Since the advent of advertising agencies, creative culture has been male-driven. “Mad Men” had it right — although the show’s sexist portrayal of women in the workplace is disgustingly wrong.
In the past, female creative directors were a rarity. It was the man, be it an art director or copywriter, who made the final call on what concept “won” and got sent to the client.
I quickly learned that it wasn’t always the best idea that made its way to the top. It was the loudest voice in the room. It was the art director who shared beers and locker room banter with the creative director. It was the copywriter who could stay late and drink whiskey in the office upstairs because his wife was watching the kids at home.
Before academia, I spent over a decade working in agencies and in-house creative departments as a copywriter. The boys’ club culture and discrimination was a gross pattern that I wanted to break. But I had no idea how to do it.
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My very first boss was a woman. She was magnificent. She made me better. She gave me confidence and the book: “It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be.” She respected me, and I respected her. My very last boss was a man. He gave me the feeling of inequity.
I clearly remember coming into a brainstorming session with that male creative director, sitting down, giving my opinion, and not even getting eye contact recognition. He didn’t just dismiss my ideas; he didn’t even respond. It was like I wasn’t there. My voice didn’t matter. But other male voices in the room did.
I know if I’d been a “dude,” it would have been a different story.
Sex sells and sexuality pervades the creative culture that creates it. The game is played by men — or at least it has been until recently (thank God for the #MeToo movement). The egocentric male-dominated culture is a big reason why I left the agency environment. But I recently realized, it doesn’t have to be that way. Now is the time to reshape our creative environment. That shift starts with tomorrow’s leaders.
When I took over Roxo (TCU’s student-driven advertising and public relations agency) in August, I decided our culture wasn’t going to resemble the typical advertising agency I’d grown up in. It would be respectful. Inclusive. A place where all ideas and voices would be heard, and nobody would be made to feel uncomfortable because of their body or gender.
Students were assigned to write thank-you cards at the beginning of the semester to a person at TCU who changed their lives for the better. We chose to work with local nonprofits that were combating inequality and promoting social justice. The loudest voice in the room didn’t always win. And humility and kindness were rewarded as much as conceptual thinking. We practiced empathetic understanding and ethical decision-making first and foremost. And we rebranded our agency as a social enterprise — doing good work for the right reasons — and serving the community by creating positive change in Fort Worth (including a new social enterprise for Fort Worth Hope Center selling cookies and giving clients back time). Former creative advertising culture be damned; this is tomorrow’s creative economy and it doesn’t discriminate.
In the Strategic Communication Department at TCU, the student body is 90 percent female. As more young women are drawn to the creative side of advertising, we have the opportunity to shape that creative culture and show future leaders how an agency should operate. Egos out. Empathy in. Sexism sacked.
It’s not just about doing the right thing; it’s about creating great work. That can happen only in an environment where everyone feels safe, validated and appreciated.
Cheers, to a brand new world.
Sarah Angle, a lecturer in strategic communications and faculty director for Roxo, Texas Christian University’s student-driven advertising and public relations agency. She is also an affiliate faculty member in the Women and Gender Studies program at TCU.