The 3% Solution

  • by October 23, 2013
"It's not that we are women. It's that we are not men, we are the other,” said Cindy Gallop, founder of, speaking of the agency world, and firing up the audience, 400-women strong, at The 3% Conference last week in San Francisco.
“We are not men” has a catchy, Devo-ish ring to it, but Gallop went on to explain that given the reality of 21st century demographics, treating people of color and women as “the other” is a huge business problem. “If you start an ad agency today with an all-male founder/leadership team, you’re screwed. You will not own the future,” she said. Because that’s not what contemporary America -- and the rest of the world -- looks like.
Named for the woefully feeble percentage of creative directors in advertising who are women, The 3% Conference was founded last year by creative director Kat Gordon to  name and recognize  the problem, as a way to begin changing it. By this, the second year, the collective power of the women gathered in the ballroom could have blown the roof off the Intercontinental Hotel.
In fact, one of the presentations was called "Blowing up the Business Rules that Hold you Back.”  That's where Nancy Vonk pointed out an impossible double standard exists in the agency world: “Kids mean less commitment on the part of  women. Kids mean more commitment on the part of men.” Actually, Vonk said,  “Women with children become better -- better time managers and better workers.  There’s a humanity to the work.”

Vonk and  Janet Kestin (aka "Jancy") are the former co-chief creative directors at Ogilvy Toronto responsible for the  breakthrough Dove Real Beauty Campaign. They left the agency world to start a consultancy, called Swim, (as in, sink or…) and are now writing a book full of hard truths. For example, Vonk talked about the importance of mentoring, not as a chore, but as an act of  “enlightened self interest.” 

“The next generation of leaders is missing; there simply hasn’t been time and resources put into bringing people along,” she said. Therefore, “selfish mentoring,” -- or, as Vonk called it, “putting freakish amount of time and energy” into helping new talent -- can be  “an authentic career strategy.”
Indeed, the focus for this year’s conference was on what’s doable: re-engineering agency structure through micro-actions, rather than all-encompassing, sweeping changes that are threatening and impossible to carry out.

“Prototype the change you want to see in the world and begin taking small steps,” suggested Jenn Maer of Ideo in her presentation with Sally Thornton of Forshay, called “What a Creative-Friendly Company Looks Like." “Working all the time makes you less creative. By making even one small shift, you can see immediate improvement in the quality of your life. “
Of course, a creative-friendly agency is more collaborative, results-oriented, and allows for a “work/life blend.” 

Say what?

For Thornton, achieving that balance took an unimaginable life crisis: She got the strength to leave corporate America and start her own business seven years ago, after her brother was killed in a plane crash, and she was eight months pregnant at the time.

Certainly, some of the women had solved their own problems by leaving big agencies to start their own businesses. But I moderated a panel with some major agency players: Susan Credle, the chief creative officer  at Leo Burnett; Vida Cornelious, chief creative officer at GlobalHue; and Mimi Cook, chief creative officer at Y&R, San Francisco.

These are women who’ve had long, storied careers within the system. Credle, who spent many years at BBDO before leaving for Leo Burnett, is married, with no children. She admitted that she would sometimes get freaked out watching a creative director’s “sweater getting bigger,” imagining what that would mean for her team once she was out on maternity leave.

Credle said she finally came to terms with the fact that the world wouldn’t end due to a three-month leave. Though the business is 24/7, yada yada, she said the truth was more often that the mother would come back, post-leave,  “and I’d hand her the same (effing) brief, which still hadn’t been solved.” 



10 comments about "The 3% Solution".
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  1. Courtney Smith from PureMatter Brand Marketing + Interactive, October 23, 2013 at 3:23 p.m.

    Great recap of what sounds like a life-changing event. As one of the 3% myself - and an owner of a boutique agency AND married with 2 kids – I am still astonished at this statistic.

    Hasn't history taught advertising anything, in that when you homogenize a group of people, the thinking is stale, same and boring. Real creativity is inspired by variety in our lives, which includes being at work, working with others, being at home, taking vacations, talking with strangers, reading new things, hearing new perspectives.

    The last time I checked, my desire was to work with incredibly talented, brilliant, smart thinkers, which to my knowledge is not genital-specific. :)

  2. Kat Gordon from Maternal Instinct, October 23, 2013 at 5:26 p.m.

    Thanks for this write-up, Barbara! You captured the energy of the event beautifully. We also were delighted to have a good representation of men speaking + in attendance, showing what a huge business opportunity it remains to understand how to market to women.

  3. Barbara Lippert from, October 24, 2013 at 12:08 a.m.

    @Courtney-- Genital-specific! So much better than gender specific!
    Seriously, there was so much to recap and so little room. would be worth going to

  4. Edmund Singleton from Winstion Communications, October 24, 2013 at 6:08 a.m.

    Just look at women who appear on camera in broadcast news with false eye lashes, painted lids and greasy lips and never with graying hair...

  5. Jim English from The Met Museum, October 24, 2013 at 8:33 p.m.

    3% a surprising statistic for our so-called progressive age. Believe female board chairs in Fortune 500 3% also.

  6. Edmund Singleton from Winstion Communications, October 26, 2013 at 5 a.m.

    After my above remarks, I took a spin around the dial and wondered as I looked at the theatrical make-up on women on camera in broadcast news, and asked? Is that the face you want to hear say how many are injured and dead or the one you would invite up to your hotel room for a drink and something else?

  7. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, October 28, 2013 at 11:53 a.m.

    “If you start an ad agency today with an all-male founder/leadership team, you’re screwed. You will not own the future”
    If you start an ad agency today, you will be owning the past anyway, no matter what the sex composition of your partners and "leadership team."

  8. Barbara Lippert from, October 28, 2013 at 5 p.m.

    @Tom-- Interesting that you say that. The reason Cindy mentioned it is that there has been a wave of agencies started in the last few months-- in San Francisco, particularly--with all male founders, standing with their arms crossed in their blue collar worker clothing, looking straight at the camera.
    Some of them will succeed.
    And Jim-- yes. The interesting tension at the conference was between the women who started their own businesses, cause they couldn't take it anymore, and those who are staying within the system.

  9. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 1, 2013 at 1:53 p.m.

    Ed: 1. Men at the helm wear make-up and styled, too. 2. Woman au natural wouldn't get from point A to point B plus never in front of a camera, not that we would want to be seen in such a condition. You wouldn't watch them either whether you would admit it or not.

  10. Edmund Singleton from Winstion Communications, November 1, 2013 at 2:05 p.m.

    At first make-up in television was to help people look natural, then to hide blemishes now its to look like a clown without the red nose...

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