Understanding the Cost of Exclusion: Why Having Women in Creative Leadership at Agencies Matters

Women control the vast majority of purchasing decisions but feel misrepresented by the very advertising intended to sway their choices. Here’s how 3% launched a revolution for women in the advertising world.

In 2011, Kat Gordon, a Creative Director, got firsthand experience with how women were often left out of pitches and essential meetings — and why it matters. Her agency had an important pitch to Saab. But when they actually went to do the pitch, the team was a wee bit lopsided: 16 men and (just) 1 woman, and — spoiler — they didn’t win the pitch. Wanting to better understand why, Gordon decided to do some research on women in creative leadership at ad agencies. She was dismayed to find only 3% of Creative Directors were women, so she dug a bit deeper to get at why agencies were so woefully short on women in Creative Director roles. Overall, she found that there was a glaring lack of:

  • Motherhood support
  • Female mentorship
  • Women negotiating the salaries they deserved
  • Awareness that a woman’s perspective was critical for connecting with consumers
  • Recognition for women’s work, due to gender bias in awards juries

She wondered if part of this issue had to do with men making the majority of purchases. She kept digging, and it turned out that was not the case. Apart from only three categories where men dominate purchases in the market, women were making the majority of purchasing decisions, effectively making them the superset, not the subset. And with the rate at which women were building wealth and influence in society, Gordon concluded that it was simply myopic to overlook them. Unfortunately, advertising, at least at that point in 2008, had largely been doing exactly that. Case in point: the Saab pitch.

All of this became a rallying call for Gordon to create change in the advertising industry — and so she birthed the 3% Conference with the straightforward goal of growing the number of women in top creative marketing jobs and expanding diversity and inclusivity within the industry (especially since, of that 3% cohort of women Creative Directors, an even smaller percentage were women of color).

How are things for female creatives today?

Flash forward to 2023 — some change has happened, but not as much as you might think. The pandemic created a seismic shift in how and where we work, creating an unintended revolution of more flexible policies that have helped women (and men) juggle their home and work lives. Although conversations around equity, inclusion, and opportunity have grown, the lack of representation of women as creative directors persists. Ironically, women hold the purse strings, making more than 80% of all purchasing decisions — not to mention 60% of social sharing — but the advertising intended to help sway their choices is often not ideated or produced by women.

However, this is not an ad industry-wide issue. Whereas women make up roughly half of the advertising industry’s workforce, as of 2023, women only hold about 12.6% of Creative Director roles in the sector. Even as women have seen their economic impact grow, contributing 37% of the Global GDP, substantial discrepancies abound. Despite women playing an increasingly significant role in driving consumer purchases, they are still conspicuously absent from the command center of creative decision-making.

Why representation matters for your business

Women account for $20 trillion in annual consumer spending, but according to a 2019 study, 66% of women don’t actually connect with what they’re seeing in advertising. Even worse, 60% say that ads have an outdated view of women.

Given that most purchasing decisions are made by women, it is critical to ensure that advertising messaging and storytelling align with their experiences, perspectives, and values. However, when creative leadership lacks adequate gender representation, the risk of producing marketing content that fails to resonate, or worse still, misrepresents women is high — and the ensuing impact on the business’s bottom line can be sizable.

Check out what some key decision-makers in the advertising industry have to say about how women’s desires and needs have shifted in a recent Quantcast article, Why It’s Time to Change the Conversation About Women in Advertising.

“Between 2011 and 2021, the number of women drinking beer has increased 12%, which is four times faster than men. So the idea that women don’t drink beer — those days are over.” Josephine (Fien) Bertrams, Senior Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, Heineken USA.

“According to Statista, two-thirds of women are self-proclaimed sports fans. And you’re seeing them not only as fans, but as engaged participants in sport on social media. And for brands, that’s important – that’s where the audience is. I also found that 80-90% of women sports fans don’t feel like they’re being properly spoken to by brands. This is where the data and AI part comes in. This is an opportunity for us to really personalize and customize messaging. That’s what I’m excited about in this space.” Leah Meranus, North America CEO, dentsu X.

“In the month of January 2023, we had more women betting than in the entire year of 2021. Women are sports fans and sports betting is a form of entertainment. It feels scary at first, but there’s not that barrier that everyone assumes. Being able to do it digitally on your phone has opened it to everybody.” Jennifer Matthews, Vice President of Brand Strategy, FanDuel Group.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Women’s desires are changing in many ways, and these are just some that go up against ingrained ideas of what is “male” territory.

Closing the gender gap

Advertisers need to adjust exactly who is crafting the narratives used to sell products across the board, especially when women are often the main audience marketers are trying to reach. Tone-deaf marketing will continue to haunt brands, effectively sending market share to brands that aim to reach women where they are today and choose to amplify women’s voices through commensurate representation in the creative suite.

To truly address this disparity, agencies need to actively promote women into key creative leadership roles and create environments that foster advancement, growth, and opportunity for women. This means creating dedicated mentorship programs, flexible work policies, and addressing inherent biases in hiring and promotions. What’s more, being intentional about vendor and partner selection that is representative of a brand’s audience can also go a long way in connecting with a brand’s intended audience.

It’s no secret effective communication thrives when diverse voices are behind branding and marketing efforts, and it’s high time women’s influence as high-level creatives mirror their consumer purchasing power. Inclusion, among other things, means producing work that is relevant, authentic, and impactful. It starts from the inside out, not just with a script that pays homage to women in March but forgets them come April.



The 3% Conference now goes by the name 3% Movement, and its mission to bring the number of female Creative Directors to 50% is well underway. By giving agencies a clear road map on how to champion female talent and leadership — along with annual conferences, a vibrant online community, a student scholarship fund, and so much more — the 3% Movement is helping lead the change for a more inclusive world.

How does your team square up? Are your creative leaders reflecting the purchasing power of women? If your goal is to diversify your team and be more inclusive of different viewpoints, Creative Circle can help you (and your bottom line while we’re at it). Talk to us if you’re ready to ensure your brand is effectively communicating its core values to its core customers.