Are we there yet? Quirk's CEO demands more female founders

Every week, we ask industry insiders across all job levels and titles to share personal stories about equality, diversity and inclusion in adland. We know we're not there yet, but we want to document the highs and lows as the industry slowly transforms for the better.

Meryl Draper
CEO and co-founder
Quirk Creative

Tell us about one thing that’s happened recently that leads you to believe there’s still a problem.

I read a statistic recently that said only 0.1 percent of ad agencies in the U.S. with national or international accounts are founded by women. As a majority owner and CEO of my own advertising agency, Quirk Creative, I can’t say I’m surprised by this statistic, but it’s pretty depressing to read.

There have been occasions when I’ve been mistaken for the intern, or met with a, "you don’t look like someone who runs your own agency," by my peers, both men and women. A few years ago we were on one of our first major campaign shoots with a big client. The concept centered around interviewing small business owners.

I was riding up in an elevator with one of the interviewees -- an older gentleman with a successful business whom we had handpicked for the campaign -- and he asked me how long I had been working at Quirk. I’m 99 percent sure he thought I was the intern. He seemed floored to find out I was the founder.

We are programmed to think we know what a CEO looks like, and it’s surprising to a lot of people when they meet someone who deviates from that norm. We have a long way to go before the looks of confusion end for female founders, but for the time being, I do get a kick out of telling people who ask how long I’ve been with the agency, "oh, from the beginning, I founded it."


How about something that proves we’re making progress?

One of the biggest shifts for Millennial and Gen Z women is that we’re no longer waiting in line. Part of not waiting in line means ditching the traditional idea of a "career ladder," where it takes 40+ years to slowly make your way up into positions of power.

So slowly but surely we’re seeing a new crop of agencies led by younger women, and that absolutely has the potential to accelerate the rate of progress within the industry, both at a company culture/lifestyle level and a creative output level.

As women-owned agencies, we can sidestep the systemic sexism that runs as an undercurrent  at older, men-owned agencies. Millennial agency owners, women especially, aren’t waiting for those massive old agencies to change their policies (which is like trying to turn a ship), but rather are building their own agencies that have pro-women policies and cultures ingrained in their DNA from the onset.

I’m talking about policies that encourage actual work-life balance (revolutionary in the advertising industry… ask yourself when you last left work at 5:30. At Quirk we really strive for this), generous family leave policies to eliminate the "motherhood penalty," and zero-tolerance policies on sexual harassment and cultures of casual sexism.

At the same time, increasingly female-oriented brands are looking to female creative leaders to have the final say over creative and campaigns fueled by every marketer’s favorite word: authenticity.

As women-owned agencies become more common, I’m excited to see how female ownership, specifically younger female ownership, impacts creative and what impact this new generation of leadership will have on the course of gender equalization in the advertising industry.


What else needs to be done to get there?

At its best, advertising has the power to shift society. A small ripple, a spark of conversation, maybe, but still a shift.

When you think about advertising that way, you realize that anyone in a hiring position -- producers, clients, agency owners, and then of course the brands hiring agencies -- has an enormous responsibility to think critically about who they employ and which voices they choose to give a platform to, because really what we’re deciding is: what voices are going to shape what tomorrow’s society could be?

Visibility of and access into creative talent is crucial, making sites like Free the Bid so important. Long term I see any barriers to accessing a diverse pool of talent -- agents who take a cut just for being middlemen, RFP and bidding processes that penalize smaller (often women-owned) agencies for not being able to work for free -- going away for good.

When you own a business there’s a lot of power in who you hire and the policies you put in place. Women are rising to more and more leadership positions within agencies, but they’re still not reaching, in large enough numbers at least, that top position. When a man is still ultimately the final decision maker at the agency every other decision is going to stem from a male lens.

When we only work with male-led agencies, we rob the world of untold campaigns, unseen creative genius, untapped brand connection — and we leave money on the table.

Brands, especially women-owned and women-centric brands, can choose to hire female owned agencies... And women, well we can start our own agencies.

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