Follow Their Lead: Why you should work with women-led creative agencies
Leading women creative directors from studios Human, Gin Lane, The Con.Cept, Little Troop, Slug Global, and RoAndCo talk about shifting the field’s gender script.
When we talk about gender representation, there’s a fine line between touting women’s empowerment and leaning hard into antiquated stereotypes of what comprises a woman. To say women are inherently nurturing, emotional, warm etc is, simply put, sexist; but, to say we have been socialised this way and, by consequence, have learned how to channel these qualities as powerful forms of feminine leadership, that resonates.
Speaking with an array of women creative directors, some embrace the “Girlboss” mentality while others feel boxed in by the phrase “women-led”. Women, after all, are not a monolith. “If you position yourself as a certain women-led studio, you’re isolating yourself,” says Rachael Yaeger of Human, one of New York’s renowned boutique design and development studios. “But do I want to be a mentor for others and represent my community? Absolutely.” Rachael has built a roster from Chanel and Rosie Assoulin to Baggu and Casper, priding herself in Human’s gender agnostic approach. “It’s in the name – there’s this humanistic element that she brings to the table,” fashion designer Thakoon Panichgul says of his team’s work with Rachael. “Digital is so removed, and [Human] puts life into the experience,” he continues, “and that to me is a feminine approach.” But with the ascension of the “She-E-O” and more overt celebrations of gender, Rachael wonders whether the value of work outside of gender as a token asset could get lost: “sometimes I feel guilty for not being ‘I am woman, hear me roar,’ but I don’t want to play into something that doesn’t exist for me.”
Instead of thinking about women leading professional environments as a homogeneous category, perhaps it’s more effective to think of feminine leadership — which exists along a spectrum — as the antithesis to an antiquated system wherein cis, white men define how we absorbed the world around us. “It comes down to stories and voices, that’s what agencies are about,” says Camille Baldwin, former head of brand at Gin Lane — the agency responsible for the direction of known staples like Sweetgreen and 365 by Whole Foods. “If you only have a percentage of the stories being told that are really out there, you’re getting a narrow view,” Camille continues, “and I think our world is done with a narrow view.”
“If you only have a percentage of the stories being told that are really out there, you’re getting a narrow view.”Camille Baldwin
Camille shares that Gin Lane was about purposefully creating safe spaces for a variety of voices, which meant that the agency could push the boundary with clients. So when telehealth brand Hims & Hers wanted to execute on campaigns centring erectile dysfunction, Camille says the team gave each other permission to openly discuss why and how sexual health as a topic has become so taboo. The result was an identity that included phallic cactei ads throughout New York’s MTA, which eventually opened the floodgates to a necessary conversation around the intersection of gender, sexual health, and advertising throughout New York.
Camille attributes part of Gin Lane’s accepting atmosphere to the presence of women leaders and says she sees the cultural capital women bring to the table as “changing the agency narrative from [one based in] extractive capital practices”. Creative directors Eve Smith and Jee Chang started their own agency, UME, for this exact reason. After a combined 35+ years working in agencies branding everything from LVMH and Converse to CNN and Food Network, they wanted an environment that rejected the “territorial” agency grind. Instead, they looked to alternative leadership styles that refused to accept the historically androcentric nature of the design world and introduced new possibilities — from agency life that is not so transactional to brand stories that are more emotionally connective.
For Michelle Silva of The Con.Cept, the approach she and her partner Sarah LoMedico take means “recognising that each member of the team is heard and respected, from pre to post production”. In a recent project slated to come out next month, Michelle’s team was asked to direct a campaign between a well-known sneaker brand and famous athlete. When first conceptualising the creative, her team discussed how women athletes are often presented in their uniforms, solely focused on the game. When discovering the talent was interested in fashion, the team decided to explore how they could give her more dimension. “It was important to us to show the holistic woman: her love for style, her flair, grace, poise and maturity,” Michelle shares. Later, the talent’s mother approached Con.Cept’s producer praising the team’s diversity and intention. Instead of working within traditional parameters (e.g. equating a woman athlete to one type of look or feel), this team leaned into the personality of the woman they were capturing, reflecting her versus the trope she’s perhaps had to perform.
Tearing away at these tropes is just how Noemie LeCoz, founder of Little Troop, has made a name for herself in the branding world. When Noemie first started to think through the identity for Billie — the body brand that produced the first razor commercial to show women with (gasp) leg, armpit, and facial hair — the resulting brand direction was actually quite intuitive. “At a very basic level, it was about seeing each other,” she says. “It was about asking how we can push, celebrate and broaden women-identifying representation and create authentic images that we don’t already see in the [commercial] world.” Up against Venus ads featuring shiny, thin, white legs, Billie immediately stood out with campaigns featuring pubic hair on a cast that looked like, well, what women look like (hint: not just white, thin, and hairless).
Noemie then built a more gender neutral identity for Girlgaze, a platform connecting women-run businesses with women-identifying creatives. Their founder, Amanda De Cadenet, says she “welcomed” working with Noemie, knowing that the woman-identifying lens “has been marginalised for way too long.” “Noemie may be the only person who I gave free rein to ideate and design as she saw fit,” Amanda goes on to say, “because I trust her impeccable vision entirely.” Yet again tapping into what brands that centre women are sometimes missing, Noemie says she really focused on the types of women who would be attracted to this platform, rather than the fact that this platform was made for women. For that reason, she rooted the brand concept in the old school editorial world, visually articulating this through a purple and yellow-driven pastel colour palette, a bold, black logo inspired by a 90s Gameboy, and a fresh but standard typeface, Editorial New.
Noemie says that she owes the way she works now to the mentorship she accessed from the beginning of her career. Under the tutelage of Pentagram’s Emily Oberman and RoAndCo’s Roanne Adams, Noemie says she quickly became accustomed to what can only be described as healthy attributes of feminine leadership: high levels of emotional intelligence; a patience in allowing clients to fully describe their idea without imposing one’s own; the ability to read the room; resilience and an uncanny ability to multitask; and, perhaps most importantly in such a competitive field, the willingness to check egos at the door.
"I was a weird Black girl in 2011 looking for an art director job and had heard no for two years."Brittany Bosco
Of course, Noemie acknowledges that her experience is an immense privilege, saying that she “didn’t have those initial fears and obstacles that young women designers go through”. And the fact is, we cannot have a conversation about women-led agencies and feminine leadership without discussing how gender intersects with other identities like race. While the percentage of women in creative director roles has risen over the past few years from 3 per cent to 29 per cent, the number of women of colour in these same roles does not compare. “I was a weird Black girl in 2011 looking for an art director job and had heard no for two years,” Brittany Bosco says of the period leading up to starting her own agency. Brittany eventually launched Slug Global to “create community and visibility” for people of colour and women who, like her, had “been art students, [possessed] the knowledge, and were changemakers; they just weren’t given the space.”
While the landscape over the past two years has shifted significantly to employ and listen to women of colour in creative roles, Brittany says that her community is still relegated to certain client jobs. “People will try to pigeonhole a specific style associated with race and gender,” she adds, “[but] just because I’m Black doesn't mean I want to do a basketball campaign.” Her work leading Slug Global reimagines the way things have always been, and in doing so has positioned the agency to create campaigns with the likes of Instagram and Adidas. Brittany has assembled a team of “artists first,” valuing backgrounds that diverge from agency life as an asset. With Brittany at the helm, Slug Global is building campaigns that not only speak directly to her community, but also a larger, comprehensive perspective. “As Black women,” she adds, “we have a global voice".
"There have been instances where I’ve walked into a board room where all of the people in the room thought I was going to be a different type of Ro"Roanne Adams
So, we know that the makeup of creative directors is shifting — between women choosing to go off on their own and the expansion of initiatives like Kerning the Gap and Ladies, Wine, and Design. But with 80 per cent of consumer spending driven by women, why is it that we’re still not seeing an equitable distribution of leadership? Like many patriarchal-bound professional fields, it comes down to education, mentorship, and opportunity — something Roanne Adams is proactively building as part of her 15-year tenure at RoAndCo.
Roanne founded her eponymously named boutique studio in 2006. Before launching her own business, people weren’t socially lauding women’s empowerment. “We all secretly knew we weren’t going to become the creative director anytime soon,” she shares. Since those days, Roanne has built her acclaimed agency featuring work with everyone from Google to Mac Cosmetics. "There have been instances where I’ve walked into a board room where all of the people in the room thought I was going to be a different type of Ro," she shares, demonstrating how her reputation has somehow been conflated with masculinity. But with that confound of gender and success in the design world comes a desire for Roanne to, as she puts it, “be a good ancestor to the next generation”.
Part of that means making her team’s practice and expertise more widespread. One of Roanne’s creative directors, Nikki Huffman, has spearheaded an initiative wherein RoAndCo will present an industry 101 of sorts — from graphic and editorial design to art direction and illustration — to middle school and high school students across the US; particularly those that have not had access to the creative world as a legitimate career path. She hopes that this could turn into a full-blown mentorship program for students looking to pursue design; because of course in order to diversify one’s recruitment pool, agencies have to take it upon themselves to reach outside of their networks.
For an industry whose job descriptions quite literally include shaping standards and inventing new possibilities, one would think that diversifying those in leadership would be instinctive. But that’s the powerful puppetry of white-centric, male-dominating culture that seeps into the ways society professionally operates. To combat this inequity, women-led studios need more than a history month to fuel their work. “This initiative by Fortune500 companies to be part of our movement is very new,” Brittany shares. In order to be a part of said movement, though — in order to genuinely celebrate diversity in race, gender, socioeconomic status, and the myriad of identities needed to tell stories — Brittany reiterates that people need to be willing to give the dollars that back their allyship.
Ultimately, to genuinely celebrate the value of identity-diverse creative studios — women-led or otherwise — we have to make space for more voices by putting our money where our mouth is. We’ve established studios that reflect the real world are, quite obviously, an asset. Now, it’s just time to prove we believe it.
About the Author
Abigail Glasgow is a freelance reporter whose writing and general interests include gender and sexuality sociology, prison abolition, and identity and design. Originally from Richmond, Virginia, Abigail now lives in Brooklyn, New York City with her partner and two cats, Richard and Macy.