Agency Founder Selina Petosa Talks Gender Imbalance and the Future of Digital

By Patrick Coffee Comment

The ad industry rarely finds common ground on much of anything, but two particularly contentious topics do seem to have long shelf lives: gender imbalance and the “digital vs. analog” divide.

We spoke to Selina Petosa, founder and chief creative strategist of Seattle-based digital agency Rational Interaction, to get her take on these subjects.

First, here’s some work Rational created for client Microsoft in 2012 (other major clients include Sony, Amazon, AT&T, Expedia and Cisco).

Q&A below.

How would you describe Rational?

We are an end-to-end interactive agency. We certainly have video as a core competency, and most of our video work is placed through digital — pre-rolls as well as video ads. We also have traditional creative content developers: creative directors, art directors, copywriters. But we are firm believers that consumers live and breathe through digital and that we must deliver messages where the users are.

This fact will only grow more important as people’s attention spans get shorter.

Many of our readers seem to think that digital agencies don’t do any “real” creative work. How would you respond to that claim?

Digital agencies get a bad rap because we’re so focused on tech that we sometimes forget that the experience is all about great creative.

Many digital agencies started with digital at the core, but all the members of the Rational team have rich traditional creative backgrounds.

We started our careers on the agency side, but we found the creative/strategic approach lacking on the buy side with digital partners.

So most of your current staffers had roles at other agencies?

Yes. I served as in-house creative director before moving to the agency side and working with a couple of smaller shops.

But I get the criticism; Rational aims to blend digital experience with solid creative ideas. We have focused on creating a rich team that was not educated through digital channels and then teaching them digital.

Are the industry’s much-discussed gender imbalances as bad as they seem?

Of course I have always noticed that leadership in the industry is more traditionally male. I myself have been inspired by some early entrepreneurs (Margo Chase, for example, did a lot of packaging design and started a company on her own).

But my business has always been more about looking to these examples rather than being overwhelmed by the gender imbalance.

And this issue is not unique to advertising: it’s true in tech and business in general. Agency leadership is no different than traditional business roles, and I see that with clients as well. As female entrepreneurs, we have to be comfortable with that. I think it’s changing, but it’s a slow process.

What about the issue of agencies trying to more effectively reach female consumers? Should they bring more women on-board?

It certainly doesn’t hurt. It’s about trying to understand your audience. I question the agencies popping up that are fully focused on female audiences, but I think they have an opportunity: women bring a unique perspective on understanding what female consumers want and how to move that needle in the right direction.

What do women in the industry need to do to counteract the problem?

Agencies tend to be insular and competitive, but we can open up, share work, stories and studies, and grow the industry collectively rather than focusing on our individual agencies.

That is starting to happen a little bit. We have a couple of local groups in Seattle, but the agency space has a gap to fill.

The larger industry hasn’t really even acknowledged that this is a problem; they’re still wrestling with it.

Many “traditional” creatives resist the industry’s shift toward digital. Could you explain why you think it’s necessary?

I would say that digital offers unique opportunities on two fronts. First: extending the reach of your messages. Think about where consumers are spending their time – a majority of it is spent on digital devices. But phones and tablets are simply alternate outlets. Digital isn’t an either/or; it’s just another interface.

The second point concerns what digital allows advertisers to do that traditional does not. Digital has the ability to deliver insights via data metrics that we’ve never had in traditional. It allows us to learn, quickly react and change based on data. It’s an advertiser’s creative dream: nothing would seem more arrogant than to throw out creative work without validating it with your audience.

Not only is digital giving us new opportunities to connect, but the data analytics that help you prove that the message/concept is working are invaluable. And clients are demanding that.

Creatives that deny it will be left behind.