For those working at ad agencies in sprawling metropolitan cities across the country, the narrative generally tends to be that men, more specifically white men, dominate the top rankings within creative shops. Women hold only 11 percent of all creative director positions in the business, according to The 3 Percent Conference. But take a trip to Sacramento, and it’s a different story.
Women run or hold top positions at 10 of the most renowned agencies in California’s capital. There’s Lori Bartle, president of MeringCarson; Estelle Saltzman, principal and board chair of Runyon Saltzman; and Debbie Augustine-Nelson, founder and executive creative director of Augustine, an agency that works with brands from Avocados From Mexico to Mission Foods.
“There is less of a ‘good old boys’ club in Sacramento that may be more pervasive in other larger, more traditional East Coast, urban markets,” explained MeringCarson founder and CEO Dave Mering. “The prevalence of women just seems normal to those of us who grew up in this ad community. ”
So what makes Sacramento stand out?
Cost of living is a huge factor, notes Bartle. She finds many applicants today are women with families looking to relocate from major cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. “They’re at that point where they are ready to leave the city and they still want to do great work,” said Bartle. “We give people that opportunity.”
Bartle’s agency, MeringCarson—which counts Visit California, Major League Soccer and Visit Napa Valley as some of its major clients—does its best to nurture that talent and promote women throughout their careers.
Mering agreed that cost of living is key, but added that the possibility for work-life balance in a more low-key city is also a plus. “The intimidation factor is less pervasive here. The barriers just don’t exist that would prevent women from putting out their own shingle or rising up in an existing company,” he said. In other words, it’s easier for women to have children, take some time for maternity leave and return to work.
Another factor in Sacramento’s gender parity could also be the simple fact that more women are starting and running their own agencies there, said Cindy Gallop, founder and CEO of IfWeRanTheWorld. Female-founded agencies are rarer in cities like New York and Los Angeles, she added, “because when you work for an industry that doesn’t value you and treats you like shit, then you dramatically lack the confidence to believe you could ever make it on your own.”
Sacramento’s Runyon Saltzman has been run by women since it was created in 1976 by Jean Runyon , a public relations executive, and Estelle Saltzman, a former journalist. “We got up to a 15-women agency without ever having to hire a male,” recalled Saltzman. “We kept promoting our receptionist, and in those days no self-respecting male would apply for a receptionist job.”
Sacramento is already ahead of the curve when it comes to diversity too, which leads Gallop to believe that reflects on industries within the city. In 2016 WalletHub ranked Sacramento as the fourth most diverse city in terms of race and ethnicity. And, in fact, Time magazine in 2002 named Sacramento “America’s most diverse city.”
Gallop noted that after browsing the Sacramento Ad Club’s website and social media, it’s clear there are plenty of women and ethnicities that are visible. But “African Americans are significantly lacking there,” she said. So while Sacramento clearly leads many other U.S. cities in diversity, there is still, it seems, more work to be done.