Female Creative Director Isn’t Going to ‘Lean In’ Anymore

By Patrick Coffee 

We’ve all heard quite a bit about sexism in the ad industry, and for good reason. But we haven’t seen too many first-person testimonials that go beyond generalizations to discuss what this sort of attitude looks like in practice.

Enter Lisa Leone, a freelance creative director who has worked at Leo Burnett, JWT, BBDO, Y&R, Havas, Ogilvy … pretty much every major agency in the Chicago area.

Yesterday, Leone published a Medium essay titled “Ad Girl, Interrupted.” It’s pretty much a must-read. In case you’re ready to be skeptical, she opens with a critique of the Lean In and 3 Percent Conference movements, writing: “As far as I could tell, ‘Lean In’ was just another BS topic fueling Ted Talks and viral videos that sound swell but don’t play out in reality.”

Then, back to that reality: “I’ve spent almost the entirety of my career trying to hide the fact that I’m female.”

Leone notes that she has long declined to work on “lady projects and brands,” a sentiment mirroring our recent conversation with Jaime Robinson and Lisa Clunie of Joan. And many have called her “difficult,” a word that will sound all too familiar to plenty of women who don’t work anywhere near the ad industry.

Like so many others, she was told not to make too much noise. To “Lean In,” if you will. Here are some of the incidents she recounts:

  • “My partner and I produced a very successful campaign. I was equally responsible for the success. He was promoted. I was not.”
  • She once made the very reasonable request that her boss stop looking at her chest so she could ask him a question. He said, “I’m sorry, I just can’t.”
  • Her creative partner “confided” that he would like to sleep with her and she declined. Said partner then went to their boss to break up the team.
  • A creative director once began adding “group” to the beginning of his title despite the fact that he had not been promoted. Bosses found this so amusing that they went ahead and gave him the promotion.
  • While applying for a job, she was told: “Your work is amazing. But we’re just not looking for female creatives at your level.”
  • A (female) GCD told Leone’s (female) creative partner that she “can be a bully.” Her (male) boss then told her to confront this individual, which she did. The resulting mess led her to resign.
  • She was literally told not to talk or ask questions during a pitch.
  • “On the one hand, the day rate was pretty good. On the other hand, the day rate was 30 to 100% less than my male counterparts.
  • An agency president, discussing an agency CEO: “He already has a wife. He doesn’t need another one. Stop nagging him.”

This is all completely awful. But it keeps going–and if anything, it gets worse.

  • “Recruiters thought I was the best candidate for an ECD position and enthusiastically presented me to a big shot global CCO, who replied that he’d never heard of me. They hired an equally-nameless male creative instead.”
  • “Was told by an agency recruiter to expect an offer letter in the morning … a former (male) boss whom I had not worked with for over 15 years casually told the (male) head of the agency that hiring me would be a mistake because I was difficult. Never heard from them again.”

Such incidents are both depressingly predictable and still kind of shocking in their absolute dickishness.

Leone’s understandable response is, essentially, “Fuck this bullshit.” She writes, “I’m a kick-ass creative who does wonders for brands and writes content that makes human beings smile, who also happens to be female.” And she’s pretty tired of acting like that’s not the case.

Leone concludes that she’s still skeptical of the “Lean In” approach, because women everywhere have been leaning for some time. She then encourages others to do what she did and speak out about their experiences.

Will this happen? A few years ago we would have said no, but our tip box is always open.