What can we learn from advertising agencies’ failure with diversity and inclusion? From a feminist perspective, we examine not only hiring practices, but also the ways advertising and marketing agencies operate by following the paths of four women. In preparing this feature, most of the women we interviewed felt uncomfortable revealing their identities. They feared retaliation from the agencies they work for. To honor their confidence, Pollen agreed to use pseudonyms when requested.


As a young girl, the US Navy kept Sue Crolick moving from coast to coast. Her love of drawing kept her company as she and her family pulled up stakes on their way to the next naval post. Crazy about words and pictures, she created storybook after storybook, ultimately paving the way for a degree in commercial art. Armed with her education  and a growing portfolio of work, Sue set out to join any ad agency that would hire her. She aspired to become an art director in a field notoriously dominated by men.


“I showed my work to guy after guy. They told me this business is no place for a girl.”


Finally, Ron Anderson, one of Minneapolis’s greatest creative directors, took a chance on Sue. She recalls, “he convinced his agency to hire a ‘girl.’” The job thrilled her but also frightened her, because it was the mid-1960s when sexism ran rampant.


Undaunted, Sue applied herself and prevailed. Armed with equal measures of talent and determination, she became the first female art director at two of Minneapolis’s largest ad agencies.


“I have to say, in those days, I was not thinking about being the first female art director. I was worried about being the first ‘failed’ female art director.”


Sue worked hard and it paid off. She earned many awards over the years, among them golds in the industry’s most prestigious competition, the One Show in New York. These efforts proved women can succeed at a man’s game. Sue and others like her broke down barriers for women in advertising, offering the rest of us a chance to to move forward.

Most Gen Xers and their Millennial sisters believe the early feminists— women like Sue—cleared the way. They fought the good fight; the job is done. The truth lies elsewhere, particularly in advertising where the number of women peaked years ago and now sits below 50% for the first time in a decade. Today, 68% of ad agency managers are men. Tellingly, 75% of the women in the industry say gender diversity is an issue, while only 47% of men agree. Have we “come a long way, baby?” Progress lumbers along while setbacks pop up frequently.


Advertising agency insiders often say, “advertising is an appearance business.” This means looking the part separates the ins from the outs. They also describe advertising as a “who-you-know business,” which means getting hired hinges on social connections. As a result, ad agencies remain closed clubs reserved for an elite few. The status quo (i.e., young, handsome, male, white) goes unchallenged, especially in creatively-driven shops.


Research confirms the industry’s failure with diversity and inclusion. The situation looks worse at the top where it matters most.


The typical gender split in executive leadership is 70/30 in favor of men. The percentage of female leadership within the all-important creative departments hovered at 3% for years, only recently climbing to 11%. Currently, 5.3% of the advertising industry’s workforce identifies as African American, yet our universities have conferred 9-11% of bachelor’s degrees to African Americans in each of the last 15 years. The inclusion of women of color within the top echelon at prominent agencies is so rare, the numbers aren’t even reported.


Getting into the advertising business as a young upstart offers challenges regardless of race or gender. Printing resumes, answering job postings, and pounding the pavement works in some fields, but in advertising it’s rare. Wannabe ad execs typically spend their social capital to gain access to a closed system. Knowing someone on the inside who can pull a string happens frequently.

Neve entered the ad world by leveraging contacts and by getting lucky. Her job offer came after the first candidate turned the job down. The original candidate came through what Neve called “the agency’s feeder program where they take people from good schools and see what they can do.”


Aware of the country club nature of the industry Neve said interviewers look for someone they can be “simpatico with,” which makes it hard for outsiders to break in. Neve claims, when it comes to women (or men) of color, “they don’t get hired”  because feeling socially comfortable with candidates is a prerequisite. Interviewers asks themselves, “Can I play tennis with this person? Have a beer with this person? Does this person represent my agency brand?”


Agencies’ quests for social conformity links directly to the uncertainty surrounding the question “what is creativity?” What insightful campaign will clinch the winner-takes-all new business pitch? The higher the stakes, the greater the drive for social conformity. Unwittingly, agencies apply this logic:


If this woman talks like me, went to the same school I went to, plays tennis in the same clubs I do, perhaps she will perform as I have. The result is a staff of professionals that are all alike.

As a British native of Nigerian heritage, Rosemary Ugboajah knows better than most how difficult it is for a black woman to break into the advertising business. Trained as a graphic designer in England and armed with a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Minnesota, Rosemary set out in 2001 to establish her career as an advertising account executive.


As a newcomer, Rosemary lacked the much needed social contacts to network her way into the industry. Instead, she researched every local agency and literally went door-to-door. “I would go to these agencies and drop off my portfolio unannounced. I would say, ‘get this to your account director, because I want an internship here.’” This unconventional approach yielded little, but fueled Rosemary’s tenacity. She went back to the same agencies, eventually offering to work for free just to get an internship. Finally, one agency acquiesced. It was a medium-sized firm with a roster of local clients.


“At some point they just gave in. The managing partner gave me a chance. They let me in.”


These experiences taught Rosemary the importance the industry places on social capital and a fully-stocked network. She joined the local chapter of the Ad Federation and went to every event they held. Here, she met people she claims were instrumental in fostering her career. “I was the only black person anywhere in the industry in Minnesota and they put my name up to head the diversity committee.” Tokenism in these roles is too often the narrative for women of color in this industry. “Committee work” soon becomes the burden of representing an entire race and solving systemic racism.


Rosemary persevered. Through determination, she started a promising career filled with rewarding experiences, among them a stint at a firm where she witnessed inclusion in action. Here she saw practices she’d adopt years later when starting her own agency, Neka Creative. She learned to tackle issues like converting student visas to work visas. She learned to take a chance on outsiders. She understood the industry’s failed track record on diversity made it imperative to hire people who lacked agency experience, but who showed promise and passion. At Neka Creative, Rosemary’s mission statement calls on the agency to be a role model for inclusivity, a mission she takes seriously and delivers at every turn.    


For many, the ad industry’s hiring process comes down to “like attracts like.” People shape culture, corporate culture, or any type of culture, and acceptance hinges on conforming to unwritten rules. Successful candidates benefit from people in the know who can offer coaching on how to act—and what to wear.


Advertising is an image business. Barbara considers it one of the blessings and curses of the industry. In her experience, “agency people can sometimes be their own worst enemy with terrible stereotyping.” Hiring managers screen for style, sometimes blatantly. They seek people who look the part.


“I’ve heard it way too many times, ‘You would never hire somebody who would show up in those shoes. How could you be a good creative if your hair looked that way?’”


For women in the business, looking the part means young, tall, pretty, thin, and fit. Can a candidate’s looks overshadow her qualifications? This remains an open question with little hope for change. While someone without the right look might slip through the net, she’s likely to  pay for it. Her work will suffer increased scrutiny, she’ll be passed over for assignments, and left out of new business pitches. “Lookism” remains a stubborn issue in advertising, one that disproportionately affects women.  

For short women whose body mass index reflects the real world not, the body of a runway model; for practical women whose wardrobe reflects their budget, not Vogue magazine; for dark-skinned women who don’t see themselves reflected in the rank and file, how do we move forward?


The answer lies in redesigning work—to dismantle our current work culture, which was historically designed in service of the white, male breadwinner. Reexamining not only hiring practices, but also the ways agencies operate.


It means scrutinizing hierarchical organization charts that demand more of workers than they have to give. It’s these structures that cause  women to leave the business in droves after the birth of their first child. It means dismantling the typical agency org chart where power remains concentrated in the hands of an elite few.

Slowly, answers begin to emerge with an optimistic view of a fairer and more inclusive system. The answer continues to evolve partly through the efforts of nonprofits and industry groups. The hard work of The BrandLab stands out with its mission of changing the face and the voice of the marketing industry. Organizations like She Says and the 3% Conference boldly confront issues of inclusion and diversity within the ranks of the creative departments at agencies country-wide.

Continued Reading

Related Opportunities


Diane Fittipaldi
Diane started her career in advertising at the age of twenty-two. From the moment she entered the profession, she noticed an entry-level workforce of almost all women and executive leadership of almost all men. White men, of course.

Since earning her doctoral degree, Diane has focused her research on exposing the culture of ad agencies, a subject largely neglected by scholars. Her work provides a voice to the women in the industry, an unstudied group who deserve to have a voice.

Diane seeks to empower women in the advertising industry by shining a light on issues that so far have rarely been studied at all and if so only by men. Until now, that is.