We have been on hiatus with this series, after a year-end recap that caused a bit of consternation. This series began as an effort to get at the thinking of the very top leaders of branding firms, to see if said leaders really “own” the thought leadership their firms are presenting. Of course, this led us directly down that alley-of-no-exit which is unfortunately the reality of the branding/advertising/marketing world: namely, that top executive slots are still overwhelmingly occupied by — you guessed it — white older males. So we decided to branch out beyond CEOs, and beyond branding firms, to include thinkers who are influencing the practice and industry of branding in meaningful, even transformative ways.

Who, then, better to interview than Kat Gordon, the former big-agency creative, and now founder and head of the 3% Movement, who in just five years has helped boost the percentage of women as top creative leaders from only 3% to now 11.5 % in the ad industry overall. An impressive, if hardly sufficient, feat. Shortly before Kat was featured by Adweek as one of 37 top “gender diversity disruptors” in the agency business, we got to sit down with her in her Palo Alto office. As you’ll see and hear, this Leading Brand Thinker is thinking about much more than just gender.

Brandingmag: Before we get into what you’re doing, could you give us a little description of the “why” behind the 3% movement? Why did this start? What’s your purpose here?

Kat Gordon: Our purpose is that we believe in creativity above everything — and there’s a direct correlation between diversity and creativity that just was not being honored in most ad agency settings, and that was frustrating to me. There wasn’t a good representation of people making the ideas that are supposed to move the consumer market. It just seemed like an enormous opportunity, so that’s really our purpose.

Bm: Okay, so we have the why. Can you move on to the what? What are you doing? Where did you start? Where are you now?

KG: We started in 2012, with a one-day conference in San Francisco to build community and awareness around the issue. That exploded into traveling events, and we’ve been to every major US city, as well as Toronto and London.

Now we’ve begun doing certification and consulting, where we go into agencies and actually certify them around how inclusive their environments are. We help agencies get a grip on what they are doing right, what they are or aren’t doing enough of, so they can create truly inclusive environments where creativity will flourish.

“Our conference is not just about inspirational keynotes […] a lot of it is about what these micro-actions look like in action and how change begets change.”

Bm: Okay, back up a minute to the conferences themselves. Often people go to these industry get-togethers, hear speeches, feel good about themselves for a couple days…then go away and forget it all. What have you been doing to really try and break through to attendees at, and after, these conferences?

KG: The thing that I think sets us apart from events like you’re describing is we’re very organized around what we call “micro-actions.”

We have a document on our website called “100 Things.” These are 100 doable doses that can work within any corporate environment—not just an ad agency—which can be implemented to create more inclusive cultures. So our conference is not just inspirational keynotes, although it is that. It is not just panels about professional development, although it is that. A lot of it is about what these micro-actions look like in action and how change begets change.

We’re very optimistic, and kind of metrics-oriented. Even our name is—the origin is that only 3% of creative directors were women when we started out. Now we’re up to 11.5%. We’re really about giving agencies and companies a road map, so they don’t just leave fired up but then don’t know what to do next. They know exactly what to do next.

Bm: Okay. So, going back to those “micro-actions” for a moment. Can you pick out a couple from your list of “100 Things” that you think have been particularly effective for people, or that some leaders in the industry are at least willing to take on?

KG: Well, there’s one that’s larger, but it’s also one of the most powerful actions to take, and I am seeing agencies get behind it: the wage audit. Because you really can’t claim to value everyone equally if you don’t pay everyone equally. To do a wage audit, to ensure that you are paying your people equally regardless of gender or race, is one of the most potent practical actions to take, and one that I’m seeing good traction around.

Bm: The old truism of “follow the money.”

KG: Well of course. You don’t value people equally if you don’t pay them equally. And a lot of it is about giving people the opportunity for more visibility. That means, if you are a female creative director, one of the micro-actions you can take is to pledge to judge at least one award show a year. That way we can’t complain that juries are more male than female or too white. So show up and do your juror duty!

Bm:  The 3% Movement started off addressing gender equality, which is often seen as a fairness issue. But it seems that now you’re broadening the scope of your argument to include the objective of business efficacy. You can even see that in the tagline on your website: “Diversity equals creativity equals profitability.” So how, exactly, are you pitching the benefits of the 3% Movement to the industry?

“I know what creativity in action looks like, and it does not look like a bunch of people who look like you and me sitting around. It looks like all the people of America sitting around coming up with ideas.”

KG: Well, what’s great is that I don’t really feel I need to any longer. In the beginning I did have to explain, “Oh, there’s actually a correlation between representation and creativity, and that translates to profitability.” But there’s so much research now about how diverse boards outperform companies with less diverse boards. In fact, I just read a stat that if you go from zero percent women on a corporate board to 30%, your profitability goes up 15%. Who wouldn’t want that?

Actually, I don’t believe I ever approached this as a fairness issue. It was never because, “I’m a female and I don’t like being one of such a small group of females.” I just thought this is lunacy.

I know what creativity in action looks like, and it does not look like a bunch of people who look like you and me sitting around. It looks like all the people of America sitting around coming up with ideas. That’s where really, really amazing breakthrough thinking happens. I was always motivated by ideas, the bigger the ideas, the more nuanced, the more dimensional. I still am. So this is not just about women. It’s about representation of every kind.

Bm: One attitude I’ve observed in leaders approaching diversity issues is to say, “Well, we’re going to be open-minded, and we’re going to invite more people to participate in the way things are now.” In other words, “We’ll keep doing it the same way. We’ll just have more women or we’ll have more people of color or whatever.” Do you see that tendency or do you see a willingness to shift more fundamentally?

KG:  I think that’s an excellent question, and the term “diversity and inclusion” is actually backwards. It should be “inclusion and diversity,” because you can solve your diversity problem overnight. You can hire for the headcount that makes you acceptable around certain metrics, but if a year later those people are not still working at your company, or if they don’t feel they’re part of the fabric of the company, you’ve changed nothing. You’ve complicated matters.

So it is a huge culture shift. Building inclusive cultures is a harder nut to crack. I do think companies are finally figuring out that just hiring more women, more people of color, maybe even older people, if ageism is an issue in your industry, well, that’s not enough. There’s a feeling of ambient belonging that needs to happen—and if it’s not happening, then all you’ve done is changed the optics, but not really the essence, of the company.

Bm: So you’ve gone from being the 3% Conference to the 3% Movement. What’s the broad vision from here forward?

KG: We started as a conference because what was really lacking around this issue was community. So we started building that community city by city, and building awareness, and there was a clear and resounding “yes” in response to that.

And then we got to the point, maybe about three and a half years in, where whenever I would meet with agencies (and I sit down with a lot of agencies; they invite me in), they were all asking the same questions. How are we doing? How are we doing compared to our competitors? Where should we be aiming for? And no one was providing those answers.

It wasn’t as if I had a master plan to start this movement. It was “Oh, I get it.” The community is birthed, the awareness is there, the willingness to do some introspection is there, and now we need to move into accountability … activism … activation, I should call it.

And so my team and I did some proprietary research about what makes women in creative cultures boil. We found that they had different lists of wishes, different even than even other women in advertising and other departments. So we created an algorithm and a set of things we would assess agencies on, and we conducted a benchmarking study where we looked at where are the watermarks and where do we think a truly progressive inclusive culture would fit on those metrics?

And so this summer, 2017, we are having the first series of agencies go through that assessment process, in the aims of becoming 3% Certified. And so the name, “The 3% Movement,” was very purposeful. It was to say, “Hey, we are not just events; we are change agents around cultures.”

The genesis of 3% was based on my own experience in the ad industry as a female creative. But, it’s kind of a case study around what happens to creativity in any situation where there’s an underrepresentation of any group. Homogeneity is the enemy of creativity.

And so, if you look at any company in America or anywhere globally, innovation is somehow at the core of every company no matter what it makes or produces or ships. And so this kind of inclusive culture filter is relevant, really, to every company that wants to own the future.

Bm: Interesting that you shift from creativity to innovation, because part of what I wonder about is advertising has always been about advertisers — it’s been about ads. It’s been about doing “the work.” But as we watch our industry change, as we watch the big Accentures and Deloittes of the world start to take on design and innovation, and perhaps even some branding and advertising functions, do you see this really shifting to be more of an innovation industry that needs to be served by diversity?

KG: Yes. In a way, advertising has always been the end of the line. You get briefed with, “Here’s the product. Here are its attributes. Make people want to buy it.” But if somebody is a really good creative thinker and question asker and strategist, they can be useful far further up the line about “Why is this the product we’re shipping?” or “Why isn’t there a product that solves for this?”

And so I feel that engaging creative people’s problem-solving capabilities in design product development is a natural progression for advertising. And that’s juicier to me as a creative director to imagine being utilized in that way.

BmOne of the limitations of the ad industry is that it’s always been pretty siloed. Do you see the movement in getting beyond just creatives, beyond just women, to take on diversity more broadly?

KG: No, I think we’re already there. The benefit of diversity is diversity. And so the more you can task every single person within an organization to embody that and believe that, the better the output of the entire company.

Bm: So, in your programs, in your conferences, et cetera, are you seeing more than creatives participating?

KG: Absolutely. What’s interesting is that people often assume, “Oh, I know exactly who should speak at your conference because I know a female creative director.” And my response is, “Have you ever looked at our speaker roster?” We have 90 speakers at our conference. They are authors, they are researchers, they are gender strategists, they are professors, they are military people. They include an eleven-year-old social entrepreneur.

The genesis of who we are is not who we are now. I’m at a point where I don’t talk about myself as an advertising creative director. I talk about myself as a social change entrepreneur who is challenging my industry—and industries beyond—to really look at how their diversity can impact success, creativity, and profitability.

Bm:  What would be your advice to a CEO of an agency, or perhaps even a brand or its CMO, that wanted to access greater diversity, wanted to effect real change. What would you advise as their most important starting point?

KG: To talk about it very openly, in their annual report, at their company-wide meetings, on their blog. And to make it very clear that it’s a value the company is standing behind. You can’t just have it be something that HR owns and talks about from a hiring standpoint. It has to be a value that gets discussed and celebrated and revisited.

“Once you really understand the benefit of diversity, it is the most exhilarating thing to pursue.”

In talking to leaders, I see the ones who get it, and the ones that are just starting to get it, and the ones that don’t get it at all. And it’s clear, just by virtue of how much time they spend talking about it, and how much investment they put in it, exactly how excited they are by it.

Once you really understand the benefit of diversity, it is the most exhilarating thing to pursue, because it means a brighter future for everyone. It’s more fun, it’s more dimensional, it’s more complex. Who among us would not want those things?

Bm: What would you say to individuals, starting with individual women in the industry? How do they enter into that exhilaration?

KG: I think women already get it. Well, I don’t want to make huge generalizations, but I don’t think there are a lot of women out there that truly doubt that they have contributions to make. They might have some noise in their head about how big they can aspire to be, but that’s just because of what’s been made available to them.

Bm: But if you’re working in an organization where your contributions aren’t being recognized, or perhaps even welcomed, what would you suggest as first action steps for individuals?

KG: I would leave.

In fact, there was an interesting exchange (on a private Facebook group I belong to for women in advertising) and a woman posted something about how she was being recruited by a large agency. She had gone onto Glassdoor and read that there were some really bad culture problems there for women, and there wasn’t good representation in the group she would be hired into. She wasn’t sure what to do.

So I wrote in the comment section, “Here’s what I would do. I would bring those Glassdoor reviews to my meeting, read them aloud, give the management a chance to address it, see how they’re addressing it, and then I would only take the job if I could bring other women with me.” Because if you are one woman trying to make change in the C-suite or in upper management and there are no other women, it won’t happen. You need to have that 30 percent that I talked about earlier. It’s like that’s the tipping point where you’re not seen by your gender; you’re just seen as a contributor and where you can actually start to really make change.

So, if you’re in a company, like you just said, where there aren’t women and there doesn’t seem to be a value of women, you don’t have to stay. It’s like, you don’t have to finish reading a shitty book. You can actually stop reading a shitty book. You can actually leave a shitty company and go find a company that does value you.

And that’s the whole thing about 3% Certified. We’re trying to short-list for women where they would want to work. That’s the beauty of certification; it gives you a quick indicator of the environments where you have unlimited runway.

Image: Bronac McNeill