold women back in a more day-to-day, insidious manner than even outright discrimination.
As a strategist, I know that my own observations, and that of my female friends— did not represent everyone’s reality. However, as a researcher, I also knew that lived experience is often where compelling research questions are generated from— and I found myself coming back to some key questions over and over in my mind: I wanted to understand ad agency culture as an undercurrent that flows beneath the daily lives of women in the business. Was agency culture really perceived as “bro”-ish and masculine by women? If a “bro” culture existed in agencies, did it contribute (on top of plain discrimination, cronyism, and lack of representation) to the thinning of women in agencies over time, and in the executive ranks— not just by preventing women from being promoted upward, but by actually preventing them from wanting to, forcing opt-out? Did women want to (or have to) tolerate a culture that tends toward the masculine, even if that might be antithetical to their personal beliefs and values?
I approached the 3% Conference about partnering on this project, and offered to conduct qualitative research delving into ad agency culture. As part of this effort, I spoke to 20 women across the country, with the help of strategist Jennifer Hunley. We spoke to women up and down the ranks, from junior level to executive level, and to women in all roles with in the agency world (project managers to account to strategy to creative to media). The stories of twenty women were each unique, and yet, had some similar themes— each with something to say about ad agency culture and the way it had impacted them and their professional (and personal) lives. When I initially began the project, I was energized and enthusiastic— and don’t mind sharing that after hearing women’s stories about the perils of agency culture, I felt a bit deflated upon finishing it.
Here’s what we learned, in 4 main summarized points— after which, I share many (unattributed for protection) supporting quotes and anecdotes from the women I spoke to, so you can hear their voices and perspectives directly.
Day-to-day ad agency culture is a strong force, and a reminder to women that they are not as welcome in this particular business as men, by telegraphing they don’t completely belong. While not as forward as the outright discrimination reported in the quantitative studies done by the 4As and The Elephant on Madison Avenue, ad agency culture is a more insidious undercurrent that affects women daily. The people we spoke to reported agency culture is so defined and persistent that you’re either “IN” or “OUT”– with little inbetween. Even when hiring, candidates are routinely screened for “fit” and how they will mesh with the culture– are they like the rest of the people in the agency? Or will they stand out and contrast? Then, once on-boarded, employees are opted-in to the attitudes, rituals, and behaviors of their agency. This issue of “fit” within agency culture, as reported by the women we spoke with, seems to not just impact women’s ability to RISE within ad agencies, but also their DESIRE to rise within ad agencies, as not only do women feel they MUST participate in the culture to be accepted, appreciated, and rise– but they also feel their personality and personal values are NOT akin to it, meaning they feel an internal conflict about “fitting in” to the culture.
Ad agencies tend to hire folks that will be a “fit” for the culture of ad agencies, and that dilutes the ability for anyone to provide an alternate point-of-view
- “We talk too much in recruiting and retention— we use the word ‘fit’ too much. What does it mean if someone is a great ‘fit’? Someone not too sensitive, an extrovert, is very informal with a very quick wit, from a humor standpoint will lead with sarcasm— not wholesome, cause they are not gonna fit if they are— regardless of department… The snobbishness and the attitude kicks in— there is a clubbish-ness to it. Are we good enough to be in the club?”
- “The same modeling, we hire people who are similar to us. I really think a lot of people do NOT pay attention to anything but ‘fit’ when they are hiring’”
The ad agency culture feels very “IN” or “OUT” with not much between— with its own rituals and dynamics that had to be observed or participated in, or else, there are known consequences
- “If you are IN with top leadership, you’re golden, and if they are not, they are OUT of the agency. If you didn’t fit in you were GONE, easily. If you didn’t fall in line, then it stuck out”
- “Ad agency culture was certainly the prime issue for me. I miss the fun and camaraderie, but I detest the insider and outsider politics that are pervasive. If you’re not in the very inner circle, you get crappy projects. I resent that big-time”
- “You have to get ‘in’ so they put you on the good brands and assignments. You learn the people that you have to get to like you so you can work on the good stuff. In order to even work on the account you have to be ‘in’ with the right people.”
- “One would initiate the group smoke break— that was a part of the culture and an expectation, if you did not do it— like high school peer pressure— you would get teased mercilessly”
- “That last account was extremely male-dominated and the epitome and I felt like it was very non-collaborative— and I am collaborative and open and nice, and I didn’t feel like it was welcome there at all. I thought, ‘maybe I need to adjust.’ I felt like I was becoming a shell of a person and no one cared, I didn’t see any mentoring or trying to grow people. It was like they were saying, ‘This is YOUR personality and the environment you need to succeed— cater to us and give us what WE need, don’t care about anything else’”
Women feel they have to participate in agency culture in order to preserve their jobs and careers, despite knowing that at-times, the culture and its attitudes, rituals, and behaviors were not welcoming to women
- “You go along and you try to fit in— be accepted, not rock the boat. The idea is ‘in advertising, we do stuff people would not be able to get away with.’”
- “There were little things the whole time…disgusting things that men said about me that got back to me. Every time I was like ‘not so fast,’ it was like ‘we are going to put you on this other account so you can’t get ahead too fast.’ It was really bad…now that I think about it at this age…it was my first job out of school so I thought it was supposed to be that way.”
- “Expected to laugh along. You lose your job if you are offended by that, you are not… you are labeled as difficult or a bitch. When you are assertive you are a bitch as a female, he’s such a leader. Even if that assertiveness is executed as an emotional child, having a temper tantrum. We are not allowed to do that as women.”
- “Awkward, the worst was just when you do into a creative briefing and the cracking of the jokes, so many female jokes, stripper jokes, and everyone is laughing and they look at you and you are the only woman there and then the ‘oh, sorry’— it is so awkward”
- “Juvenility of it— it was for what it was when it was. You took the bad with the good because you wanted the good. Then it’s not good for you anymore. I grew out of it. You go into a job and then you realize you are good at it and you want to like it and do more with it, but so much is weighing you down”
‘Bro’ culture is a pervasive feeling that describes ad agency culture– women described it metaphorically as a frat house, a college tailgate, a dorm room, or a youthful nightclub. The collegiate metaphor was reinforced because of the immature, bawdy, youthful, boozy, and competitive style of ad agency cultures, and the nightclub metaphor brought light on the 24-7 culture, and the sharp dress and sharp attitude of ‘cool kids’ who are interesting but a bit elitist, with big egos to boot. The personality type most dominant in ad agency culture was described as the Seth Rogan-like persona– a ‘dude’ who is a bit funny, but also juvenile, childish, and immature in a way that slights others– the perfect type of guy to fit in at a college tailgate or to frequent a ‘cool kids’ nightclub; AND the guy that is perfect “fit” for ad agency culture. Beyond this ‘bro’-ism, the day-to-day business modus operandi of agency culture was described in distinctly masculine terms: competitive, bold, and brusque.
‘Bro’ culture is like a fraternity in which male preferences and masculine behaviors and artifacts rule, and membership is closely guarded (and enforced)
- “Like a frat house, sorority house. It is exclusive mentally— if you can’t hang with their goofball, clubhouse, vibe, then you are totally not cool. You probably end up not work on the cooler assignments, the creatives better at playing the game— whatever vibe they establish— and if you don’t play, you get the lesser assignments and you will leave or be laid off… If I was very different, say, than the CD, and they didn’t figure that out in interviews?— I would not be there long. It’s hard to judge that but they want to know, ‘are they a stick in the mud or party animals?’ ”
- “It can be playful, which fuels creativity— but that also goes with immaturity, it’s childlike vs. childish, it is hard to distinguish between them”
- “The culture of taking clients out and the constant sexual innuendo the misogynistic jokes”
- “One of my accounts definitely had a bro culture because of the account director— when he got to the top, there were football games and whiskey and cigars because that is what leadership had in common with him and the client. When it comes to the drinking, they liked to party. And the humor for sure, that is where it goes— women”
- “There is an expectation you are gonna get loaded and let your hair down. It is weird to think about thatIt was a drunk fest… the whole point was to get crazy. Fraternity culture keeps coming to mind. I used to participate in it, as I got older I gravitated toward agencies that were more mature, but there was even still people in their 40s getting into it”
- “Because it is pro-bro it can turn into a frat. It can turn into one if you are not a ‘fit,’ because then you are a problem. If you don’t laugh at the joke, you are uptight. If you dress nicely, ‘what’s up your ass?!’— it is hard to articulate”
- “Men, it was that they were having fun with bro culture, looking for entertainment. But with women, it would be more unspoken and damaging like not getting promoted or getting that opportunity. They were so into their bro culture it became a hostile environment.”
- “You take what is flowing down the testosterone train or get left behind”
The ‘party’ culture of advertising seems to reinforce the ‘fraternity’ effect— some women felt they were forced into party one-upmanship and ‘hanging’ in the lifestyle of agency culture
- “You have to be super brave about hanging, you need to hang at those functions and find a way to be in that club”
- “The more drugs you had done in the past the better, you were and more of a ‘fit’— it is a party atmosphere in general, my Creative Director was thrilled to learn I had done acid.”
- “So much Peter Pan syndrome – it’s so easy not to grow up if you work in advertising. You work 12 hours, miss meals, it’s hard to workout, I wasn’t saving money, I was dating bad people, drinking all the time – I couldn’t become an adult because agency culture didn’t support those things. This might not be true to everyone, but it was for me.”
- “Thinking back to some of those parties, sometimes I felt forced to do things like that— obligation or expectation to do the fun things”
- “The people that lasted the longest those nights are the ones still drinking and still succeeding. They are linked, in my experience”
- “It’s like a dysfunctional substance-abuse ridden family.”
- “Special skills I developed? You mean like, how much I can drink?”
- “In my head it was like a sporting event, a crazy tailgate— it had a social aspect, you are there for a reason and the job is getting done and everyone has a common interest. And like college, you are there to work and learn and then there is this other thing, this play hard part of it. There’s the expectation you go all the way with playing hard— you are NOT standing at a party: I am going to do a funnel”
Inappropriate humor is another hallmark of ‘bro’ culture, with the jokes often getting bawdy and even personal, and as the juvenile antics proceed, they can lead to women feeling demeaned
- “Definitely a lot of young, humor, where it is basically dirty and suggestive, and that can be… Party edge, and dirty jokes, and poop humor, what would be unbelievably wrong in other places is celebrated in agencies”
- “Casual, lighthearted, dirty-minded, cause there is risqué, a risqué aspect to it”
- “As a young woman in my early 20s, you don’t know what is right or wrong and there are lots of inappropriate things… People speak more freely and it goes to that raunchy place because it’s an easy type of humor. You could see people get uncomfortable”
- “It’s a weird combination because it’s like women can’t be too jokey because then they are silly, or too assertive because then they are controlling. But men get on the phone and tell a couple of dirty jokes and it’s like ‘I love this guy! Give him all of our money!’ It’s a double standard.”
- “Inappropriate humor. it has served me as a tool to work with men… It is disarming to be ‘one of the guys’ in that way— I collect dumb jokes. Like, ‘What did one tampon say to another?’ When you are traveling and shooting the sh*t, build rapport and laugh and joke and show them, I am a safe place. Men are afraid a bit of women, I don’t want to be THAT women… That is how I have navigated as I have gone along”
Competitiveness and combativeness are parts of agency culture that can tend to be rewarded, especially in the creative department— and this bold and brash modus operandi in doing business is not something women are always comfortable exhibiting, or even being around
- “I don’t feel totally comfortable in that agency playground. You have to be bold and you have to fight and show passion and that is something that women are a little more mellow and open-minded, and I may really believe in my idea— but I don’t think it is the only way. I want to see what other teams have done. That’s not how men go about it. You have to believe in your idea and be confident and that is great. They push and push and push and push and in some places, that is rewarded— a very masculine trait, I think”
- “Definitely competitive, it depends on the area and the team, creative or analytics or media there are some different personalities, but competitive comes to mind the most”
- “Driven to create the best work and freshest and edgiest work, and there is a lot of passion and subjectivity, and that makes it a culture where it is more about playing the game and push hard, you have to be bold. So that is rewarded, for example, in general”
- “I remember the knock-down drag-out arguments that came from the President’s office when the C-suite and some of the high-level execs would stomp down the hallways. I would just think, ‘Oh boy, sh*t is gonna hit the fan now.’ It is competitive and combative”
- “Competitive, I am super-competitive with MYSELF and that has always been the case, I want to be the best I can be— NOT beat anyone else. Creatively, among the guys, there is MY WAY: this BEAT her and GOT PICKED, and hers didn’t. They tend to be more competitive with others, men”
‘Bro’ culture is not anti-woman by definition, but it definitely leaves many women feeling on the outside of it— women largely feel the men in the agency are not intentional slighting them, but feel the unintentional consequences nonetheless (acutely)
- “It is the obliviousness of guys— they don’t realize— at least they are not intentional. It is not even registering, though, that is the worst. The sexist pig, no— it is never overt. Now it is passive sexism”
- “That whole misogyny and neanderthal mentality and culture that just is so pervasive. Just generally you are in a meeting and dismissed, only female in the room with a super-valid point and dismissed”
- “Everything from the beer after work to the disrespectful, the SVPs on mute [on the phone] and calling the client a ‘f*cking bitch’ and I was thinking, ‘She’s just talking!’”
- “Not much attention was paid to us— we were not IN the meetings where they were arguing about creative direction”
- “Bro culture— there is not a sh*t ton of self-reflection, and they have a non-interest in picking apart norms because the normal way of operation appeals to them”
This ‘bro culture’ feeling, or collective behavioral zeitgeist of ad agencies, is a behavioral direction set by the cultural arbiters of advertising agencies– the Executive Creative Directors, Creative Directors, (ECDs and CDs), and the CEOs (who are almost always all men). More specifically, the ECDs and CDs, are the ARBITERS– the ones who have a unique skillset in the agency and therefore are the unspoken behavioral leads that others follow; and the CEOs who are the ENABLERS– the leadership who let the creatives have a long leash as a result of their specialized role. The ECDs and CDs enjoy this special status as they create and make the work the agency sells– which gives them a revered position culturally, one they often use to throw their weight around both informally and formally. The creative women we spoke to were clear: this power that accrues with creatives does not extend to female creatives.
Women we spoke to across varied departments of advertising felt that the power of the agency, and therefore, the ability to set culture, accrued in the creative department (especially high-up) or in leadership (both positions that are understood to be held by white males in agencies)
- “Usually one person who has the cultural power, and whoever is perceived as coolest of richest. So either the ECD or CEO— they have power, based on the fact that they make decisions for the agency”
- “Where power does accrue— it is white males in creative. And white males in management— women don’t feel comfortable speaking out”
- “If you are in the engine of HR or account or project management, they have NO status— the people who have STATUS are heavily men — creatives and the bosses”
- “By role, the fact that there are so many men in one discipline, and so many women in the other— it heightens that same dynamic; generally, a Creative Director is an older male, so it is easy for them to squash the young female ideas and comments and spirit”
- “I have worked in integrated agencies— even in straight ad agencies, the account people were always women. At some (more junior) levels, it is all ladies— but the white men still own the agencies. And they teach all the college classes”
The power of the creative department to be the cultural ARBITERS of the agency is perceived as being a result of their special skills, and therefore, special status, within the agency— a status they take sometimes advantage of by throwing their weight around
- “The power absolutely lays with the skills… The power goes with the physical abilities that someone else cannot replicate— and that’s who makes the product we sell, creatives. The power, historically, has laid with the skills that are harder to get”
- “The culture of the creative department is a huge aspect of agencies, the agency lives or dies by whatever flavor of work we are looking to create”
- “Culture is driven by creatives. They are still the factory; we have no product to sell. It is like software to developers— we need it to get out the door but we don’t make that”
- “The creative leads—we are looking for creative ideas— they are the King of Kings, the rest of us don’t have those skills and mindset, so you walk on water, especially if you have sold big work or gotten a brand new high-prize client, there is that star sort-of celebrity type personality that treatment, that ‘bow down’: it’s unspoken but it is there”
- “Without them, we didn’t have anything. We didn’t have the work. From my perspective, we tip-toed around them, and that was an expectation. If you didn’t have that skill, you couldn’t expect everyone to adapt to you, you had to figure out the best way to work with everybody. It wasn’t reciprocated, the value of our work was unseen— they got to talk to us however they wanted. It was exhausting maneuvering around the cycles of the creative department”
- “You know if they throw out an idea and you think it is sucks, you don’t challenge a creative lead or director. You CAN challenge them on schedule or budget but never on their ideas. Arrogance and ego that comes from that— a child who is spoiled and can never do anything wrong and never gets in trouble— they can feel protected and certain personalities will take advantage of that”
- “It is how much they can get away with. They are strong personalities, and they are always asking for more”
Agency CEOs are perceived as acting like ENABLERS to the creative department’s ability to set agency culture by excusing ‘bro’ behavior in that department, and also acting as prime models and reinforcers of the competitive and brash parts of agency culture
- “It IS the leadership— the cult of personality and talent— if you are an executive, you are focused on talent and resource poor— your creatives might jump around looking for a better offer. So you think of them as special.”
- “The execs— in general— culture is driven by the leadership communication. Say it, culture— do it— behave that way. They are tremendous ways in which they influence that they do not acknowledge— news and recent lawsuits aside, that is an egregious example. Leaders can keep managers they know are abusive— their style is to scream and yell, which creates a culture of fear, then the leaders talk about ‘we’re a family here, we go for drinks here’”
- “The whole joke about executives have the same brains and sociopaths. They are very intelligent and they are goal-oriented and focused, and they are willing to be the d*ck and a**hole to get stuff done and cut-throat step on somebody, in that male-dominated way. And that is what an organization wants, drive my revenue”
- “I was very senior in the agency. And the CEO was like ‘what I say goes, and I own the relationship with the CMO and whatever he tells me, I’m gonna tell you to do it and you are gonna do it.’ ”
There is an understanding among the women we spoke to that advertising agency culture a somewhat unique brand of culture that does not always mirror other male-dominated industries
- “Men architects don’t come up with sexy, stupid things”
- “There are plenty of men I have as clients, but they couldn’t get away with most of the stuff that agency guys get away with”
- “This stuff would never fly, even in a tech startup with a bunch of programmers and devs”
No matter what level achieved or how long with an agency, women feel they are outside of ad agency culture just because they are being themselves— and they often cite this feeling of out-ness as a reason they might not have moved up the ranks more quickly. They report trying to change themselves to “fit” in better, and adapt their personalities to be more of a cultural fit– making themselves appear more competitive, hard, strong, bawdy, while toning down their more feminine aspects to avoid being negated, or gaining negative kinds of attention. Because women often occupy roles within the ad agency that support or develop the creative work, and because the CDs and ECDs understand and wield their influence– women in agencies sometimes feel like their jobs are simply to EXTRACT the creative work from the CDs and ECDs. This can lead them to the feeling they might occupy three basic roles in agency life, usually in SERVICE of the ECDs or CEOs (usually men): Work Wife (the one who takes care of logistics so men can bring home the bacon), Work Mistress (the sassy and playful, hard-as-nails young co-worker that men have fun with away from home), and Work Mother (the one who whips projects into shape and takes care of men simultaneously).
Women often feel that due to the preponderance of men in the creative roles (which are the engine for the business), their roles are reduced to feeling like they are in support of the creative, or put another way— at the service of the men
- “The role of CD is to be feared and respected as the be-all and end-all of the agency. The implication is their time and attention are more valuable. As an industry, that has been set— that is how it is set up— the funny guys, the creative guys— the rest of us are in service of it.”
- “There’s a lot of learning internal personalities and how to sell things in to them. Stroke their egos a little bit. You gotta lie, bullshit sometimes. It’s knowing your audience and who you’re pandering to.”
- “Who takes notes in a meeting, these behaviors do exist— the ‘housekeeping behaviors’— who gets interrupted more? Absolutely women, no doubt”
- “We are just there to make it happen for them”
To describe this phenomenon of feeling their role was a service-oriented one, women spontaneously used the terminology ‘work wife’ often to describe the way ad agency culture made them feel (and even behave)— like non-threatening, logistical support for the men in power
- “If you are adaptive, upbeat, and energized— we get to be ‘work spouses’ to the middle-aged, older white men. Our feminine energy makes us all an ‘army of work wives’— we help them”
- “I would let a young woman know about the game that can be played— I would tell her to be aware that it is THERE, not to play or not, but it is THERE. Well, so what I would say it is a very cliquish situation and it does not always win, the work, based on the merits of the work— so she will decide how deep she wants to go with going along with that game. It sounds horrible to say that”
- “Anticipate what they want, and if they ask— it is too late. Stand your ground, don’t appear too aggressive, in a super-collaborative way— not antagonizing, show respect— don’t be threatening. They will listen if you are approachable”
Some women, especially women over 30, talked about feeling like ‘work moms’ in their jobs— feeling like their role was to whip everyone into shape and keep everyone on task, while also caring for the men and their interests
- “Mother. My job role, partly, and partly my age. It is universal, there are only a few working mothers. I consciously use that to disarm people. It allows personal conversations to be had, to be more open to hearing feedback— ‘come on let’s talk’ or ‘you know better than this.’ I became aware that this was the perception of me, and I embraced it. I am NOT the cool girl, I am never gonna be— I can be the ‘cool mom’ who is helping us”
- “I have to take care of the dudes and be their mother. Men are reliant on women to do this [play this role].”
- “Trying to be getting things done, I couldn’t even get a conversation without being like ‘CHILDREN! We have work to do’— not to be the party pooper— I felt like I was the bad guy ruining the fun to get anything done. You could get a bad rap if you didn’t know how to poke fun. About an account person, they used to say, she seems so ‘cold’— and I would think, ‘No, she is awesome she just didn’t throw around c*ck and balls jokes.’ If you get along and roll with it, people want to do things for you. If you didn’t connect that way, you got penalized for that.”
Another role women reported sometimes adopting, or being forced into, to ‘play the game’ was that of ‘work mistress,’ a role focused on coercing or coaxing the needed product out of the players with the power by flattering the ego of key constituents (often men)
- “The respect of the ‘dude bros,’ those focused on creative— you have to bust their balls, be… not flirty… but show, some sass— be smart, have good ideas— throw it back at them without humiliating them. Of god, I feel bad even saying this— but you have to grow their esteem, you play the verbal sparring game. They will think, ‘she has spunk— she is sassy’”
- “There were always a few creative guys who couldn’t work with women. Of course, it also cuts the other way— I was in my 20s when I was starting, and a lot of them ONLY wanted to only talk to or listen to the young girl”
- “You have to appeal to their vanity, whatever form that takes… it can be a weapon, obviously, if you make them think or support that makes them feel you will win and award. You can get there usually. I have been known to use that. Vanity.”
The women who were more senior in the industry, who served as de facto role models due to their stature, modeled behavior for younger women that was adaptive to the ad agency culture— and was perceived as hard-edged, brash, and competitive
- “Even women successful in those places, one I know— she has become masculine in her personality— I can see her go in and out of it. She is more understanding, and yet she wears her ‘masculine hat’ on a busy day— but on a slow day, she will be her normal self and check in with me and be like, ‘how are you doing?’. I often wonder. Has she risen where she has, but at the expense of her losing who she really is? And are we all doing that to some degree?”
- “The women I have seen succeed are the women who basically feel very comfortable playing the man’s game. I don’t know how that came to be. You wonder if that’s how she had to survive and make her way up in the good old boys club to fit in. Maybe she was always like that”
Many of the women spoke about adapting their personalities, or attempting to adapt their personalities, to ‘fit’ the ad agency culture, with some feeling they were forcing a square peg into a round hole, and some feeling they were forced to become someone they didn’t want to
- “I feel like a lot of times I feel not very much like myself in the ad agency”
- “I had to change who I was in order to survive. Everything was a battle. I had to yell at people all the time because I was being yelled at all the time. I didn’t even know who I was anymore. I wanted to leave the industry.”
- “I self-taught or learned that I had success in getting things to communicate a certain way, being bitchy… When I had to, I pulled it out”
- “It must have been part of my DNA before but it was not ignited like it was until I have been in an agency. I was always competitive from a young age, the typical rules didn’t apply to me, you can’t tell me ‘no’— but I am telling you, I never dreamed I would be this hard-edged. It has been a finely-honed skill”
- “I made sure I went and sat and watched the (sports) games, if all my colleagues are doing this, then I should participate. I am just barely on the ‘in,’ I stay on the outs a little because I refuse to change who I am for the culture”
- “We can only conform so much, or it leads to unhappiness.”
All of this leaves women feeling like they are NOT a part of agency culture— they feel outside of it, and have some consequence for it: they feel they are penalized by the culture for being themselves: even if they are successful at working WITHIN the culture, they often still don’t feel accepted as a whole part OF the culture
- “I have always felt apart from, and separate from that” (culture)
- “Within the scope of the work I was IN, and I attended the parties… but I didn’t do the flip cup games, so I felt OUT of that kind of thing”
- “The only way I have been able to ‘fit in’ was create my own hole… I could create my own relevance and deliverables and job expectations and manage myself. And here I have done the same thing, but if not for those things, I don’t know that I would have fit”
- “I was in a funny age bracket for a smaller agency, the 20 somethings— and I was 30 and pregnant. The 40 something and up creative men and the 20-somethings did the happy hours. I went home to my husband”
- “There is that outsider complex that grabs hold of women in the creative department way before the guys. The guys go out to lunch every day— there is a clique there. They will have a couple drinks. If you are motivated to work through the lunch hour or you have a different lifestyle, that accidentally excludes you— it is not that they wouldn’t enjoy having you, but here becomes a division. The guys go to lunch and hang out and the women are more focused on working. For example, there are late nights, and the guys almost love that— it’s like finals week all the time— ‘might as well go out to lunch and have a couple beers, cause we will be here late.’ Women, in my experience, don’t want to be there till midnight. The guys have a romanticized ideal— the late nights we will have and bond— but the women don’t want to give as much of their life”
- “For me it was getting too old to do it, and I can’t fake it anymore. Takes too much energy and there is that piece that I know they can see through it, I am not as relevant. I can’t seem interested in beer pong, I have to pick up the kids by 6 I can’t drink beers and stumble home”
- “I felt like, ‘Enough!’ Early in my career, it was fun, relax, and laugh, and have a great time— now, when the whole room is not laughing anymore I am done”
The women we spoke to felt outside ad agency culture far enough, and negated enough as a result, to wonder if their career opportunities were limited by their inability to conform to the ‘bro’ culture of agencies, or to fall in-line with one of their three pre-determined roles: work wife, work mother, or work mistress. Conversely, a few more senior women also volunteered that their rise within ad agencies might have been helped by their ability to ‘play the game’ of ‘bro’ culture
- “I don’t think I was super successful in ad agencies because I was willing to push the envelope a lot and fall on my sword a lot, and it negatively affected my career. Whereas now, it’s what people want me to do all the time. People respect that more so in my current [client side] role.”
- “There is no collaboration— you start to shut up. You stop trying. You can only get ignored or dismissed so many times, which is my least favorite— if you say something valid they act like you are not even in the room, you are a ghost. Why waste your time and energy.”
- “There is low expectation for you to actually bring value. So your opportunities to bring value are less. If you have a good idea or have something powerful and meaningful, but the expectation is you don’t have anything. That’s a stupid girl idea, I am highly exaggerating, but that is the essence. You couldn’t possibly have anything of value to bring to the table.”
- “Maybe I got promoted because I don’t speak up”
In her book, “My Life on the Road,” Gloria Steinem reminisced about a moment when she and others had been working tirelessly for the Adlai Stevenson campaign, when one day, she and the other young women were shunted to an upper floor of the headquarters. On that day, the candidate himself was due to drop by the campaign office, and staffers explained to the young women volunteers that they were not to be seen with the presidential candidate because he couldn’t be seen with any female “unless she was old enough to be his mother.” Her response, upon reflection, was this: “We didn’t object to being hidden away… we didn’t believe we could ever be insiders.”
After completing this research, it seems after all these years and all the gains we have made as women, we still can’t believe we can be ‘insiders’ in ad agencies— and I now believe part of the reason is the implicit and explicit values, behaviors, and modes of operation set forth by ‘bro’ culture within agencies. According to the women we spoke to, these agency cultures are so prominent, and so self-reinforcing, as to make women feel like perpetual outsiders, who must either change themselves to conform, or suffer the consequences of being ‘out’ — which can often be career-limiting, due to the preferential treatment given to those who exemplify the culture enough to be ‘in.’ When women forcibly change themselves to ‘fit’ in the culture, they can feel deep conflict with their own personalities and values— and sadly, even when they adapt enough to continue to rise in the agency ranks— they can still feel they are outsiders, because agency culture is so fraternity-like and ‘pro-bro’ in its day-to-day behaviors, it is clear that women are NOT key or favored players, or “insiders.”
Compounding this, women also had some stories I would end up calling ‘horror stories,’ or ‘war stories,’ because they were so flagrantly sexist, horribly predatory, or just downright cruel. I chose not to publish any of these in this— partly to protect the women who I spoke with from identifying anecdotes, and partly because outright discrimination has been well-documented, and now, quantitatively defined for ad agencies thanks to The Elephant on Madison Avenue results. Also, I did not print them here partly because they were so demoralizing to hear— likely painful to anyone who has experienced something similar. Nearly all twenty women recounted these ‘horror’ stories in detail, which left me wondering if many women in advertising have experienced something as harsh.
This point is usually where pieces like this finish on a positive note, or a ready-made, easy-to-deploy solution, but I’m conflicted about tying this one up with a bow and string. Changing culture is no small thing, it requires concerted effort over years by the people in power, who model behavior and set the cultural agenda— and thereby benefit daily from it. It is the INSIDERS that must work the hardest to shed their own advantage and share the influence with those they have either actively or passively dis-empowered. As a result, motivation to change is low, and as a few women I spoke to pointed out— the advertising business has no financial motivation to invest in fixing ills in its culture because the path to financial benefit is not obvious. (Although if you explore more on the 3% Conference’s site, you will see otherwise).
I guess for now, I’d be contented if someone who was in a position of being an “insider”— a cultural ARBITER or a cultural ENABLER— read the quotes that could be coming from women within their very agencies; and hope they begin to understand what their ‘bro’ culture or jerk behavior or silent assent is doing to the women they work with— yes, Creative Directors and CEOs, I’m talking to you. The 3% Conference has a strict policy against what they call ‘man-bashing,’ and so I promise, the below is not said in anger, but as a plea:
Do you act like a “bro” at your ad agency— and if you aren’t sure, do you act differently than you would act at home with loved ones, in your personal life?
Now, check the behavior you model to others. Are you encouraging the people at your agency to be “bros,” either by acting that way yourself and modeling it, or by tacitly accepting it? Are you pedestalizing your creative leaders, who are mostly men, to the point where they are setting the cultural agenda in a way that either implicitly or explicitly impacts women in negative ways?
If you answered ‘maybe’ or ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you might be losing (or about to lose) some really talented women who are either being pushed out, or opting out of the ad agency ‘bro’ culture, which, whether intentionally or not— can be toxic to them. In the words of the women I spoke to, it’s hard to miss the disappointment, unrest, and out-and-out frustration that simmers and burns, and when reaching a boiling point— might incite a move to adjacent industries or client-side roles to avoid the fraternity-like conventions of daily industry life. A decision to leave the advertising business no-doubt has many factors, but to read the words from women above is to understand that part of that rationale might be to escape the insidious undercurrent of anti-women environments created by ‘pro-bro’ agency cultures.
Addressing outright discrimination is paramount, addressing lack of representation is also a big step in the right direction— but without addressing ad agency culture, I now believe day-to-day life in ad agencies is unlikely to meaningfully change for women.
I want to thank the 20 women who made time and shared their stories with me, and the excellent strategist Jennifer Hunley, who conducted half of these interviews.