No more ‘Mad Men:’ Ad agencies get serious about diversity

December 9, 2014, 11:38 AM UTC
Mad Men
Courtesy of AMC

Two years ago, Courtney Buechert, CEO of Eleven, Inc., realized he had a problem. Sure, his San Francisco-based agency had great clients, including Apple (APPL), Facebook (FB) and NetApp, but among a staff of 150, there were no female creative directors and not a single woman in senior management.

The four partners? All men.

“We think of ourselves as enlightened, but despite all our good intentions and stated commitment to equality, we weren’t walking the talk,” says Buechert. “We had to rethink everything.”

As a result, he and his partners went through a soul-searching process, ultimately changing the entire company down to its actual articles of incorporation. Today, they have a female partner, a female creative director, and of the 42 people in their creative department, 46% are women, far better than the industry standard of around 11%.

And they’re not the only agency making big changes. Much has been written about how Silicon Valley and new technology are upending the advertising business, but when it comes to diversifying its workforce, some advertising agencies, like Eleven, Inc., are proving to be the true disruptors. A number of small, mid-sized, and even large international advertising agencies are restructuring they way they do business in order to increase the number of women in leadership positions.

Eleven Inc. CEO Courtney Buerchert meets with staff. Photo by Kalee Abella
Kalee Abella

In order to promote more women at his agency, Anthony Reeves, Chief Creative Officer at Atlanta-based Moxie USA re-engineered his entire creative team, restructuring the way assignments are given and even how the next big campaign is conceived.

“We elevated our creative process by developing cross-functional teams and giving everyone an equal voice in the brainstorming process,” he says. Equally key, the agency aggressively recruited more women to join the agency. The results? His creative team, once nearly all male, is now close to 50/50; women make up more than 30% of the creative leadership.

Larger agencies also are trying to improve their numbers. Martha Hiefield is president of the Seattle office of POSSIBLE, a global digital agency whose clients include Microsoft, AT&T, and Coca-Cola. After an analysis showed that only 15 percent of POSSIBLE’s creative leadership was female (although 40 percent of staff was female), Hiefield led a major revamping.

She changed pay structures, expedited promotion plans and added more “life friendly” polices, such as flexible work hours and extended parental leave. “I knew we had to do something different or we were going to continue to lose great talent,” says Hiefield. While she didn’t disclose numbers, she says retention has improved.

In fact, many agency executives say that the new approach has had an unexpected bonus: it appeals to young workers of both genders. “We made changes we thought would be good for women, but we’re finding these strategic solutions also meet the complex lifestyle needs of millennials,” Buerchert says.

It’s still too early to know if this diversification of leadership and thinking has made an impact on the bottom line, but the executives say the work is better. “When you have people with a complex array of experiences and knowledge contributing to the process,” Reeves says, “you’re going see better, more innovative ideas.”

With the awards season just around the corner, Reeves has high hopes the changes will result in wins. He says, “No matter the outcome, the days of white men laughing at white men’s jokes are over.”

Lisen Stromberg is an award-winning journalist. She writes about women, the workplace and life in Silicon Valley.

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