I am a creative director. And a woman. One of 12%-ish now, I’ve heard. The numbers are climbing, but nowhere near 50%, which would be the goal. So how do we get there?
We, (that’s us female creatives) talk about how we got here.
This occurred to me during a recent Q & A with some college students. A young woman asked me “the question.” You know the one:
“As a woman, what have you had to overcome to succeed in this industry?”
My friend and creative manager, who was also on the panel, raised her hand with the enthusiasm of a first-grader who’s about to pee herself and blurted out, “I know! I’ve seen her present stuff in meetings and be told flat out it wasn’t funny. And it was.”
Well, yeah, that happened. Once or 37 times.
But here’s the truth. I’ve never wanted to admit it. Never wanted to talk about how I’ve had to overcome stuff because I’m a woman. First off, I don’t like making excuses, and talking about any obstacles of being a female copywriter seemed to do just that. It felt like I was compensating for not being more, better, sooner.
Second, my mentor, John Schofield, is a man (obviously) who is also my good friend and surrogate big brother. I am where I am largely because of him. My current boss, Tracy Wong, is also a man (not obviously by the name, but obviously when you meet him) and is a truly great guy who inspires me daily to be a better creative and a better creative director. And there are many other dudes I feel lucky to have worked with. So, in other words, I worried I’d be throwing the men I admire and respect under the bus by admitting, yes, dammit, it’s been hard to be a girl sometimes.
But that’s dumb. Because I’m not helping change anything by being quiet. Plus there’s got to be at least one aspiring female copywriter wondering what she’s up against, or hopefully, what’s changed for the better. And every female CD, ECD, CCO, or BFD has a different story about how she found success or how she defines it. So if each of us tells our story, it’s bound to inspire another young woman who’s finding her way in the industry.
So, here’s MY truth. It’s not always been easy. ‘Cause while I really love hanging with the guys I work with, laughing at their gross jokes, hearing f-bombs dropped as often as vowels, I’m a full-on girly girl. Pink is my favorite color. * I genuinely love salad. My hobby is horseback riding, for chrissakes. In other words, even though I appreciate a good poop joke and relish being around the guys, I have never, even remotely, been one of them.
My first real copywriting job 20 years ago was an interesting mix of old and new school. In a big, established agency (McCann), surrounded by a lot of young, forward-thinking people. I got — and created — a lot of opportunities. I can guarantee I made less money than other writers at my level, (all guys), but it never occurred to me to ask for more. I got some seemingly sizable raises, was quickly promoted to senior copywriter, loved my job, loved my creative directors, loved life. Who was I to complain? (Um, I was a super-dependable, award-winning workhorse, is who I was, and I should’ve realized it.) When I slowly started seeing my reflection in the glass ceiling — there weren’t any visible females in creative leadership then in the McCann network — I left to go freelance.
After four years of freelancing for both agencies and clients, I sought out a staff job at an agency with a reputation built on the name WONGDOODY. And all the schlong/poop references it implies. And let’s just say my feminine sensibilities did not take the place by storm. I was one of two female creatives at the time, and the other was Pam Fujimoto, who could succeed in any situation she found herself in. Only human in an all-alien agency? No prob. Pam wouldn’t just survive, she’d make all the aliens want to redesign their spaceships, be a cooler shade of green, and find an award-winning way to colonize earth that everyone was super psyched about.
For me, though, it was hard at first. I won’t lie. I was respected for my work ethic, but not always my work. Some of that I’ll attribute to inexperience. But some of it was based on taste. Not good vs. bad, but subtle vs. overt. Emotional vs. bombastic. Looney Tunes vs. Itchy and Scratchy.
There were times I tried to mold my writing style to be more like some of the very talented copywriter dudes I worked with. And guess what? It was always a miss. I wasn’t being true to me, and I was a very crappy them. But here’s what I did (and do) have going for me. I work really hard. I am tenacious. I am optimistic and I truly love what I do. And I realized, even in my greatest moments of frustration or self-doubt, that I had a unique and powerful voice.
(Some days, that voice felt like Enya opening for a Slayer concert, but it was unique and powerful, dammit.)
So, I listened. I learned. I took some criticism to heart, and chalked up other comments to be less about me and more about the person making them. I sharpened my wit and my writing style. Laughed at A LOT of my own jokes (still do.) And kept bringing my unique, female perspective, which later turned into a unique, working-mom perspective, to everything I did.
IMPORTANT NOTE TO ASPIRING FEMALE CREATIVES: Despite my girly-girlness, this does not mean everything I touch is super-feminine, soft, or features kittens and a Summer’s Eve watercolor wash. So, no, it’s still not cool to have a pink resume.
Fast-forward to now. Fourteen years, another freelance stint and shit ton more experience later, I am back at WONGDOODY as a creative director. (Tiny fist pump.) I’m pleased to report that my agency not only supports female creatives and female leadership, but actively celebrates them. Our upper management is 50% female (Go Pam, Skyler and Megan!) Our creative department is close to 50/50. We even offer a Women in Advertising scholarship!
Plus, women in general are now recognized as the purchasing decision-makers they are, while (most of) the world is finally regarding being a woman as a source of power and strength, as opposed to being an obstacle. My unique female perspective and sensibility is not just valued, but sought after both internally and by clients. Oh, and the ass-kicking Wonder Woman movie just came out. So yeah, it’s a good time to have two X chromosomes.
This is all to say being a female copywriter hasn’t always been a picnic. But any obstacles I’ve had to overcome have made me sharper, more resilient, and a better creative. And most importantly, staying true to myself and believing in what I have to offer has gotten me through the sucky, self-doubt-filled days. And made everything I’ve achieved, and still intend to achieve, that much sweeter.
One last thing. Never underestimate the power of red boots* and pink lipstick to help you feel like you can take on the world. Underwear you don’t buy in a 4-pack helps, too.
Take it from this girly-girl CD. Or find another female leader who speaks to you. Thankfully, there’s more of us every day.