My Top Ten Takeaways from the 3% Conference

It was 2017, and the #MeToo movement was in full-swing. A professional women’s group that I was a part of had decided to invite our male colleagues to that month’s meeting, in the hope that we could talk about what was going on and what it meant for the future of our industry. While the organization had been started as a way to provide mentorship to younger women still acclimating to the agency world, this landmark moment in our culture was a reminder that women talking to other women wouldn’t be enough to solve the variety of problems we face. Excited for the meeting I had helped organize, I invited a male colleague.

“Are you guys just going to talk about how things are unequal?” he asked. “To be honest, it’s kind of boring. Why don’t you give a presentation about something cool, something tech-focused?”

I get it. He didn’t know that when my mom (a college graduate with a marketing degree) interviewed at an advertising agency in 1968, she had to convince a team of male interviewers that she would be suitable for the job because her lifestyle only involved “light house-keeping duties”. He didn’t understand what it’s like in 2014 to have someone react with shock when you tell them you’re a Computer Science major. He didn’t understand what it’s like to have a coworker tease you about your fiancé, calling him instead your “finance-me”. He didn’t know what it was like to have a director make a sexual comment to you in the elevator. He just didn’t know. 

When thinking about larger cultural issues like gender equality, it’s easy for us to compartmentalize. It would be convenient to just write this guy off as sexist, and move on. But the truth is, this man who thought our conversation would be boring was one of the kindest people I know. He had been a great friend and mentor to me over the years. It’s an uncomfortable truth that you can at once be “a good person”, and still be part of the problem. In some ways, I am one of these people. Chances are, you probably are too.

The sooner we can all admit how much we don’t know, and open ourselves to learning about experiences different than our own, the better. Helen Cho said, “Wokeness is a work in progress.” I was hopeful that this year’s 3% Conference in Chicago would be one of those profound learning experiences, and it did not disappoint. 

The 3% Conference is not a women’s conference. It’s a gathering about the importance of diversity in every sense of the word: sex, gender, race, orientation, language, culture, and experience. Including people with a broad range of backgrounds in our everyday work only serves to make our agencies better, and is a small step in the direction of making the world a more equitable place. The theme of this year’s event was “29%”: the target number of male participants the movement hoped to have in attendance. Shouting into a vacuum can only create so much progress. We need the wider community, especially those in power, to be talking about diversity if any change is to be achieved. 


My Top Ten Takeaways from the 3% Conference:


  1. Represent all types of people in your work. As Elizabeth Kilpatrick (The Geena Davis Institute) and Mackenzie Thomas (Google) pointed out, the average individual is bombarded with between 4,000-10,000 advertisements every day, yet fewer than 1% of the ads feature LGBTQ individuals or people with disabilities. People age 50+, or those with larger bodies, are also woefully absent from so many ads as well, despite the fact that these groups together make up the majority of our population. If for example, your clothing brand sells plus-size clothing in addition to your traditional line, you should be representing people of all shapes and sizes in your ads. Instead of just marketing your product, consider what opportunities it has to influence our society in an inclusive, relevant way. Today’s consumers are too smart for traditional advertising; they value brands that truly care about social justice.
  2. Take action, and take chances. All of us were able to break into our industry because someone higher up took a chance on us. Wade Davis, Former NFL player and activist, explained that you don’t get to be a self-declared “ally” based on your ideology. You have to do something to be an ally. So stop just hiring people who remind you of yourself. Tribalism, or subconsciously leaning toward those who look and sound like us, is a natural inclination we all have– it takes awareness and intention to overcome. Instead of asking yourself if a candidate makes you feel comfortable and has exactly what you’re looking for, consider whether they have the drive and passion to learn. Could you and your team coach them on any skills they might be lacking? Can they offer a different perspective you might not see? If the answer is yes, give them a chance. Per entrepreneur Denise Hewett, “Innovation doesn’t follow a pattern,” so your team will not create the best work if you’re only hiring one type of person.
  3. Check your privilege. As Helen Cho, Executive Creative Director of Dailey Advertising said, “Privilege is invisible to those who have it”. Honestly reflect about where your appearance, background, and experiences have gotten you. “Not having to think about” things like our race, gender, or orientation is a gift, and one that we too often take for granted if you’re part of an elite group. A recurring theme you’ll find at the 3% Conference: feeling bad about the injustices of the world isn’t enough. So, use your reflections to reach back and help others who are still on the way up. Listen and don’t interrupt. Speak up when you witness a microaggression at the office, no matter how subtle. Realize that the person at the desk next to you might be in a similar role, and yet having a completely different experience. 
  4. Be a mentor. One of the posters in the hallway at the 3% Conference read, “Women eat lunch too. Invite them.” Meet a student for coffee. Grab a drink with a former coworker. As founders of the Fellow app noted, being a mentor doesn’t always mean time-consuming lunches or ongoing relationships that cut into your productivity. You can be a mentor “within the cracks of life”, through an app like Fishbowl or Fellow, or texting for a few minutes during a Lyft ride. Be curious about others’ experiences. Make sure your teammates are acknowledged for their contributions, whether they are in the room or not. As Ayesha Siddiqi said, “Be the person you needed when you were younger”. 
  5. Speak up. Desiree Adaway, Principal of The Adaway Group, reminded us, “Closed mouths don’t get fed.” It’s fantastic when your managers or mentors speak up for you– but ultimately, no one will advocate for you better than yourself. So ask for that promotion, make your goals and accomplishments known, and “don’t accept a bullshit salary”. Set clear expectations and boundaries ahead of time. Give and ask for feedback regularly. CEO and author, Katherine Wintsch, emphasized the importance of “Saying out loud what’s important in bulk.” Talk about topics like mental health, race, gender, or your experiences as a working parent, even if it feels uncomfortable at first. To quote another author, Gretchen Rubin, “It’s better to say something than to say the right thing”. Make sure to express your needs, and those of your team, early and often.
  6. Be vulnerable. With all the talk of vulnerability and authenticity at the 3% Conference, I was expecting Brené Brown to pop out at some point. Vulnerability is where we connect with others, and from where we derive our best creative work. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. “The goal is to struggle” according to author, Katherine Wintsch. If it feels right, share your own struggles with your team. This could include challenges you have had in growing your professional skills, or cultivating work/life balance. Yes, we are designers, developers, managers, etc.; but we are people first. The more we have honest conversations, the less alone we all feel– and the more our work will show it. While it can feel safe to cultivate a facade of confidence in an attempt to lead, being real is where true leadership actually starts. Founder of the 3% Movement, Kat Gordon said “Creativity spikes when people draw upon every life experience and emotion they’ve ever had,” so don’t limit yourself to the one or two that feel safe, just because you’re at the office
  7. Support your team’s mental health. Do your team members know what mental health resources are available to them? Is it acceptable in your workplace to take a mental health day? Explore Mental Health Training for your team, and remind them about resources like therapy and crisis lines. Knowing how to manage stress, be supportive, and encourage professional help for a teammate who needs it, can be a life-saving step. Postpone a meeting when the weather is great for surfing, suggested Aaron Harvey (he obviously doesn’t live in Chicago, LOL), Co-founder of Made of Millions and Ready to Rocket. Interrupt a stressful work day with Leean Leahy’s (CEO of Via Agency) recommendation of a “go-do” like a team meditation session or an impromptu lunchtime dance party. When you’re busy and least feel like you have time for it, is when it will benefit your team’s mental state and creativity the most. 
  8. Involve Women and People of Color in Leadership. Be inclusive where it counts—let your diverse team members be exposed to and involved in decision-making. It’s one thing to hire diverse team members for entry level positions–it’s another to identify leadership potential and mentor them as they advance. Consider having monthly “1-on-1” meetings where employees at every level can spend a few minutes chatting with someone several levels above. Leaders learn important information about daily goings-on on a lower level, and can provide advice and ideas for process improvements; more junior team members get a chance to ask questions and feel heard. Mentorship isn’t always top-down: it can be side-to-side, or even the other way around. 
  9. Talk to the people you’re designing for. Joe Crump, CEO of Wunderman Thompson, spoke about his philosophy of “Nothing about us, without us”. Users have taken center stage as he and his team worked to design clothing for people with disabilities, in partnership with Tommy Hilfiger. Innovations like magnetic closures on clothing in lieu of traditional buttons or zippers can revolutionize an everyday task like getting dressed for someone who is disabled. As we often say in the world of user experience design, “The user is not like you.” It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is in the creative world for us to talk to those who have unique experiences to our own. So read a memoir, or watch a documentary. Ask questions, don’t make assumptions, and keep the lines of communication open.
  10. Wear waterproof mascara if you ever get a chance to go to the 3% Conference (or don’t wear any make-up at all; it’s your face!). Seriously though, be prepared for a wide range of emotions. The depth and quality of the award-winning work on display is truly stunning. Case and point: Cannes Award Winners, Black and Abroad, who devised, “Go Back to Africa”, a brilliant campaign using artificial intelligence to turn hate speech on social media into inspiration for black Americans to tour the amazing sights the continent has to offer. Here were just a few of my other favorites:

In the final hours of the 3% Conference, Cindy Gallop (or as she is simply known around the halls of Navy Pier, “our lord and savior”) said, “Equal opportunity for others does not equal less opportunity for you. It’s not pie.” So work on cultivating an abundance mindset. Psychological safety is the key to creativity. We all have a deep responsibility in this industry to keep learning, and to share what we learn with our peers and leaders. 

In 2019, it’s no longer acceptable to say “I didn’t know”.