first person

Here’s What Ad-World Sexism Is Really Like

A first-person account of life as a woman in the ad industry.
A first-person account of life as a woman in the ad industry. Photo: Ingram Publishing/Getty Images

The first time I heard about Lean In, I had an impulsively pissy reaction to it. Lean In, the 3% Conference, and everything of the like set out to “change the ratio,” balance the male-dominated ranks with more women. However, Lean In implies we aren’t even trying in the first place. But we are; there are lots of us leaning in. I had been leaning in my entire career. 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. It’s another case of identifying the outward symptoms of inequality and calling it a day, instead of uncovering the systemic reasons it’s happening. It’s lazy.

I didn’t share my reaction with anyone until now, though. After all, to not love Lean In is to betray my kind, right? Sensing I was in the minority, I shoved my instinct to Lean Elsewhere deep down inside where all of the other unresolved feelings have a party, and tried as hard as I could to control the eye rolls. Lean In was taking the spotlight away from topics that really need to be discussed. And I think it’s high time we talked about one of those topics. But I have to come clean about a few things first.

I’ve spent almost the entirety of my career trying to hide the fact that I’m female. For more than 15 years, I declined to work on lady projects and brands. I kept declining those projects, year after year, in spite of having what could be described as a fairly androgynous portfolio of work. I didn’t want to be stereotyped — I just wanted to run with the boys, and act like them too. But when I act exactly like them …

I get called difficult.

Yes, I’m opinionated, animated and vocal — all words used to describe most of my male colleagues. Yet I’m difficult. I’ve won industry awards. I’ve won new business pitches. Lots, of both. I’ve also been called sincere, strong, and talented, but for some reason difficult is the descriptor that sticks.

If difficult can be defined as “characterized by or causing hardships or problems,” I’ve met plenty of men who fit that bill. Yet somehow these difficult men (who are not even called difficult) have no negative reputation whatsoever.

I’m partly to blame, because I never talk about it. We’re constantly getting the message that if we talk about what really happens to us on a daily, weekly, yearly basis, we’ll have trouble finding work.

By publishing this, I’m essentially Jerry Maguiring myself. People will applaud. Then the phone will stop ringing. But it’s already challenging for me and many others to find work (because we’re difficult), so fuck it. Here’s some highlights from the life of an Ad Girl.

Year 1

I was offered my first job in advertising. They say the two happiest days in a boat owner’s life are the day you buy your boat and the day you sell it. Turns out advertising is much the same.

Year 2

Creative teams at an ad firm are paired in a “partnership”: copywriter and art director. My partner and I produced a very successful campaign. I was equally responsible for the success. He was promoted. I was not.

Still Year 2

I was walking down the hallway and my boss was approaching with a guy. My boss pointed to me and said, “So here she is.” The guy replied, “Oh yeah, right. Nice!” as he looked me over from head to chest. Then he literally jabbed my boss with his elbow. My boss replied, “No. I mean, this is Lisa.”

This is how I met my new partner.

A few weeks later, I stopped my boss in the hallway to ask him a question. I was wearing a T-shirt with a typewriter on it, and a cardigan; he was staring at the typewriter. I reminded him of the location of my eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But seriously, why did they have to put the typewriter right there?” I told him I would give him ten more seconds and then he would have to look up because I needed to ask him something. Ten seconds later, he stammered, “I’m sorry. I just can’t,” and walked away. I don’t remember what my question was, but I do remember it was never answered.

Year 3

My partner at the time confided that he would like to sleep with me. “That’s cool, but let’s not. And I promise I won’t tell anyone you said that, including your wife.” A few weeks later I was called into my boss’s office. He explained that he was splitting us up. “It’s no secret the two of you aren’t getting along.” We were getting along just fine. I just didn’t want to sleep with him.

A few months after that, I was partnerless, sitting in the recruiter’s office. This is when I learned that women could be more sexist than men: She feigned a barely believable display of regret, stating there simply wasn’t any way she could find me a partner because I wasn’t assigned to a particular client. I calmly asked her if it would help to show prospects my work (composed of award-winning ad campaigns). “Why?” she asked coolly. “Is it any good?”

Year 4

I interviewed for a new job. I was very honest about my personality. The head creative called his recruiter in and said, “This is Lisa. We’re hiring her. But first check her references. Apparently, she’s a bitch.”

Still Year 4

During an airline client presentation, I showed the CEO some ideas for a TV commercial. “We start with a girl sitting on airline seats in her home, and— ” “Is she naked?” he interrupted. “Do you want her to be?” I shot back. This elicited a round of belly laughs, and the campaign sold. After the meeting, I got a hearty back-slap from my (male) boss for going “toe-to-toe” with the head of an airline.

Year 5

Worked with a creative director who attended meetings with horrible work or no work at all. After a while, he started introducing himself as a group creative director to clients (he had never received a promotion). The president and chief creative officer thought this was so amusing they went ahead and promoted him to that position anyhow. I mean, who does that and gets away with it? One guess.

Year 6

Interviewed for a creative director position. Was told, “Your work is amazing. But we’re just not looking for female creatives at your level.” They must have reached their quota for the year. My bad.

Year 7

Worked with a female creative partner who was — is! immensely talented and a wonderful human being. One day when I was out of the office, a (female) GCD confronted my partner and asked if everything was okay. “Between you and me,” said the GCD, “Lisa can be a bully.” My partner was so upset by the conversation she told me what happened the second I returned to work.

Hoping he would talk to the GCD or possibly discuss the event with HR, I went to talk to my boss. He instructed me to confront her. “Tell her you know what she said and it’s unacceptable, and then walk away. Don’t let her explain or come up with an excuse. Just walk away.” This is really what he told me to do. And I was dumb enough to do it. A week later the GCD said management discussed the situation and would like me to take professional counseling classes. Completely confused, I met with my boss again. Through clenched teeth, he said that I needed to stop using him “as a lever.” I managed to string together enough words to form a resignation. No one told HR. I had to schedule my own exit interview.

Year 8

Pitched a major-league-sports organization —  the only female creative on the team. Their CMO loved me, and told my GCD and CCO. I was pulled aside back at the agency and told they asked for me to attend the next meeting. Awesome. They then proceeded to tell me I was to sit and listen at that meeting, and not talk. And only answer questions if they were specifically directed to me by my superiors. Not awesome. The next meeting was awful. I kept scribbling answers to questions in my notebook in case I was “called upon.” Perplexed, the CMO reached across the table and snatched my notes, looking for some clue as to why I wasn’t participating or talking. Needless to say we did not win the pitch.

Year 9

Sitting across from a male CCO, I was mid-interview for a freelance project when a guy walked in, interrupted, and started a casual, non-work-related conversation. Then two more guys walked in. They were talking, laughing … after about five minutes, the CCO looked at me and said, “I’m sorry. It appears as if I’ve moved on.” Awkwardly, I had to get up, find my coat, and find my own way out.

Year 10

Someone I occasionally freelanced with called me about partnering on a project for a well-known sports organization. “Normally I would look for a guy to partner with on this project, you know?” he almost bragged. “But I don’t think of you as a girl.” Thanks, dude.

Year 11

Repeatedly hired to run new business pitches while the CCO walked out the door at 5 p.m. On the one hand, the day rate was pretty good. On the other hand, the day rate was 30 to 100 percent less than that of my male counterparts. I lost a lot of sleep and never saw my family.

Year 12

My boss and I agreed on everything — until I left his office, at which point he’d turn around and do the opposite of what we’d discussed. The president of the agency gave me the following advice: “He already has a wife. He doesn’t need another one. Stop nagging him.“

A few months later I discovered that a TV campaign I created was going to be produced by another team. When I asked my boss for an explanation, he said, “That’s what we do, right? We come up with the ideas, and then let the kids go produce them.” In this instance, “kids” turned out to mean “men.”

Eventually, my boss screamed at me to “get the fuck out of the building.” Worried, I asked co-workers to write honest reviews of my performance. They all came back positive. I brought them with me to the head of HR. She dropped them on the floor and explained that I could no longer stay in my position, but was welcome to remain with the company if I agreed to be demoted, twice. I told her I would need two days to think about it. At 4:50 on the second day, she emailed, “I will take your silence as your resignation.” I tried to respond, but my email was immediately deactivated.

Year 13

Worked on a global brand for an amazing, talented female executive creative director. When the client had her removed from the account, I was asked to step up and keep things afloat while they searched for a replacement. It ended up taking about a year. We repitched the business and won. On an account that had churned through creative leadership multiple times within a single year, year after year, not only did I stay afloat, I excelled.

One day I heard through the grapevine that they had hired a (male) replacement ECD. I was never introduced.

I was pretty good at reading the writing on the wall. Still, after retaining the business, winning new business, and working 80 to 110 hours per week, I thought at the very least I could ask for a performance review. It had been almost a year and a half; I’d never received one. “I don’t know what that would accomplish,” was agency recruiter’s response.

The new ECD lasted less than eight months.

Year 14

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.

Year 15

Was told by an agency recruiter to expect an offer letter in the morning. That night at dinner, 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.

A Few Weeks Ago

I had lunch with a friend. I was at my bottom. He kept sharing job opportunities and telling me how awesome he thinks I am. When I joked through tears that I wasn’t sure if he was delusional or stupid, he replied, “I’m neither. I just think you’re an extremely talented person who’s had a long string of bad luck.”

Long string is right. So I’ve made a decision: I quit.

I quit pretending I’m not a girl. 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 I quit accepting difficult as a pejorative term. It can also mean “not easy to please or satisfy.” If I was a man, you might call me a perfectionist.

I can’t say my reaction to Lean In has softened at all. Regardless, leaning in isn’t the real issue. We’re leaning. We’re just not talking. I can’t help solve the problem if I continue to ignore the fact that I’m one of the victims, so I told my story. It’s your turn to tell yours.

This piece previously appeared on Medium.

Here’s What Ad-World Sexism Is Really Like