Will Changing Media Change the World? An Exploratory Investigation of the Impact of Digital Advertising on Opportunities for Creative Women

Karen L. Mallia

University of South Carolina

Kasey Windels

DePaul University


Digital media has profoundly affected the advertising industry as new channels supplant traditional media and Internet advertising moves beyond rudimentary display ads to the likes of viral video and social networking. Despite research into new creative products, few studies have investigated potential changes in creative work processes as new players nudge out traditional agencies and traditional agencies struggle to reinvent themselves. This study explores how digital media might affect the creative careers of women, who were constrained by the organizational structure dominant in the twentieth century. The findings, from interviews with 27 advertising and marketing communication practitioners, suggest that digital agencies develop their work differently than traditional advertising agencies and that the nature of digital work requires more diverse and specialized project teams. This shift has increased collaboration among creative personnel and led to a more positive workplace experience for women.  

Keywords: digital media, creative, advertising, women, gender 

For more than 40 years, doing creative work in advertising resembled the model depicted by Mad Men‘s Don Draper. Mostly white, well-dressed male writers and art directors sat in their offices for days and brainstormed ideas, typed pithy headlines, and designed ads with press type, Spray-Mount, and foam core boards. Once the client bought an idea, they turned concepts into print ads and television commercials, often involving location shooting, weeks at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and long nights splicing film in editing rooms.

The Don Draper model also reveals a bit about the boys’ club culture that has dominated advertising creative departments. The occasional Peggy Olson or Mary Wells Lawrence broke through the ranks, but it was largely a male bastion. Historically women were unable to sustain long-term career progress and success, tending to drop off in large numbers rather than climbing the career ladder to creative leadership (Mallia 2008, 2009). The consuming nature of the creative job and a macho organizational culture were widely cited factors keeping women from advancing (e.g., Broyles and Grow 2008; Weisberg and Robbs 1997a). Today though, some indicators suggest the way advertising work gets done may be changing-in ways that could facilitate better opportunities for women.

The nature of what we call “advertising” itself has changed dramatically. Doing creative work in advertising today can mean turning a busy Buenos Aires street into an orange grove to launch a natural juice product (Advertising Age 2006). It might require creating branded content, such as Axe’s half-hour “Gamekillers” show or a web series like Cotton, Inc.’s “Inseam” (Zmuda 2008a). Or it could involve building brands through product placement, mobile phone advertising, launching viral videos, and staging flash mob scenes such as T-Mobile’s “spontaneous” dancing in the London underground (Warner and Yeomans 2009). Advertising vehicles once dubbed new or emerging media have rapidly become the norm.

These alternative media have experienced remarkable growth in recent years, despite a stalled economy. Twelve alternative media segments are likely to drive growth through 2012: consumer-generated media, mobile advertising, videogame advertising, online video advertising, word-of-mouth marketing, advergaming and webisodes, product placement, search and lead generation advertising, and digital out-of-home media (Hanley and Lavery 2008). Ad spending on social networking in the United States grew by 163% in 2007 and by 46.4% in 2008 (e-Marketer 2008a, 2009a), and estimates suggest U.S. advertisers will spend $1.68 billion on social networking sites in 2010, a more than 20% increase over 2009, with even greater growth worldwide (eMarketer 2010). Facebook alone appears likely to book $1.285 billion in global advertising for 2010 (eMarketer 2010), almost double the estimated $665 million the company grossed in 2009 (Lee 2010).

Yet advertisers still have not managed to maximize the creative and persuasive potential of alternative advertising. The biggest and most revolutionary trend on the horizon is the widespread adoption of mobile Internet devices such as the iPhone (eMarketer 2008b). Apple’s 2010 launch of iAd as a means to deliver interactive rich-media advertising in iPhone and iPad applications could trigger explosive growth in that medium-especially now that more than 23.8 million U.S. mobile phones are touchscreen smartphones. Ultimately, mobile Internet use should drive a new generation of wireless social networking businesses and business models (Jones 2008).

These alternative forms of advertising are more than engaging. They sell to consumers born into a multimedia world. By the end of 2008, online video game ads reportedly influenced 14% of electronic purchases among 18- to 34-year-olds, and blogs influenced 11% (Zmuda 2008b). The day Virgin America’s Promoted Tweets went live, it recorded its fifth highest sales on record (O’Leary 2010).

Digital pioneers have made this new media world possible, but agencies and creative personnel have not quite figured out what to do with it, or how to do it best. Remember, when Internet advertising was born, the first efforts were crude, forgettable banner ads. Since then, cutting-edge interactive agencies continually have broken new ground.

Some industry experts assert that we are on the cusp of a creative revolution, on a scale not seen since the 1960s. The first “creative revolution” is widely credited as beginning with the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency, which created iconic, universally lauded work for Avis, Volkswagen, Levy’s, and numerous other clients. This revolution in advertising style went hand-in-hand with another, less visible breakthrough, also led by founding creative partner Bill Bernbach: the creation of the writer-art director team (Fox 1984). This creative partnership generated powerful synergies in creative thinking and has since become the industry’s standard practice, the way nearly all agency creative departments develop ideas and advertising. Although the “product” being produced by advertising agencies has moved away from traditional forms of print, radio, television, and outdoor, the means of creation has remained the same since Bernbach’s day.

Perhaps the creative leaps we are witnessing will coincide with yet another powerful shift in the processes by which advertising gets created. There is some evidence that new, young interactive agencies operate quite differently from traditional advertising agencies-and it is their work that is breaking new ground in the advertising community. But will their work processes break through as well?

According to anecdotal evidence, digital agencies use a project management or integrated production styles rather than art director-copywriter teams. Will this more collaborative work process coincide with other changes in agency culture? Now that digital agencies have turned the advertising industry inside out in so many other ways, will they change the course of creative careers? In particular, might digital agencies empower women to a greater degree than traditional ones? Will increased skill specialization and larger creative teams shift the historic gender imbalance?

Competing forces make it difficult to answer easily. On the one hand, information technology and engineering traditionally have been male bastions. On the other hand, modern software programs and more sophisticated advertising approaches have reduced the “science” required to create Internet advertising and made it a communication art. In addition, forecasters predict an exponential rise of interactivity in advertising (e.g., customer relationship management programs, social networking, brand interest-oriented sites). Those forms bring advertising closer to what historically has been considered public relations-an arena traditionally dominated by women.

In turn, this article investigates the implications of a digital world on creative work processes and seeks evidence for how it might impact the careers of creative women. Literature noting the dearth of female creative personnel points to a boys’ club culture, institutionalized in the industry by pervasive norms. But digital agencies are changing all of the rules and breaking away from the copywriter-art director team in favor of a larger, more diverse team. Could it be that they have broken free from institutionalized norms as well? If indeed the system itself constitutes a barrier to female success in creative departments, and new systems are more open and inclusive, we might predict a very different future for advertising creative departments. This study therefore presents pertinent theories and trends relative to creativity, gender, and organizational culture to gain additional insight into this developing phenomenon.

Literature Review

Effects of Traditional Agency Culture on Female Creatives

Women Are Underrepresented in Creative Departments

Female creative personnel, or creatives, as they are commonly called in the industry, have not enjoyed the level of success experienced by women in every other advertising agency function. The number of women in account services positions doubled in the past two decades, resulting in equivalent numbers of men and women. More than half of planning and research employees are women. In media departments, women outnumber men 3 to 2. Yet in creative realms, the ratio of men to women is 2.3 to 1 (Davidson and Burke 2004; Endicott 2002). Regardless of representation, women dominate the lower paying posts across agency departments (Endicott and Morrison 2005) and make just 86 cents for every dollar made by men (Endicott 2002). Women graduate from creative training programs in numbers equal to men, yet they hold just 18% of creative director positions, which represents the logical career progression after 7 to 15 years of experience (Mallia 2008, 2009). In a survey of creative directors, Hartman (1988) finds that 91% perceive no sex difference in creative abilities, yet women created only 13.4% of Adweek’s “Best Spots” during 1996-2006 (Mallia 2008). It thus seems there are factors relative to the culture and structure of the creative job that inhibit the advancement of women.

The Way Things Work in Advertising Has Impeded Creative Women

The “boys’ club” culture of the creative department is notorious and widespread, and women often find it hard to thrive in this culture (Broyles and Grow 2008; Cadwalldr 2005; Nixon 2003; Rhode 2003; Wiesberg and Robbs 1997a, 1997b; Windels and Lee 2007). The boys’ club refers to an environment in which men feel more comfortable socializing and working closely with other men (Windels and Lee 2007). Men thus participate in informal social networks, which enables them to reap greater rewards in advertising agencies due to their homophilic ties (Ibarra 1992). As Rhode (2003, p. 13) recounts,

Participation in informal networks is particularly difficult for women with demanding family commitments, who lack time for social activities that could generate collegial support and client contacts. As Catalyst president Sheila Wellington notes, at the end of the day, many “men head for drinks. Women head for the dry cleaners.” Men pick up career tips; women pick up laundry, kids, dinner and the house.

Women also experience a series of disadvantages with regard to promotions, raises, and assignments due to the system in place in most agencies (Windels and Lee 2007). Many women indicate they feel pigeonholed into dull, less desirable assignments, which generally offer fewer opportunities to showcase their creative talents. Furthermore, the competition prevalent in the system is not a natural fit for women’s work styles (Weisberg and Robbs 1997b). The system was designed based upon male norms, making it difficult for women to operate within its constraints. Additional support for this claim comes from DeConinck and Stilwell (1996), who find in a survey of advertising executives that outside of job satisfaction, the biggest predictor of organizational commitment for women is perceived differential treatment. Women often did not consider this differential treatment overt, but they believed it to be a factor in female underrepresentation (Windels and Lee 2007).

The time frame for creative career growth also coincides with the childbearing years for most women, and research indicates there are unique difficulties in managing creative jobs and parenthood (for both men and women). These go beyond research that demonstrates workplace parental prejudice against mothers (Feugen et al. 2004; Heilman and Okimoto 2008; Mallia 2009). Most advertising agencies lack systems to make it easier to be a primary caretaker and creative worker, and most male creatives have stay-at-home wives to ease the burden (Weisberg and Robbs 1997b; Windels and Lee 2007). Thus, there is a lack of harmony between society’s role for women and the culture of the creative department. In 2008, just one advertising agency (Arnold) appeared in Working Mother magazine’s list of “100 Best Companies” (Chang et al. 2008). There were none in 2009 (Working Mother 2009). The incompatibility of motherhood and creative success is summed up succinctly by one of the industry’s most accomplished creative women, Nina DiSesa, now chair of McCann Worldwide New York: “I wouldn’t have this job if I had had kids” (Moore 2008).

However, the constraints of traditional agencies may not be the only option for creative women going forward. We next examine some current trends and their potential repercussions.

Digital Changes the Traditional Model

The Model of Effective Advertising Changes

A few short years ago, search engine marketing did not exist. Yet Google has moved past former media giants “like a hot knife through butter to land at No. 12” in media spending calculations (Ives 2008). Between 2009 and 2010, the amount of time Americans spent on social media surged 43% (Neff 2010), and advertisers are diving into social media to connect with them. Twitter has grown so fast it has not even figured out how to commercialize itself. But it is not only media channels that are changing.

Academics and advertising professionals both observe that the traditional model of advertising is changing. Push-based advertising is dying (Clemons, Barnet, and Appadurai 2007), the core model of paid advertising also may be disappearing, and in five or so years, there may not be any one dominant model (Steinberg 2008). As the 2008 Olympics showed, successful advertising must “add on a multi-pronged digital ad strategy that feeds on megabuzz. It must touch all the hot buttons from the hippest social-networking sites to the coolest blogs to the cell phones of those most coveted by marketers-trendsetters ages 18 to 26” (Horovitz, Petrecca, and Howard 2008).

New Forms of Content Mean New Awards, New Measures, New Issues

The groundbreaking introduction of long-form Internet content began with BMW films in the 1990s. Web video continues to evolve, and it may provide a critical means to move the Internet from its origins as a direct-response medium to a platform for advertisers who are more used to evocative, creative palettes such as magazines and television (Morrissey 2008). Most kinds of content will evolve to meet the quest for both engagement and economics. According to Rob Norman, CEO of Group M Interaction, “There is now a requirement to create new, better and more engaging forms of content that answer two questions: Why should consumers keep that content? Why should they share it?” (Steinberg 2008).

One recent advance into the content category is The GE Show, an interactive online series created by The Barbarian Group (Creativity Online 2010). It follows the television and web-based reality series launched by Cotton, Inc., and Max Factor (Hampp 2008; Zmuda 2008a). When asked what will be next, Michael Eisner predicts “great, creative storytelling,” likening YouTube to the nickelodeon when compared to the promise of web video (Klaassen 2008).

Thus advertainment is on the rise, in film, music, and gaming-following consumers wherever they go. Early efforts included Martin Scorsese’s Freixenet film, BBH’s “Gamekillers” programming for MTV, the ABC series Caveman that grew from GEICO’s more traditional advertising, and the Burger King Xbox game created by Crispin Porter + Bogusky. Enough advertisers are creating entertainment that The One Club for Art & Copy, one of the most prestigious advertising organizations, felt the need to launch a “One Show Entertainment” award to keep up with “a fast-changing marketing landscape by recognizing excellence and innovation in the marriage of brands and entertainment-in film, music, gaming, anywhere…” (The One Club for Art & Copy 2008).

The rise of advertainment also offers new possibilities for the role creative women might play in the future. Creative women have achieved greater success in Hollywood than on Madison Avenue (Ensher, Murphy, and Sullivan, 2002).

One of the most wildly successful viral videos on YouTube has been Dove’s “Evolution,” an outgrowth of Unilever’s Campaign for Real Beauty. This viral video has been watched by more than 2% of the world (Creativity 2008), and its creators are two women, Nancy Kestin and Janet Vonk, who not coincidentally disrupted the traditional model for advertising awards (i.e., beer, autos, and guy gear, not packaged goods). With that groundwork laid, Tide laundry detergent won the United Kingdom’s highly competitive D&AD awards in 2008. The Dove campaign also illustrates the creative skills that are increasingly critical in a modern marketplace: understanding the core human motivations that transcend cultures (McMains 2008) and ensuring consumer engagement. These goals become especially relevant in a web context, where the fastest growing category is “women’s communities,” according to ComScore’s Media Metrix 2007 year-end report (Bulik 2008). That same report notes a global surge in female blogging, as exemplified byfirstwivesworld.com. Researchers suggest the power of the online experience, as “girlfriends helping girlfriends,” gives it the character of a true community and accounts for its success (Clemons, Barnett, and Appadurai 2007). There is little doubt that women are particularly well-suited for working in this new digital advertising world. Thus “marketing to women” is a construct quite different from marketing to anyone else.

However, the biggest factor on the horizon is social media, the promise of which has yet to be mined by advertising. As noted previously, social media usage surged 43% between 2009 and 2010 (Neff 2010). Yet many leading digital experts feel that there has been too much focus on the channel itself, and that effective brand communication needs to be more “social,” focused on the experience, its utility, and its entertainment.

Various Kinds of Players in the “Ad Game”

Control of the creative development process seems to be slipping away from traditional agency creative personnel-as exemplified by the explosion of consumer-generated content, the rise and power of media agencies, the explosive growth of new players, and the increasing amount of content from new entrants such as digital agencies, design agencies/firms, and hybrid agencies. One example, Anomaly, offers services spanning advertising, product design, strategic consulting, and technology licensing (Hamner 2007).Agencies are no longer the only players in the game; “other work originates from the laptops of product evangelists (hello, Nick Haley), who create messages in their Oxford dorm rooms in between classes” (Griffin, Morrison and Sheehan 2009). All of these players are now fighting for the turf that once belonged solely to the advertising agency. One creative director thus likens the advertising turf battle to life in the Tudor court:

In fall 2008, the talent agency William Morris entered the ad game, in response to what it called “drastic changes in Hollywood, advertising and technology” (Brodesser-Akner 2008). Thus “Agency 3.0” became yet another type of player competing to create advertising: a partnership of mobile telephone, agency creative, and digital media executives who reported that their goal was “marrying digital media to strategically developed content”-precisely what most advertising agencies also claim to be doing today (Brodesser-Akner 2008). In 2009, Lorne Michaels and the Saturday Night Live cast and crew created three television spots for Pepsi, with little or no involvement from Pepsi’s advertising agency TBWA/Chiat/Day (Steinberg 2009).

Traditional agencies appear to be losing ground to upstarts. Perhaps because of their size and culture, they cannot remain creative and respond as quickly as modern timelines require. Interactive work is crucial to today’s agency; according to agency executives, it demands skill sets that span traditional and new media platforms, such as blogs and mobile devices (Endicott and Morrison 2005). Expertise in social media and cross-platform capability are two essentials for interactive agency survival in the next decade. It follows that these two skill areas will be in great demand for individuals as well (Kemp and Kim 2008).

Something’s Afoot: “New” Creators Building a New Model and New Culture

Perhaps as an outgrowth of the process of digital creation, or perhaps just because they were invented outside a traditional advertising realm, many new creators of advertising operate quite differently than advertising agencies. Most agencies are not set up to build digital experiences, according to Big Spaceship founder Michael Lebowitz (2009), who believes in flipping the entire model on its head. Therefore, every Big Spaceship team consists of representatives from strategy, design, development, and production who carry each project from concept through launch.

A high degree of collaboration also is characteristic of digital work processes, as evidenced by “integrated production” appearing as the current buzzword of the industry. In this process, interactive, broadcast, and print teams come together to tackle concepts and strategies across all media. Noting how infrequent such coordination is in traditional big agencies, Rachel Bell, a senior producer of The Barbarian Group, expresses skepticism: “I have mixed feelings about the ad world finally embracing this…. Is the ad industry ready to adopt an actual project management methodology that supports truly integrated production?” (Bell 2008).

A New Model Focused on Specialized, Functional Diversity

Big Spaceship and Barbarian are examples of a new breed of digital agency that organizes itself around functional diversity rather than on art director-copywriter teams. Functional diversity refers to diversity in skills, knowledge, strengths, and talents (Kwantes, Bergeron, and Kaushal 2005), which has benefits “when the group’s performance requires creative problem solving and innovation” (Jackson 1992, p. 169). Digital agencies bring together diverse specialists to develop creative solutions, and this diversity can lead to many positive outcomes, including greater creativity, better problem solving, and increased innovation (Kwantes, Bergeron, and Kaushal 2005). Big Spaceship therefore asserts, “At the core of our philosophy is this: everyone is creative. That’s why we’re organized into cross-disciplinary teams” (Big Spaceship 2010), to gather and employ knowledge at the start of a project, then build better solutions. Accordingly, “The higher the number of functional areas represented on the team, the higher the team’s ability to acquire, process and utilize knowledge and become flexible to change in customer needs and wants” (Akgun, Dayan, and Di Benedetto 2008, p. 224). Therefore, agencies that use a process that resembles a project management or integrated production approach might enjoy increased creativity and innovation because of the diversity of perspectives offered by various members. But this changed process, marked by larger, more diverse teams, also could cause a shift in the organizational culture that is likely to be favorable for women.

Individualistic Versus Collectivistic Organizational Cultures

Bringing together people with specialized skill sets to work on a project could change the levels of cooperation and collaboration within the agency. Collectivistic cultures reward collective accomplishments and cooperative behaviors and likely rely on project management-style systems. Research suggests collective environments are ideal for demographic minorities.

When demographic differences are pronounced in an organization, as is likely in diverse organizations, people may focus on individual rather than collective goals (Chatman et al. 1998). Demographic differences also remain pronounced unless the organizational culture emphasizes collective organizational objectives (Chatman and Spataro 2005). The integrated production approach taken by many digital agencies is one way to emphasize collaborative goals, because diverse members come together to contribute their expertise to a project. Furthermore, people are more likely to view minorities as an integral part of the culture when an organization emphasizes collective efforts rather than individual goals (Chatman et al. 1998).

Chatman and colleagues (1998) tie together literature on diversity and creativity with organizational culture research and find that for minorities in particular, creativity increases when organizations value cooperation rather than competition and individualism. Therefore, their “results suggest that creativity emerges from the combination of (1) access to a larger set of novel ideas afforded by more diverse members and (2) trust that novel ideas will be used for the benefit of the collective” (Chatman et al. 1998, p. 774). The increased functional diversity in digital agencies also should lead to more collaboration and cooperation, which in turn could be good for female creatives who represent the numeric gender minority.

Institutionalization of Organizational Norms

Many characteristics of the advertising creative department, such as long hours, a playful atmosphere, and a male majority, seem entrenched or institutionalized. Institutionalization refers to the process by which “components of formal structure become widely accepted as both appropriate and necessary” (Tolbert and Zucker 1983, p. 25). Institutionalists assert that organizations look for cues from the external environment, such as other agencies, to determine whether an action is appropriate (Tolbert and Zucker 1983).

In institutional theory, social knowledge therefore exists as a fact, not an opinion, and is transmitted on a factual basis (Zucker 1977). For an idea to become institutionalized, it must be passed on to the next generation, maintained in culture, and create resistance to change (Zucker 1977). The creative work process in advertising agencies has remained largely unchanged since the 1960s, since Bernbach’s introduction of the copywriter-art director team. But the advent of digital design, editing, and distribution, together with the growth of Internet advertising and mobile and social media, may institute a new change in process.

Institutional theory also helps explain why the norms of agency creative departments, with their potential flaws, have become entrenched. DiMaggio and Powell (1983) posit that in the long run, organizations become more similar to one another because they mimic other agencies in an attempt to gain or maintain legitimacy in the field. This cohesiveness occurs because organizational survival depends on legitimacy, gained through conformity to the norms of the wider population (D’Aunno, Sutton, and Price 1991). The institutionalization of norms also relates to organizational size, age, and the degree to which the firm is entrenched in a system with strong cultural norms. Older, larger, more legitimate firms are less likely to adopt a new or illegitimate form (Ahmadjian and Robinson, 2001), because they are firmly entrenched in institutional processes and routines that make change more difficult (DiMaggio and Powell 1983). In contrast, digital agencies usually are new start-ups, unencumbered by the entrenched culture of traditional agencies. The increased functional diversity required at a digital agency may be a significant enough departure from existing agency structures that a new breed of digital agencies develops its own process for creativity.

Research Questions

The preceding literature review highlights several pertinent issues related to changes in the advertising landscape, from traditional to digital, and how those changes could affect female creatives. Women are not well represented in traditional agency creative departments, possibly due to the boys’ club culture, beneficial social network ties for men, a system of norms developed by a predominantly male employee base, and difficulties with the dual roles of creative worker and mother. However, as new media spawn new types of agencies, and the nature of work associated with digital media changes, there may be new possibilities for female creatives. Without any formal research on this topic, we seek to answer several broad research questions related to the creative work process in digital agencies and its potential affect on women.

RQ1: How has the creative work process changed as a result of digital media?

RQ2: How is the creative work process in traditional agencies different from the process in digital agencies?

RQ3: What impact, if any, do these changes have on careers for female creatives in a digital world?


To examine the perceptions and beliefs of people as they interact with the world, qualitative research that involves those people most intimately involved in the interaction is an appropriate approach (Merriam 2002). We therefore started with a broad literature review and used snowball sampling to identify leading players in the advertising industry, as well as people who have left the business for other pursuits. During 2007 and 2008, we conducted 18 telephone interviews, all of which were recorded (with an EdirolR-90 MP3 device) and transcribed. The interviews ran between 40 and 60 minutes, and in addition to the audio recordings, we took extensive notes. We list the interview questions and respondent descriptions in Appendices A and B, respectively. The transcriptions were reviewed and phonetic spellings revised for accuracy (e.g., Scally corrected to Scali). In a preliminary analysis, we cross-tabulated and assembled the data to determine which factors underlie the dearth of female creative directors. That project raised questions regarding how work-life balance and gender issues might be affected further by seismic changes in the advertising industry.

In a second literature review, we identified trends and current predictions regarding digitally induced changes in advertising. Subsequently, nine additional men and women with high-level expertise in the digital field participated in interviews; they all worked for agencies identified by Advertising Age or Adweek as key players in digital media or else had been identified through a second snowball sampling as employees in major traditional advertising agencies who worked in the digital arena (see Appendix C). We integrated the data from both rounds of interviews and our reviews of the current state of digital advertising. Informants from traditional agencies take the designation T (T1-T18); those from digital agencies are coded D1-D9.

Findings, Discussion, and Theoretical Connections

We organize our findings according to the thematic differences that emerged between traditional and digital agencies, with a focus on differences that might affect the ways female creatives work and, in turn, their long-term opportunities. Three main themes emerge from the data analysis: the value of diversity for team creativity, individualistic versus collectivistic organizational cultures, and the institutionalization of organizational norms.

Functional Diversity

As we defined previously, functional diversity refers to diversity in skills, knowledge, strength, and talents (Kwantes, Bergeron, and Kaushal 2005). In digital agencies, the respondents were more likely to discuss how each person brought a unique skill set to their work (D2, D5). Creative teams were larger and more diverse, including visual experts, writers, interactive architects, and technical support. One informant thus described the creative process as “kind of almost like a round table of sorts where people from all the different disciplines are pulling on the work together” (D5). Regarding the development of teams and assessments of talent, informants from digital agencies were more likely to believe that each team member was valued for his or her unique set of skills: “I think one of the things I’ve seen, especially in this space, is the diversity of the talent, specifically in visual. It feels to me that in making these teams successful, we need to really understand what the aptitudes people bring are, and we span the gamut” (D5).

This theme of appreciation for diverse viewpoints did not emerge in the interviews with members of traditional agencies. The traditional agencies rely on functional diversity between art directors and copywriters, but no informants noted an appreciation for functional diversity or unique skill sets. Perhaps these respondents have more homogeneous skill sets than those in digital agencies. Furthermore, the dominant departmental culture, formed over generations, might overshadow any benefits of functional diversity. The relatively homogeneous, white, male leadership has tended to hire people with similar education, interests, and vision (T3). Although the functional skills of art direction and writing play key roles, existing norms and a general feeling of “fit” within the department also are important.

Thus the findings with regard to increased skill specialization in digital agencies are in line with prior literature on functional diversity. Because each project in a digital agency requires a different set of specialized skills, these informants believed their skills were valued by their organization. The diversity of skills required to complete a project at a digital agency also influenced the level of collaboration within the agency.

Individualistic Versus Collectivistic Organizational Cultures

The second theme related more to the culture of the organization: Whereas informants from traditional agencies considered their organizational culture competitive, members of digital agencies noted a more collaborative culture. As one of these latter respondents noted, “Each little team operates slightly differently, but I think the inherent feeling for most is that it’s highly collaborative and that we’re all briefed at the same time. We understand what’s going through and anybody can contribute and comment on that creative as it’s developing” (D5).

The more collaborative culture of digital agencies created less fear about where an idea comes from or who “owns” it (D2). Projects are often assigned to one team (according to the team’s skill set), which contrasts with the competitive environment described by traditional agency personnel, such that “For the most part, you’re given your assignment and you do it. So you don’t have to worry about looking over your shoulder” (D9). Furthermore, the digital agency respondents reported less competition overall for and on assignments (D2, D9).

The informants from traditional agencies recounted very different experiences. Women who succeeded in creative departments were those who understood the power relationships in advertising and learned to play political games to have an opportunity for the best assignments (T8, T9, T12, T14, T15). They understood the person who reached the top was not necessarily more creative but rather was more political (T12). Our interviewees considered the culture of the creative department competitive instead of collaborative (T6, T15), though they noted that women tended to have an easier time overcoming barriers in smaller markets, which generally were more collaborative and less competitive than agencies in major markets (T6, T10, T18).

For those who had worked at both traditional and digital agencies, the sense was that digital agencies were less “cutthroat” than traditional agencies (D2). One respondent revealed that at traditional agencies, “presenteeism” was prevalent, and “you really feel like you’re sacrificing a lot” (D2). Alternatively, many digital agencies allow personnel to stay plugged in but still have a life.

These findings from our qualitative analysis reflect extant literature on the effects of collectivistic versus individualistic organizational cultures. The people employed by digital agencies were not concerned about who “owned” the idea, because the agencies promoted a collaborative team environment. This setting eased political tensions and led to a more positive working environment for female workers. Minority workers tend to benefit from organizations with a collectivistic culture, and the functional specialty structure at digital agencies lends itself to more collaborative and cooperative team interactions.

Although increased functional diversity and collaborative cultures are two keys to creative success for women in digital agencies, these changes themselves may be signs of a more fundamental shift in creative work process, made possible by the shifting work patterns in the digital space.

Institutionalization of Organizational Norms

Organizational norms defined work schedules, work patterns, and the acceptance of alternative work arrangements. Informants from traditional agencies remained entrenched in an organizational culture built around norms that did not accommodate any sense of work-life balance. In digital agencies, which tended to be start-up or newer organizations, these norms were not as entrenched. Whereas patterns of presenteeism, long hours, and a male majority had become institutionalized in creative departments at traditional agencies, digital agencies sparked comments about how the presence of women had affected those norms.

For example, the digital agencies’ organizational structures still were designed with work flow in mind, but they allowed for different work-life balances. Thus the respondents reported flexible policies, with less demand for presenteeism and more ability to work offsite as needed (D2, D5, D8). One instance of such flexibility involved their approach to remote work, which differed greatly from the approach in traditional agencies: “When I started working for [digital agency], I was working from home, and it absolutely worked. And I worked with a lot of people who also worked from home … a lot of men even” (D8). New tools and work processes emerged in atmospheres that enhanced productivity and enabled work-life balance. One digital agency relied on an online wiki both internally and in interactions with clients, recounting that “We go back and forth with the things that we need to reach our goals and milestones and different parts of the client relationship,” whereas “When I was in a traditional agency it was very difficult, and you really do feel like you’re sacrificing a lot” (D8).

Another departmental norm in traditional agencies places a stigma on motherhood. Because norms of childbearing had not yet been established in digital agencies, people more quickly became acclimated to the idea:

In traditional agencies, despite the widespread availability of technology that could permit creative personnel to work from home, send in work electronically, and teleconference, such practices were rare. Traditional agencies were inflexible with regard to work-life policies, such as flex-time, flexi-place, or part-time arrangements, frequently citing the incompatibility of such policies with the nature of a service business to deny even long-term employees any special arrangements (T4, T8, T12, T14).

Even female-owned traditional agencies (T1, T3, T5) persisted in expectations of presenteeism, and part-time arrangements were uncommon. Numerous respondents reported that they could not work full time and be parents, so they opted to freelance or start their own agencies to gain more control over their lives (T5, T10, T12).

One informant who worked for an interactive division of a traditional agency noted that she perceived few differences between traditional and digital agencies in terms of the work process: “It’s been exactly the same. It’s run by a guy, usually on the younger side, and a lot of the grunt work is done by women” (D7). This respondent noted that women are not well represented in the upper ranks of the department, and so overall, the environment was very similar to that of a traditional agency. Thus new digital agencies appear to have a unique opportunity to break the cultural norms associated with traditional agency creative departments, though digital firms with strong ties to traditional agencies have a hard time doing so.

In summary, digital agencies appear unencumbered by the entrenched culture and routines, which have been established over generations in traditional agencies. The increased functional diversity required by a digital agency represents a great enough departure from existing agency structures that a new breed of digital agencies has been developing its own creative processes. These agencies also have broken free from (or never established) the institutionalized norms associated with advertising. The three themes that we identify thus are interwoven: Digital work is a significant departure from traditional work, so new digital agencies are winning business from large, established agencies. These new agencies can experiment with new models of creative work processes, and the increased functional diversity of digital work demands more team collaboration. The emphasis on functional specialties and collaboration enhances opportunities for female creatives. Although the digital shops’ organizational structure was designed for work flow, it also has created a powerful shift in creative work processes and norms.


Women account for a majority of online spending and make 85% of household purchase decisions, equal to $500 billion in spending in the United States alone (Kaufman 2008). Women’s overall Internet usage now exceeds men’s (Bulik 2008). More important though is what women are doing online: “They’re shopping and seeking information-dining, entertainment, health and wellness-but they are also spending more money on gaming than men and increasing amounts of time watching video. They spend significant amounts of time communicating, messaging and on social network sites and blogs” (Barletta 2006).

Even as the advertising industry has been defending its turf from all manner of upstarts and trying to keep up with advances in digital technology, no one has paid much attention to who is working in the Web-driven world, or how. The only creative woman who has earned overarching industry recognition of late comes from an “advertising agency” that is not; that is Advertising Age‘s “2008 Women to Watch” included just one creative worker: Kris Kiger of R/GA, the head designer of a decidedly untraditional shop (Advertising Age 2008). This clue suggests where and how women are making their way into creative positions in advertising.

The next big thing for digital advertising is to determine how to leverage social media, and women are well positioned to do so. Social media fundamentally entail community and relationships-traditionally female turf. As consumers, women are driving the success of social networking (eMarketer 2009a, 2009b), so it should follow that they are ideally suited to determine how to leverage social media as a brand builder. What women instinctively understand is that relationships must be maintained to be sustained-and digital relationships are relationships, first and foremost. Smartphone technology also could be a game-changer in consumer shopping, an area in which women have strong expertise.

Coding wizardry drove the first Internet advertising ventures, but as the medium becomes increasingly sophisticated, it calls for different skills. The twenty-first century digital creative needs a deep understanding of branding and consumer behavior. Technical skills are less important than an ability to use technology creatively across platforms, “to provide a much deeper interactive experience for consumers” (VCU Brandcenter 2009). At its core, advertising is about connecting through storytelling. So will this shift move into big ad agencies? Probably not. It is profoundly difficult to change a persistent, pervasive creative culture, because “There are more people to train and nurture. It’s more difficult to translate values and communicate goals. It’s easier for breakdowns in process and quality controls to insidiously creep in and go unnoticed” (Goldsmith 2001, p. 14).

But the growth of new players holds tremendous promise. As we noted previously, traditional agencies are losing their hold on creative work, and the newer entrants appear much more amenable to women in creative leadership positions. None of these firms seem to have institutionalized the barriers that often constrain women: gender stereotypes, inadequate access to mentors and informal networks of support, and inflexible workplace structures (Rhode 2003). These new agencies are structured and operate differently than traditional ad agencies. They are much more likely to provide flexible work schedules and telecommuting. Neither women nor men fear taking advantage of flexible work-life policies in the digital workplace. Their agility and lack of fetters related to their past means these firms have great promise for creativity and for women.

Will it happen? Or will cultural biases sustain the status quo? The promise of new media has not been borne out yet. Our findings thus provide fodder for further research that quantifies the results from our qualitative research and reveals if more women are working in digital media and achieving leadership status. Research should investigate whether different creative work processes in different types of agencies result in different outcomes. It also should assess the role of minorities in new media companies versus traditional agencies. With or without research though, the industry is changing so rapidly that we will be able to obtain the answers to our research questions relatively soon. According to Anne Benvenuto, the Executive Vice President of Strategic Services at R/GA, in the next five years, acceleration and change will be even greater than they have been in the past decade (Steinberg 2008).

If we find any clue that women are coming into their own in the digital age, we find it in Advertising Age‘s three-minute video from the June 2008 New York Media Information Exchange Group breakfast panel. Debating the topic of whether all marketers should have a mobile marketing strategy were three young professionals … all women. It certainly appears that we are looking into the eye of a paradigm shift. 

Appendix A 

Interview Questions

  1. Could you explain your current job, and a bit about how you reached that position?
  2. Do you think women have different personality traits that differentiate them from men in the workplace?
  3. If so, is this good or bad? Why?
  4. What made you choose to go into a creative position in advertising?
  5. What are primary factors for hiring and promotion of creatives in your agency?
  6. Do you see that there are fewer women than men in higher level creative positions, for example, ACD, group CD, agency creative director?
  7. Why do you think this is so?
  8. Do you have any suggestions for solutions to this problem?
  9. How are creative assignments given in your agency? Are women given the same type of assignments as their male counterparts?
  10. Do you notice a gender difference in creative people? Does gender impact their creativity or their work? How? Is that more or less apparent for writers or art directors?
  11. How many creative men/women are there in your agency creative department? How many in your creative group?
  12. Could you describe the work climate/culture of your creative group?
  13. Did you have any role models/mentors that helped you get to your position today? Were they female/male?
  14. Do you have any children? Ages? Who is/was their primary caretaker before school? After school? During business travel?
  15. Any other comments?
  16. Background/demographic items:
    • Age/marital status
    • Current title/position
    • Number of years in current position, number of years in advertising
    • Description of creative department structure
    • Agency size/location

Appendix B 

First-Round Subjects: Traditional Agencies

T1: Southeast. Divorced, 12-year relationship, no children. CEO and creative director of agency, art director, 54 years of age.

T2: Northeast. Advertising trade organization. Former creative department manager/in-house recruiter. Fine arts background. 60s.

T3: West. Agency CEO, copywriter. No children. Stay-at-home husband. 61.

T4: Creative recruiter, agency, former portfolio school partner. Married, two children, 50s.

T5: Northeast. Agency principal/CD. Married, two children, 50s.

T6: Co-agency CD/agency partner. Midwest. Art director entry. Married, two children.

T7: Adjunct professor, retired agency Chief Creative Officer. Divorced. Mother and grandmother, 60s.

T8: Realtor, 3 years. ACD, art director New York, 25 years agency, 5 years freelance, 53.

T9. Advertising professor. ACD, art director in Southwest and New York. Married, no children, 38.

T10. Southeast. President and CD for 20+years of own agency. Married, one child, two stepchildren, 48.

T11. Southeast. Ad agency senior designer. No children, 35.

T12. Midwest. CD/writer, 25+ years, own agency 6 years, 52.

T13 West. ACD, 10 years experience. Married, no children, 36.

T14. West. CD/writer. Married, no children. Husband retired, 55.

T15. West. ACD/art director, 53.

T16. Australasia. Communications consultant, 50, Former agency CD/art director in U.S. and U.K.

T17. Canada. Agency CD.

T18. Southeast. GCD. Married, three children, professor husband, 40s.

Appendix C 

Second-Round Subjects: Digital Agencies

D1: Northeast. GCD. Male.

D2: Canada. ECD. Female.

D3: Southeast. Founder. Female.

D4: Northwest. ECD. Female.

D5: Northeast. Design Director. Female.

D6: Northeast. CEO and founder. Male.

D7: Northeast. Freelance CD. Female.

D8: Northeast. Agent. Female.

D9: Southeast. GCD. Female.


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About the Authors

Karen L. Mallia is an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina. Her research interests include creativity and creative work, and the ever-evolving nature of what is called “advertising.” In a previous life, she spent 20 years as a copywriter and creative director at TBWAChiatDay, Scali, McCabe, Sloves, Ogilvy, and other agencies. Email: [email protected]

Kasey Windels (Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin) is an assistant professor in the College of Communication at DePaul University in Chicago. Her research interests include creative advertising and organizational creativity. Email: [email protected].