Female Creative Agency CEO Advises: Tell The Hard Truths

Judith Carr- Rodriguez, CEO of FIG, with co-founder Mark Figliliulo.

Judith Carr- Rodriguez, CEO of FIG, with co-founder Mark Figliliulo.

Tell the truth. Even if it is not going well.

Judith Carr-Rodriguez, recently appointed CEO of FIG, a creative agency in New York, says honesty is the best policy dealing with employees, their performance and creating a culture of empathy in a competitive creative business.

The five-year-old branding agency, Figliulo & Partners, recently re-branded itself as FIG, and Carr-Rodriguez took on the CEO position.

“We are very collaborative; that is a byproduct of a female-led culture,” she says.

And that is very unusual in the U.S. advertising and branding universe.

According to AdAge, “In March of this year, 180 agency women execs started the organization Time’s Up Advertising. ‘Our mission is to take tangible action against discrimination, and to change this business we love until it looks more like the industry we want for everyone.” The roster includes the most expansive list of agency execs.’”

Women are forging new agency models through “verticalization”—a radical departure from the broad approach that most agencies take. Two agency examples are worthy of note. Worn is a “mission-based creative agency… dedicated to helping women-led companies grow through strategy and design… to help women succeed.” Not surprisingly, “Worn’s leadership team is 100% female.” And CEO Sarah Carnes leads 9 Clouds, which focuses on automotive digital marketing: “We attract and qualify leads so you can go back to selling cars.” These agencies are great examples of women solving real problems in new agency business models.

The lack of women in top creative agency roles was the impetus behind the founding of the 3% Movement, because that is the percentage of women in the industry in creative director positions.

The lack of women in top creative agency roles was the impetus behind the founding of the 3% Movement, because that is the percentage of women in the industry in creative director positions. #genderparity

According to ADWEEK, “At the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, Tham Khai Meng, Ogilvy’s worldwide CCO, said in addition to the commitment to hire women into 20 senior creative roles, by 2020, the network is ‘going to be developing a pipeline for senior women of color globally and making key hires in the next 24 months.’”

The lack of gender parity in creative roles is apparent in the U.S. as well as worldwide.

“Female design leadership currently ranges from four to 11 percent, depending upon business sector and individual survey. This low percentage exists despite the fact that 53.5 percent of designers are female, according to the latest Design Census by AIGA. And women who are in creative leadership roles earn less than US$0.80 on the dollar compared with their male counterparts,” according to Digital Arts.

Double or Nothing is the name of a campaign backed by the American Institute of Graphic Arts, AIGA, the largest professional organization for creatives in the US, and leading agencies, to double the number of women in design leadership roles across the globe.”

For Carr-Rodriguez, her company began in 2013 with Sprint as its founding client, “and we were smart enough to know they would move on in a few years,” says Carr-Rodriguez. “In only one year, we lost Sprint,” she says. “Other agencies would have the instinct to contain that information, but we sat everybody down, explained everything and didn’t have any layoffs. Then we landed Virgin Atlantic and Marriott.”

So they did just fine.

“Twenty years into my career, I see that women are natural problem solvers,” Carr-Rodriguez says.

But that is not necessarily what is the best way to solve a problem. She suggests delegating and act a little less quickly.

“You have to give people the space to make decisions themselves,” she says.

After graduating from university in 1999 where she studied French and German history, Carr-Rodriguez says she was interested in advertising and direct marketing and was in a training programs in London. It was the early stages of digital marketing, and she took a job with a digital agency.

“It was like the Wild West,” says Carr-Rodriguez.

The company asked her to move to the U.S. to run the New York and Atlanta offices. She did and  says, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was not successful. It was hard to get senior older men to listen to a random woman from England who did not know what she was doing.”

Moving to the U.S. and working in a challenging environment was a positive thing, she says.

“Every three to four years you have to do something to terrify yourself,” Carr-Rodriquez says, “Push yourself past comfortable.

Advice from the CEO of FIG, a creative agency in New York: do something to terrify yourself every three to four years. Push yourself past comfortable. #LeadershipAdvice #WomenLeaders

It was after that she founded FIG with Mark Figliulo. Now with 75 employees in the company, Carr-Rodriquez says they “turn down over half of the companies who approach us. It might be that we don’t fell the connection.”

One of their creative projects was the CNN “Facts First” campaign of 2017. And they are still the agency for Virgin Atlantic, among others.

“In my career, it is more continual learning,” she says. “We question ourselves a lot more than is even healthy.

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldonwww.micheleweldon.com