Women in the Creative Department: Devs & Rachels of Real Life

September 7, 2017

Carla Cancellara

Carla Cancellara is a senior copywriter at DM9DDB in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She has more than 15 years of experience working for major global and national clients. Carla is proud to be one of the 12 creative women around the world and the only Latin-American selected by DDB to participate in the Phyllis Project. She also teaches copywriting at Escola Cuca.

Some time ago, I began watching Master of None on Netflix. Created and starred by Aziz Ansari, it’s a comedy series that revolves around current issues such as having or not having children, prejudice against immigrants, and elder neglect. Highly recommended.

It was one of those rainy Sundays when I got to the seventh episode of season one, titled "Ladies and Gentleman," which focuses on sexism. In this episode, Aziz invited two writers and a director, who revisited personal experiences to give authenticity to the story. After witnessing a blatant episode of harassment, the protagonist Dev decides to support the women's fight. But he fails to notice more subtle examples of machismo in everyday life. For him, an executive not addressing women at the table only shows that he was distracted. It is at this point that Rachel, his girlfriend, explains that by putting together all the little situations that women go through every day and that he ignores, it’s clear that this is not the exception, but the rule. Dev then decides that the best thing to do is, instead of trying to justify, is to listen.

This episode of Master of None comes at a time when we discuss, as never before, the lack of women in advertising agency creative departments. Like Dev, a lot of people are interested in doing something, and like Rachel, a lot of women want to be heard. But as in the episode, few solutions are presented—the difference is that a TV series has no obligation to solve the problem.

The Phyllis Project

Earlier this year I was one of 12 creatives from nine DDB offices around the world selected to participate in a pioneering global initiative in our market, the Phyllis Project. Named after Phyllis Robinson, DDB's first Copy Chief and the first female Copy Chief in US history, it aims to recognize and support female creative talent at DDB, with the goal of having 35 percent of the leadership positions occupied by women by 2020. In order to achieve this goal, the project counts on the support of Amir Kassaei, CCO of DDB Worldwide, Lisen Stromberg, COO of The 3% Movement, and Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin, founders of Swim's creative leadership lab.

For two years, we will receive mentorship, develop a global career plan, collaborate on global projects, attend international events, and participate in customized creative leadership training. Since the kickoff meeting in March in San Francisco, California, where we all met, we have already had many other meetings, including at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

The Interest Is Real

There is a real interest among many leaders to balance our market. Data from The 3% Movement shows that women influence more than 80 percent of consumer spending and 60 percent of social media sharing. It's a question of survival—and also profit: a Peterson Institute for International Economics study carried out last year showed that companies that have increased the presence of women in senior positions have seen profitability grow 15 percent.

Conclusion: are women better? No. Nor worse. But they bring different points of view, stories, perspectives, and ideas. In any case, it is also a matter of purpose: sometimes we forget that behind companies there are people. People with a genuine interest in being an agent of change, fostering a more diverse market in every way, and helping to create a more just world for themselves, their wives, their daughters.

Same Problem, Different Realities

Talking with the other participants from countries like Germany, Canada, India, and South Africa, I realized that the problem unfolds differently depending on the market. While in some countries the struggle is for more women in creative leadership positions, in Brazil we are still fighting for more women in the creative department at all levels. According to a report released by Meio & Mensagem in 2016, the female presence in this department is less than 20 percent. This is due to "n" reasons, much more related to a reproduction of patterns, as the way boys and girls are educated and hiring criteria, than because of "x" or "y." But also because of the lack of inspiring models and because there is a false belief that women don’t want to work in the creative department. With that in mind, I realize that I also have a responsibility to motivate young women who are beginning their careers and to show them that it is possible.

Mentors Also Learn

In San Francisco we were introduced to our mentors from other offices. Since I had never had a formal mentor, I felt that the mentor and mentee relationship was one-way: with my mentor coaching, counseling, motivating, and me asking, understanding, and receiving. But during the project, I understood the other aspect of mentoring: it's a twin-track approach. Our mentors also learn from us. They are also motivated by our challenges. And this reverse path is extremely important. Mentoring also makes mentors better leaders: they develop a deeper view of the department and the people they lead, sharpen their relationship skills, and increase empathy. This made understand our role, as women, in building a more balanced department.

They Have No Idea

During the meetings, I realized that many men do not know what some women experience in the creative department. Those are the things that Rachel said Dev is unaware of—and they do happen in creative departments around the world. Fortunately, I’ve always been fortunate enough to work in friendly environments, so these situations have never marked my trajectory. But they do happen: from the most subtle ones, such as commissioning the only female creative to order lunch for everyone or suggesting that her work was approved just because she is good looking, to the worst ones. Like Dev, someone who experiences one of these isolated situations can understand it as a joke. But these situations are not isolated. And, joke after joke, we create a culture. This shows how important it is, in my opinion, to involve men in any solution to sexism in advertising. Segregating is not the answer.

The Power of The Collective

One of the biggest surprises was to realize how cool it is to work with other creative women who share the same aspirations and ambitions. When there is no minority, and different groups are part of a larger order, we have a team. It seems that everything works better, everyone relates better, we complement each other. And the more diverse, the better it gets. This is the power of diversity that we all have to seek.

Apart from personal experience, the project is already yielding results: three of the 12 participants judged this year's Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity. And this is the purpose: the benefits being exported to our industry—much is said about the importance of having more women on the jury of advertising awards. After these first months, I’m already looking forward to what’s next. As Amir Kassaei says, "it is a drop in the ocean, but we hope it generates many waves."

Originally posted in Meio & Mensagem.