The mechanisms behind the 3% Conference’s macro-revelations and micro-revolutions

The 3% Conference took place in Chicago for 2018 / Bronac McNeill

The 3% Conference has sparked a flurry of personal revelations – but will these be enough to truly diversify the creaky creative establishment?

It’s 4pm on day one of the 3% Conference in Chicago. Two marketers sit opposite each other working on their laptops. One checks out the other’s name badge.

“Hey – you work at Google, right?” she asks. “My marketing team just sent me this ad that’s set to go live. Does the copy looks weird to you?”

“Yeah, I think so, because they’ve used sentence caps.”

It’s this kind of interaction that makes the diversity-focused 3% Conference unique. A sense of comradery, sparked by the warmth of founder Kat Gordon’s opening address, is felt throughout the drafty Navy Pier – chief creative officers mingle openly with juniors, creatives from rival networks sit side-by-side, and speakers stay to listen to the day’s content (well, most do).

The personal stories that seep into the programming mean that delegates cry here, too. Day two of this year’s conference addressed stories of sexual harassment, stress, terminal cancer, and disability, prompting teary-eyed audience members to take hold of the mic and say thank-you to panelists brave enough to tell those stories. Women’s anger was examined through a sociological lens. Meanwhile, day one had provided many of the how-to’s: how to ask for a pay rise, how to be a supportive coworker, how to manage creative people effectively.

The majority of the US’s big agency names were in attendance. Havas — faced with the unfortunately-timed departure of its chief creative officer before the first day had even wrapped — activated its experiential #BlackAtWork maze, which examined the micro-aggressions that black women in advertising deal with. However, most of the event’s partners, including FCB, Ogilvy, and DDB, choose to sponsor a keynote.

There are several reasons why these businesses attend a conference about inclusion and diversity. A rep from one large network admitted it was still a “tick-box exercise,” but others are more positive about the benefits. Most send a delegation of five to 20 senior staff (although Publicis promised 250, and Leo Burnett 75) to support their speakers, and some bring along heads of recruitment to scout female talent.

“In the beginning, we committed to the 3% Movement based on its mission of increasing representation of women in creative,” explained Jennifer Risi, Ogilvy’s chief communications officer, worldwide. “Over time, it has given us the opportunity to meet and potentially recruit talented women.”

Martha Hiefield, chief executive, Americas at WPP’s Possible, noted that the agency had “seen a direct benefit in recruiting” from the conference. Edelman and Digitas went as far as advertising their job sites on fliers in the ladies’ restrooms.

A number of agencies choose to send younger members of the team, while organizations such as the Ad Club of New York pay for a delegation of rising stars to attend. Agency 72&Sunny took this approach: Instead of an event sponsorship, it brought along six young creators and students “who normally wouldn't have access to this kind of conference.”

For these younger attendees, the conference was a positive experience.

“I feel fucking empowered,” said Bélén Marquez, an art director at Droga5. “Honestly, just to see so many women in the industry and so many creative leaders and be able to talk to them and get their knowledge ... I’ve been spending all day thinking about the future. I’ve been thinking about how I can help the people behind me.”

Her colleague, senior copywriter Nedal Ahmed, agreed.

“I feel the onus is on me now; I feel a bit of responsibility – what can I do for younger creatives? The beauty is, I’ve met women who have created all these businesses, podcasts, blogs, websites ... so what can I do within an agency? Who can I help?”

It’s these kinds of personal commitments that make the 3% Conference. Cindy Gallop, the recurring final keynote speaker, reiterated that delegates should “get the fuck out” and start their own business if they feel they are undervalued or mistreated in their current job.

Accolades went to those who have launched new platforms to improve diversity and inclusion – most of which aren’t aligned to a pre-existing agency – including stock photography site Tonl and Candace Queen’s Blacks in Advertising.

The question remains whether learnings from the conference will be taken seriously by senior management in existing businesses — necessary for change to take place at a macro scale. Much of that rests on male leaders attending the conference not just to speak, but also to listen; while Gordon stresses that the 3% Conference is not a women’s conference, 86% of attendees this year were female.

“It’s great, but seriously, where are the men?” asked one creative, questioning how much progress can be made if “we just speak to each other in this echo chamber.” Ahmed, on the other hand, said she enjoyed the feminine vibe of the conference as it created a “safe space” for discussion that was distinct from the other advertising conferences on the calendar.

“I think this is a failure in leadership and imagination,” admitted Joe Oh, president and chief executive of FCB West. “I take the blame for my part. We are telling our employees that this is a women-only event and to only send women.

“That is the opposite of what we should be doing. We should be sending as many men as we do women. Without making men a part of the solution, this issue will never change for good.”

In a break from her previous speeches, Gallop spent half her time on stage highlighting new agencies, consultancies, and platforms that “don’t ‘lean in’ to the [current, non-diverse] system” but “break the system.” If these companies succeed, and if more launch off the back of their success, there’s every chance it could further destabilize a stubborn and already fragile industry.

And those junior creatives who felt so inspired by the conference? They will take their micro-revolutions and turn them into something new, rather than unleashing them on agencies of old.

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