The benefits of change: How the 3% Conference helped remake our agency

The 3% conference.
The 3% conference.

Eleven's CEO discusses the self-reflective process required to turn best intentions into realized diversity goals

When Kat Gordon gathered the industry at the first 3% Conference in 2012, the event had an almost revival-like emotional fervor — as if it was finally giving voice to generations of pent up frustration. It was a call to arms that said we need to do more than talk about the lack of women in creative leadership roles, it was time for real action. 

This certainly struck a chord at our agency. On the issue of gender equality, we had always prided ourselves on our progressive, open culture, but the ideas brought forward at the conference forced us to take a hard look at ourselves. In spite of our good intentions, we realized we had a lot of work to do.

That year, Eleven had talented female employees in many key staff roles and a creative department that was nearly 50% female in aggregate. The problem, however, was staring us in the face. We had no females in management, no female creative directors and no female partners. We had never meant to perpetuate gender bias, and yet here we were. We weren’t the company we had set out to be and we needed to gut check ourselves.

We knew this was a problem that couldn’t be solved with half measures — a promotion here, a new hire there. We needed to restructure our business in a way that would better promote equality.

The first step we took was to create a management layer from employees who lead major groups or services. Interestingly, this group naturally held more than 50% women, suggesting that the agency already relied heavily on female leadership but did not formally acknowledge them as leaders.

The second change was to rework the partnership structure to create an associate partner role for each management team member (both female and male) that included the attendant responsibilities, status and compensation.

Next, it was time to shift our compensation and benefits programs towards a model that would better support realities of both work and life for everyone. We moved to a progressive, flexible time-off policy. We also reviewed all staff salaries to ensure that they reflected role and seniority, not gender, and made adjustments where we saw unfairness. After three years on this journey, Eleven has moved to 50% of the roles in agency management, 50% of the roles in the creative department and even 50% of the roles of creative directors being held by women.  

The first significant result of diverse talent in creative leadership: more diverse creative solutions to client problems. It’s obvious, but it is reason enough to ensure that women play important roles at the top of a creative department. For Eleven, there is a freshness of approach and a broader range of emotional energy that has developed from the female creative directors that adds to the already high-quality work that the male creative directors deliver. The effect has been a new energy from existing clients and a marked increase in success in new business.

The 4A’s has identified a competition for talent as one of the top challenges agencies will face in the coming decade. And recent voices in the ANA have added that agencies must do a better job in bringing a diversity of talent to client marketing challenges or risk becoming useless to client’s businesses. The lack of people of color and ethnicities that reflect the diversity of the society we market into is an equal and parallel problem to gender equality. By making ourselves a place where gender equality is a priority, we have begun to create a more welcoming culture for diverse talent.

Since that first day of the conference in 2012, many agencies have, like ourselves, been spurred to action by the call of the 3% movement. It’s been an imperfect process, and there’s still much work to be done, but the lesson is sinking in that agencies stand to gain everything and to lose very little if they better reflect the society at large. Diversity can help us win the battle for talent, be more relevant to today’s workforce and better serve our clients needs. We just have to put in the work.

Someday, we may look back on that first 3% Conference as the catalytic moment when the agency world finally woke up and faced what our new model really looks like.   

Courtney Buechert is CEO of Eleven Inc.

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