Before there was Lean In and many other trendy women’s leadership events, there was the 3% Conference. The brainchild of founder Kat Gordon, 49, the conference takes its name from an estimate of the percentage of female advertising creative directors. Gordon, a 25-year veteran of the advertising industry, saw the effects of the disparity and says she was “horrified about the way women were being represented in ads.”
“I live in Silicon Valley and work with a lot of start-ups. I realized that maybe I should be the person to create a dialogue on this issue, which never gets the attention it deserves,” she says.
The answer was to start the conference. The first event, a one-day gathering in San Francisco in 2012, sold out and drew attendees from across the country. Gordon knew she had to continue the momentum, and the effort has grown into a full-time job. Now in its fourth year, more than 600 attendees and 50 agencies participated in the 2014 conference, as did brands such as Apple, Coca-Cola, and Visa. In addition to the annual conference, there are nine MiniCons, one-day events that local agencies sponsor and offer a condensed message to a typically younger crowd.
This fall, the conference moves to New York, the epicenter of the advertising world, and Gordon expects about 800 people to attend. And not just women, either. Men attend the event, as do the very agencies whose lack of gender diversity the conference addresses.
“One of the things I’ve done purposefully is to make it an optimistic movement,” she says. “We’re not on a witch hunt. Nobody is where they need to be on this issue, even the most progressive agencies.”
Working with Lynn Edwards of Seattle-based Proper Planning, Gordon creates a program that goes beyond offering panel after panel of talking heads. She builds in time for engaging keynotes, networking, and unscripted moments that she calls “unconference magic.” At least one breakout session will be determined on the fly based on suggestions that attendees make via words and drawings on an oversize whiteboard. An agency able to “think on its feet and mobilize a conversation” will lead the session.
Another real-time effort this year took the form of a Super Bowl tweetup, in which agencies live-tweeted critiques of commercials during the game, which represents the biggest advertising spend day of the year. The effort drew 59 million impressions of its hashtag and was “a great visibility exercise for us,” Gordon says.
What’s more, it appears Gordon’s work is having an impact. Her organization estimates the percentage of female creative directors has now grown to 11 percent. “It’s not the best number,” Gordon says, “but it’s a nice shot in the arm for people who are making a difference.”
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