WHERE ARE ALL THE WOMEN? KAT GORDON ON DIVERSITY & WHY WE NEED TO DO BETTER
By Claire Wasserman - Director of Marketing, Working Not Working
"Advertising is broken due to a failure of imagination” - Kat Gordon
Kat Gordon wants to make one thing clear: we are not out of Mad Men yet. A copywriter by trade, Kat's watershed moment came during her Hal Riney days when they lost a pitch to Saab. Reflecting on the team, Kat realized there was one woman among seventeen men. Given that women were the the main purchasers of cars, Kat recognized that the lack of diversity was a business problem, not just a gender issue. And it was deep seated.
But speaking up can be difficult. So when Kat did- fifteen years later- she did it with a bullhorn. The 3% Conference was born with the mission to champion female creativity and make the case that in order for businesses to innovate, in fact survive, they must have diversity. Now in its third year, The 3% Conference, which sees 800 men and women from the agency and brand side gather for an immersive two-day experience, has expanded to "MiniCons" all over the world. However, awareness is merely the first step on the long journey to seeing tangible change.
We spoke to Kat about her personal story and what it takes to grow a conference into a movement. We also learn from Kat how to effectively communicate a message that can be painful for people to hear. According to Kat, much of the responsibility lies with those that hire. As she says, talent is the heartbeat of an agency and it is the greatest thing it has to distinguish it from another: "I think we can all agree that the highest form of output we have is the creative light and heat of our talent. All the things that I see in the agency world that are broken have to do with a failure of seeing that diverse perspectives are the absolute greatest way to ensure that output."
Claire Wasserman: We’ve been aware for a while that in advertising, there is a serious lack of women in senior positions. I'm feeling kind of impatient, like shouldn’t we be there by now?
Kat: It's weird, I feel like part of 3% that is mystifying to me is that there are moments of incredible enlightenment and progress where I see men really being shoulder to shoulder with women and wanting to make change. Then there are these terrible backlash kind of moments. I remember attending The One Show (which had a wonderful female CEO, by the way), where they had these kind of Barbie doll, low-cut dressed women handing out the awards. I remember watching almost all of the people collecting awards were men. I literally stormed out of Lincoln Center before it was over. It felt like a moment in a movie. I walked for blocks and blocks, just so frustrated that we can be having these important dialogues, making important changes, and then this happens. But then there are other moments that are incredibly optimistic and inspiring.
CW: How do we develop our own standards of knowing when to get mad?
Kat: I don't think women need to be given permission to be angry. I had a moment about four years ago on the tennis courts, where I became so infuriated with another player, another woman. My reaction surprised even me. I confronted her, she got in my face, I literally thought we were about to hit each other. It was so out of the realm of my life experience! I came home crying and told my husband the story. It was so valuable to talk to him about it because basically, what he told me was that he grew up playing competitive sports and he had a lot of experience with his own anger. It didn't always happen on the sports field, but that boys and men have more exposure to situations where there might be physical conflict or words exchanged, unpleasantries, and they're able to kind of move past it without them questioning that they should be mad, without them feeling like they've ruined the whole game or whatever.
Now that I'm trying to get more comfortable with my own anger, my own frustration, I always try to think, how can I express it so I feel heard?
It was a really valuable wake-up call to me. I have sons, but I think people who have daughters, especially young girls...anger is a very valid emotion and expressing it is a form of self-care, and I don't think enough women and girls are given permission, so that when the stakes are higher, like at Cannes, when you felt real valid anger, you don't even know where to start to process it because you've never been given the nod from society that that's acceptable. I would say that for me, now that I'm trying to get more comfortable with my own anger, my own frustration, I always try to think, how can I express it so I feel heard?
CW: There can be serious consequences to speaking up, the danger of hurting one's career. How do you prepare yourself, knowing you're going to piss some people off?
Kat: What I hope for younger women is that they get more exposure to situations where they feel validated to express their anger and they feel they can do so in a way where people can hear them. I think one of the reasons we've had a lot of traction is that I've made it very clear that what's happening is unacceptable, but I've done it in a way that includes everyone to be part of the solving of it, so that I'm not alienating anyone. It's not a witch hunt, I don't point out agencies that are lagging behind. Because truthfully, no one is doing well enough. Nobody has knocked diversity and has bragging rights and can stand on the podium and collect the award.
If people disagree with something that I'm doing with 3% I will absolutely listen. But it doesn't mean it negates who I am or that I have to dilute my message to make them more comfortable.
CW: Do you find you change the way you express yourself, depending on what industry or group you’re speaking to?
Kat: You know, part of the beauty of getting older- I’m going to be turning 50 next year- is you just don't care anymore who you offend or if somebody thinks ill of you. It doesn't matter. As long as you're living your life with integrity and you know what's important to you and you are open to other people's perspectives. That being said, if people disagree with something that I'm doing with 3% I will absolutely listen. But it doesn't mean it negates who I am or that I have to dilute my message to make them more comfortable.
CW: You’ve spoken about how advertising loves to reward "those that burn the midnight oil" and how this puts women (or anyone who wants to spend more time with their family), at a disadvantage. You argue that an around-the-clock work ethic is actually contrary to being productive. I love that you put it in business terms, rather than making it a gender issue, so that it allows everyone to get behind it. Do you find that with the rise of freelancing, there is more of an expectation of work-life balance and so companies must do a better job if they want to retain all employees, not just women? Say for example, an unlimited vacation policy.
Kat: There’s definitely growing awareness for considering policies like that, but I also hear that a lot of agencies have a paternity leave, for example, yet no one takes it because they feel they'll be judged or penalized for being slackers if they do. I think we're in the infancy of agencies truly changing the culture. You know you can change the carpeting but before it really gets into the air we breathe and the water we drink, I think it takes time.
CW: Facebook and Apple recently offered to freeze eggs for female employees as part of their benefits package. Do you think this will help recruit and retain more women on staff?
Kat: You can't look at that policy in a vacuum. You have to say to any company offering a benefit like this, tell me more. Tell me what else you do to support women in your workforce, and get really granular. Ask if they've done a wage equity study like Salesforce is doing. Ask about maternity leave and paternity leave. Because if all they're doing is trying to prolong the "single can-work-anytime" employee and prizing that above everything else, then it is a carpet change. Not every woman is going to have children, so that benefit isn't going to end up benefiting all of the women at Facebook, it will be a small segment of them.
CW: "Advertising is broken due to a failure of imagination” is one of my favorite quotes of yours. What do you mean by that?
Kat: The greatest thing that an agency has that distinguishes it from another is its talent: its people and the ideas that those people can birth together. That's it, that’s the heartbeat of an agency. Talent is what makes certain agencies golden and others sleepy. I think we can all agree that the highest form of output we have is the creative light and heat of our talent. All the things that I see in the agency world that are broken have to do with a failure of seeing that diverse perspectives are the absolute greatest way to ensure that output. Everything you read about creativity and productivity and what conditions yield the best output will tell you that the more diverse perspectives weighing in on a problem or creative challenge, the better the output. There was a quote that I read at our London event that said, "If you have two people working together that think alike, then one of them is redundant."
The thing that makes advertising broken is a failure of imagination for how to staff and what to value and what to prize.
CW: Yet homogeneity at agencies persists. Why?
Kat: What happens in agencies is that people want to work with people that they feel comfortable with and they tend to be those that look and think like them. I think there's a fuzzy line around staffing. People staff like they're inviting people to a cocktail party, when they should be staffing about which combination of different souls is going to create the most inspired, novel, nuanced work that will get our clients great results and will get us the attention of the creative world. It's so sad and pitiful. The thing that makes advertising broken is a failure of imagination for how to staff and what to value and what to prize.
If you start to train people to understand that these unlikely combinations are magic and that they shouldn't look for a “girl team”, “a young team” etc; instead, they should look for a team where they've maximized the points of entry for thought.
CW: What is one way companies can start to address the diversity challenge?
Kat: For companies that come to Working Not Working looking for talent, there needs to be a conversation about diversity. Let's say they have a writer and they need an art director to partner with that person. There's not high awareness of the fact that if you have a young woman, it would be great for her to partner with an older man. If you have a straight person, it would be great for them to potentially partner with a gay person. If you start to train people to understand that these unlikely combinations are magic and that they shouldn't look for a “girl team”, “a young team” etc; instead, they should look for a team where they've maximized the points of entry for thought.
It's amazing to me how I need to get that granular sometimes before the lightbulb goes off.
CW: You run an agency, Maternal Instinct, that markets specifically to women. Is there a certain level of education about this demographic that you need to give to your clients?
Kat: It's less of a struggle at Maternal Instinct because I have a point of view about creativity that my clients embrace at the get-go. But I do feel that within the 3% community, which is vast and now global, I'm still amazed at the naïveté of talent officers and recruiters, creative directors and agency presidents at how they should be staffing and why. I had the most unbelievable conversation in New York with a creative director I used to work for many years go, whom I really like. I hadn't seen him in a long time and we were out to dinner and he was asking about the 3% Conference and how it started and he was genuinely intrigued. He kept getting stuck on "Why does it matter if there's more women?" We're having this “Who's on first?” kind of conversation before I realized that I had to say to him, "Oh, well the woman is going to potentially bring different life perspectives, sense of humor, cultural references, than a man." Then he said, "Oh, I never thought of that." He never thought of that because the default setting is male. It's amazing to me how I need to get that granular sometimes before the lightbulb goes off.
If you are someone who's always been partnered with someone of the same race that you are, you should not want that.
CW: Do you find women speak the same language and there’s some translation that needs to happen for men?
Kat: That's a really good question. I would say it's more likely to come from men but it can come from women too. It's very rare. There've been a couple women that have, very few I will say, but there have been a couple of women that have said they don't believe in our movement because, you know, they've made it. It’s usually older women who feel they played by the man's rules so why should anyone else get a break? They're not understanding that they kind of sold out. That it’s not good for business or creativity. I do think sometimes women need that reminder as well. Quite frankly, I also think that white people need that reminder. I mean when I talk about diversity of thought, we're talking right now about gender but if you are someone who's always been partnered with someone of the same race that you are, you should not want that. You should welcome someone that looks different than you, that maybe grew up somewhere different.
We don't have a recruitment problem, we have a retention problem.
CW: What does go into putting together a conference? Where do you begin when you start thinking about next year's conference?
Kat: I begin with our exit survey from last year's conference where we ask attendees what they liked best and why, and what topics they still want to hear about. I spend a lot of time thinking about what my community is clamoring for and where they need guidance. I think about the topics that are ripe for discussion and for different viewpoints, and then I work backwards from there. I put together a skeleton agenda of what I want to address and then I think about who is best suited to talk about these subjects.
I go to a lot of other conferences to kind of scout for speakers, especially the keynoters, people that will just have you sitting straight in your seat and hanging on every word. One of the men that's going to be keynoting this fall, his name is Michael Kimmel, and he was just amazing at the TEDWomen Conference. I kind of cornered him at the break after and said, "You have to come deliver that speech to The 3% Conference."
CW: I know your focus has traditionally been on advertising agencies, where do brands fit into this?
Kat: The genesis of the 3% Conference always included brands. I didn’t start the conference as an activist movement or because it wasn’t fair that more women weren’t at agencies. I was simply horrified by the way female consumers were being spoken to or ignored. I felt that brands were getting gypped. If they knew that their agencies were so homogeneous and that their consumer marketplace looked nothing like that, they would be outraged. The more brands that have awareness should demand diversity from their agency partners. They're paying the bill.
CW: Tell us about the mini conferences and the future of The 3%.
Kat: My goal with the 3%, and what we’ve actually became, is to call ourselves the 3% Movement rather than the 3% Conference. And we’ve done that with the the Minicons, which basically are these one-day conferences, that we've brought to cities all over the US. My aim is not only to get more people to become foot soldiers in this crusade but as a student of advertising myself, to listen to what I’m hearing. And what I've been hearing is that the agencies are desperate for some kind of benchmarks. They don't really know how to start auditing themselves, how they compare to other agencies. Questions I get very regularly are, “Who’s doing it right, who's doing it better, who do you hold up as the example, the agency that gets it?”
The whole purpose of this research that we're doing right now is to find out the precise ways that women are saying to agencies, "You want to keep me? Here's how.” Because again, we don't have a recruitment problem, we have a retention problem.
CW: So you'll go into agencies and give them a sort of gender audit?
Kat: What I'm doing is taking what I'm seeing, taking what I know, taking what our survey is bearing out and creating a certification program for agencies where we can come in and help agencies audit themselves and help them index themselves. How are they doing on this issue? What are the particular places they're falling down? How could we help to support them so they'll become a better, more diverse employer?
The conferences have been amazing, they've birthed a phenomenal community, and I've been really proud of everything we've done. However, they're very tiring to plan and the amount of work I have to put into a two-day event that touches 800 people is enormous. So this certification will enable me to touch tens of thousands of people in a way that will meaningfully move the needle on this issue.
CW: One of your first jobs was Cosmopolitan Magazine and then at Sports Illustrated. What was it like going from such a female to male brand?
Kat: That was less jarring than going from working at Hearst Magazines to Time Inc. Hearst was, and I don't know if it's changed since then, but when people heard I worked at Cosmopolitan Magazine, they imagined this grand marble lobby and chandeliers and this very kind of girly, ritzy environment, and when I worked there, the place was a dump, quite frankly. There were boxes everywhere, the offices hadn't been updated in forever, they didn't pay very well. Going to Sports Illustrated meant working for Time Inc. which really was a phenomenal company, the way it treated its people, the benefits, and the creature comforts, quite frankly. I was 23 or 24 years old when they hired me and I had a gorgeous office on the 29th floor of this building, with a big window looking out over midtown Manhattan. Those things don't matter to me as trappings, but it's so much nicer when you're a creative person when you work in an environment that is pleasant to be in everyday.
CW: For anyone concerned this topic, what are some resources you can recommend?
Kat: Being a smart user of social media exposes you to a lot of different people regardless of geography. So I would encourage your community to really participate in social media, especially Twitter. The whole point of Twitter is to find like-minded people and I want to submit, people that think very differently than you. It’s always good to question your own thinking and expose yourself to other ways of thinking.
I think women need to really listen to how they feel honest expressing who they are. There are so many different ways to make a contribution in the world and no two ways will look exactly the same.
CW: What's a common misconception about you?
Kat: I met somebody recently who had heard a lot about me (and this was a very powerful woman) and we were talking for a while. Then she interrupted me in the middle of a sentence, like I was just kind of talking and she just blurted out, "You are nothing like I thought you were going to be."
CW: Did she expect you to be like Cindy Gallop?
Kat: Yeah, we love Cindy Gallop. But there's so many different styles of female leadership. So I don't think I change my skin depending on where I am but I have started to understand that I have a much quieter brand of leadership yet it is no less powerful than someone like a Cindy Gallop. I think women need to really listen to how they feel honest expressing who they are. There are so many different ways to make a contribution in the world and no two ways will look exactly the same.
CW: What would you like to see the conference grow into?
Kat: I would like to put myself out of a job.