In celebration of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month throughout March, we’re featuring women who are shattering stereotypes in their personal and professional lives. From artists to engineers, women who have forged their own path inspire us and women everywhere to accomplish whatever we dream of being.
With a healthy outrage at the exclusion of women from the creative process and the knowledge that women are not just the future, but also the present of the consumer market, Kat Gordon mustered the courage to organize the 3% Conference to fuel the conversation about women’s roles in advertising. Until the movement came along in 2012, only three percent of all U.S. creative directors (CDs) were women. While the number of female CDs is now 11 percent, Kat’s not letting go of the 3% conversation just yet.
Giving agencies a clear roadmap of how to retain female creative talent and leadership is at the core of Kat and her team’s efforts. Their next step is to 3% certify an initial group of agencies this summer through an independent assessment. The certification will help brands shortlist certified agencies that demonstrate inclusiveness in their creative departments and are consequently better equipped to serve their own diverse customer base.
We talked to Kat about her experiences and found that dreaming big is nothing new to her.
Kat, tell us about your career path.
I started in New York City, which is where I grew up. I was an English and French double major in college and then started working at USA TODAY in the advertising sales department upon graduation. I had no idea what I wanted to do, but was quickly intrigued by the promotion department that essentially sold the newspaper as an advertising vehicle. I hadn’t even known that the job of copywriter existed so I started taking some night classes and developed a spec portfolio. I shopped it around and got my first copywriting job at Cosmopolitan Magazine when I was about 23 years old. And that was how I started on the creative side.
It was good timing because Cosmo was celebrating its 25th anniversary and it was a big year for promotional efforts. I got to work with Helen Gurley Brown, and it was a real baptism by fire. I then worked at Sports Illustrated for several years before moving to the west coast.
Since there were no magazines headquartered in the west, I had to repackage myself and I went back to night school again. I worked on becoming an advertising copywriter and then got into the agency business. I worked for several big agencies and then started my own agency when my kids were born. But about six years ago, I was just so frustrated by the lack of diversity in my field that I became a social change entrepreneur and started the 3% Conference. It’s a really different kind of job — I still use all my advertising and promotions expertise, but to build communities and raise awareness.
How do you think you’ve shattered stereotypes in your industry?
Our entire movement at the 3% Conference is about challenging the status quo. I think in a lot of ways — in my own mind — I didn’t fit the mold of what a woman who challenges a patriarchy looks like. I wasn’t in New York City anymore, which is the hub of the advertising world, so I wasn’t a particularly connected person in that space. I didn’t have a household name, and I wasn’t an enormous creative star in my business. I’ve heard it said that “advertising likes to eat its old,” so by industry standards I was a dinosaur at 51 years old. In a lot of ways I felt like I was an outsider and initially I thought that would work against me. In the end I think it actually worked for me to not be associated with stereotypes.
When people meet me or hear about me, they can’t put me in one box. They give me credibility in the ad world because I’ve been a creative director. They view me as an entrepreneur because I live in Silicon Valley and have worked with a bunch of other startups; and they see that I’m a mother even though a lot of women in my industry sacrifice that in order to work. So I didn’t really fit in any one box and I think in the end that works to my advantage because people realize that no one owned me, no one was bank rolling me. People saw me as someone who was passionate about something and who had no agenda other than to generate conversation and inspire change.
What advice would you give to other women?
I think this is the absolute best time in history to be a woman in advertising. There’s enormous awareness of how necessary you are. There’s a shortage –– a scarcity even — of great talent. So it’s a wonderful time to write your own ticket, to think about where you want to work and what kind of a culture you want to work in. And you really can be particular. So I would say, dream as big as you can and ask for everything you want, and you may just very well get it.
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