Q: How do I avoid being "ghettoized"---so far (in my first job) I work on all products for women. It's not that I mind that but I'm starting to think my CD would never think of me for our beer account or our car account. I asked once and got blown off.
I love that question. What you're referring to is a sort of "girlie ghetto," and it's a dirty little secret in many agencies.
Odds are, your creative director's reaction isn't in your imagination. But if it's any consolation, that bias probably isn't anything personal. It's probably more a function of the agency's needs than your abilities as a creative.
Below you'll find a few thoughts based on my experience as a copywriter and creative director, and conversations with women in creative departments around the country.
PERFUNCTORY CAVEAT: Advertising agencies differ wildly, and there are many exceptions. The important thing is to find what's right for you.
The reality is, certain agencies hire female creatives to fill certain slots on certain accounts. This makes perfect sense when you consider that clients who sell products marketed to women want women working on their account. There are rarely enough good female creatives to go around (which is another topic for another day). No wonder your CD is probably reluctant to move you, especially if you’re a copywriter since female writers are curiously few. The practice isn’t sexist… exactly. More like a mathematical necessity.
This is bad news made worse by the fact that the best accounts to work on are often “guy” brands: Axe, Bud Light, Fox Sports, Hummer, etc., because they push the boundaries. Female-centric accounts tend to be more profitable for the agency, but rarely the creative marquis, since clients generally approve more daring ideas when targeting men (with a few brilliant exceptions such as Dove and Nike).
So yeah, you’re right to be concerned about getting stereotyped as the token female. But before scheduling your gender reassignment, here’s the good news.
I know for a fact that because I’m a woman, I’ve been invited to work on juicy projects and judge shows and even been hired for jobs that I otherwise might not. My role model, Ellen Steinberg, said below, “I have often, in fact, asked myself if my success in this business is based on my brain or, in part, my vagina.” Now, trust me, Ellen needed no assistance from her vagina to succeed in this business because she’s wildly talented. But me, I’ll take it where I can get it. As a baby writer out of school, someone told me that Fallon McElligott was actively searching for female writers. I sent my book to Luke Sullivan, and soon I was the second female copywriter ever hired at that agency. (Working, coincidentally, a few offices away from Ms. Steinberg).
Here’s the fun part. The more senior a woman becomes, often, the greater the premium placed upon her skills because of the rarity of women toward the top of the pyramid. After a certain point, gender becomes an advantage.
Therein lies the balance. In the business of advertising, let your X chromosome work for you, not against you. The hard truth is, as women, too often we hurt our own chances for advancement. We can be less proactive about asking for the projects we deserve, less confident when presenting work, less likely to push back, and for better or worse, less comfortable with the politics inherent in any creative department. That’s a generalization, of course but it’s also true of other industries that seemingly favor men.
Below, a few suggestions for bypassing the girlie ghetto (a.k.a “No Man’s Land):
1) Before you’re hired…
• As you choose which products to work on, remember that the portfolio you develop in school will, to a certain extent, determine where you’re hired and what you work on. Beware stuffing your book with ads targeting women, especially mommies (Play-Doh, Spray-n-Wash). Go easy on the fashion-y stuff too.
• In your resume, avoid flowery type, superfemme design, and cutesy descriptions. It undersells you by making you seem less mature and/or less intelligent.
2) During the interview process…
• Some agencies let creatives work on several accounts, but at most shops you’re locked in for a while. During the hiring discussions, ask what account they have in mind for you. If you’re looking at a two-year stint on Summer’s Eve, don’t just assume you’ll be jumping on the beer account any time soon.
• Student work in your portfolio is fine for a year or so, but after that it quickly expires. It’s worth the effort to get on an account that will allow you to add new pieces continually.
3) Once you’re in the job…
• If you find yourself in “No Man’s Land,” take on an extra assignment on a different account. Something that allows you to grow hair on your chest. Create the opportunity to demonstrate to your current (and future) employer that you deserve better than Summer’s Eve print ads.
• If that’s not possible, find your own small account. Worst case scenario, do spec. Yes it’s a little iffy to have spec when you’re a few years into your career, but it’s definitely better than a “real” portfolio of lame ads that actually ran.
• Be comforted by a personal belief of mine… Any good female writer can write in a man’s voice. But rarely, so rarely, can a man write authentically in a woman’s voice.
The best women’s brands allow you to develop emotionally evocative work that can become the highlight of your career. But for any creative, regardless of gender, getting locked into crappy accounts will eventually limit your portfolio, salary, and sense of fulfillment. Bad work begets bad work. If your agency and clients don’t allow you opportunities to produce your best work, take your X chromosome elsewhere.