Q&A with 97% Conference creator John Kovacevich: 'Absurdity requires an absurd response'

The creator of the 97% Conference, a satirical Twitter account poking fun at the lack of diversity in the advertising industries, has spoken about the motivations behind the move and the role that humour can play in addressing inequalities.

John Kovacevich

Speaking at the 3% Conference in New York, freelance creative director John Kovacevich, whose identity has remained unknown since he set up the account a year ago, said the "absurdity" of a lack of female creative directors in the industry requried an "absurd response".

When the 3% Conference was established, just three per cent of creative directors were female. The 97% Conference Twitter account parodies the predominantly male industry, using the hashtag #MaintaintheRatio in a play on the #ChangetheRatio mantra.

"You can use humour to get people to have an emotional response to something. In any cause, if all you're doing is lecturing people in what they should believe, it's going to be very hard to convert them," said Kovacevich during his session at the conference.

The Drum caught up with the creative director to discuss the inspiration for the 97% Conference.

What was the original inspiration for the account?

I was aware of the 3% Conference - I worked for Goodby Silverstein in San Francisco, one of the many sponsors of the conference, so i was aware of what they were all about. Last year, during the 2015 conference, I was following what was happening on Twitter, while I was waiting for my six-year-old daughter to fall asleep. I was thinking, who would be against the idea that we need more women in advertising? What would that group look like? I thought, 'wouldn't it be ridiculous if there was the 97% Conference?' and I opened the Twitter account right there.

I had a couple of tweets and then Ad Week ran a little piece and it got a lot of attention, and I've kept it up and kept tweeting throughout the year.

Kat Gordon, the organiser of the 3% Conference, assumed that it had to be written by a woman as it was so insightful. Were you offended by that?

I wasn't offended by that at all, I felt a little sheepish about it because it felt like a wonderful compliment and I didn't want to deceive Kat because I was doing it as a parody but as a loving parody and really just satirise the point of view that men didn't want women involved as creative directors so that was my impetus to reach out to her via Twitter. So she was the first person I reached out to to say 'just to let you know, I'm a man'. She was lovely about it, she said 'that's great, you seemed to know so much about what women face in the business' but she thought it was wonderful that I was in fact a guy.

Where does your insight come from? Is the account based on comments you've actually heard?

I'm a writer and I've been paired with a lot of wonderful female art directors over the years. I've had some exposure in seeing some of the crap that they've had to put up with so I think somebody who just kind of keeps their eyes open can see what's going on, but i'm also sort of a contrarian by nature so just poking fun at the structure and hierarchy of any organisation i've been in is just something I do.

Everyone already knows this is one of the most important issues facing the industry, so what role can humour play in changing things?

It struck me when I first started it a year ago that it seemed really fun and a way to highlight the ridiculousness of fighting against gender equity in creative leadership. It just seemed like the perfect way to highlight the absurdity, but as the American presidential election has gotten closer it's been harder to muster my enthusiasm for fake sexism. It just feels a little bit more serious right now, so I've had to make more of an effort because sometimes the jokes feel a little unfunny to me now. So I'm hoping it gets funnier again on November 9, after the election.

In this election we've seen some the worst of male entitlement showcased at the highest level. Are we now at a point where women are saying enough is enough?

I would hope, but it's been going on long time, even before the ascendency of Trump. Advertising has had a pretty crappy year too in terms of people saying stuff and a number of high profile things have happened.

So I think it's wonderful that people are having a conversation about this and I hope that more awareness leads to change. But im also a realist and know that people in power will protect their power and their money at all costs, so it'll be a long battle.

The theme of the conference is 'what are you going to do about it?' - so what would you say men can do to get involved?

I did this on a lark and I've been glad that to play a small part in highlighting the absurdity of the inequality in the industry. We all have to speak up and do something. Kat talks a lot about being a manbassador and being an advocate for women in the workplace, so I think we all have a role to play in doing it.

I don't want to overstate my role in the effort - I have a little funny parody Twittter feed, I'm not changing the world - but i think everybody can do a little something.

Read more of Kovacevich's thinking here.

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