About Professor Karen Mallia, MA: Karen Mallia is a Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina (UofSC), where she teaches courses in advertising and creative leadership, and also established the CreateAthon@UofSC program. Prior to her role at UofSC, Professor Mallia was a faculty member at The City College of New York, where she taught diverse courses in advertising principles, copywriting, and advertising management. Professor Mallia is the author of the book Leadership in the Creative Industries: Principles and Practice, a book that explores how professionals in advertising and the creative industries can build leadership skills for creativity and innovation.

Prior to her academic career, Professor Mallia devoted over 20 years to working as a creative director and copywriter at numerous New York advertising agencies, including Ogilvy, Rosenfeld, Humphrey & Strauss, and Saatchi & Saatchi. During the course of her advertising career, she won numerous awards for excellence. She has since won awards for her teaching, including the top prize at the CreatiVibe 2019 event, UofSC’s Outstanding Service-Learning Award, and an Excellence in Teaching Mortar Board Award. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Rider University, and her Master of Arts in Communication from William Paterson University.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please elaborate on your responsibilities as a Professor at the University of South Carolina, including the classes that you teach in Creative Strategy in Advertising, Integrated Communication Strategies, Integrated Campaigns, Creative Leadership, and related topics? Also, may we have more information on the CreateAthon@UofSC program that you founded and currently oversee?

[Professor Mallia] I’m very lucky to have had the opportunity to earn my full Professorship at the University of South Carolina. UofSC has a professional tenure track onto which I was hired and tenured and then later promoted. I believe that this gave me a rare opportunity to have both the real insider’s view of the professional world, as well as the necessary academic chops to earn respect in that sphere because they are very different arenas with very different demands. And because of my background as a copywriter and creative director, I started out teaching primarily the creative classes, such as our course in creative strategy and execution in advertising. Essentially, these classes teach students creative skills, both creative thinking and creativity, and how to generate ideas that can then be effectively expressed in copy and art direction and design. Effective strategy requires the whole gambit of multimedia exposure from print to social media to ambient messaging. The goal is to build a truly big and sustainable brand platform, and understand what that’s like to manage.

I also teach a class on integrated campaigns because the way the industry is going where everything is multidisciplinary and there’s so much more convergence between advertising, public relations, and digital media. This course covers both the creative areas I discussed as well as research, account planning, media planning, media buying, and management.

I designed a creative leadership class because I saw a vacuum in the creative industries and advertising. I have found that there is very little understanding of what it takes to be a leader. Many schools teach account management. But if you study that for even a week, you’ll understand that there’s a very big difference between management and leadership, and the focus on leadership and what it takes to be a visionary leader, and lead people who don’t want to be led, is a unique challenge. And so that class evolved after I started doing a whole lot of research in creative leadership.

My initial research was exploring the gender aspect and why women—especially creative women–were not being promoted at the same rate as men in advertising, despite lawsuits, and after decades of purported gender equality. The original data that I confronted said that half of the agency account management department is female and 2/3 of media departments (back when there were media departments in full-service agencies), and yet only 3% of the creative directors were women.

The question that I set out to answer was why this was happening. And my findings in this area really fed into my work to develop that class in creative leadership because it was so important, beyond just the gender aspects, to understand that the skills that it takes to get an entry level job are very different than the skills that it takes to rise to leadership. Most colleges are teaching some theory and a lot of hard skills, but not focusing on the myriad soft skills that are essential to long-term career growth and success, especially in creative fields. People need to master emotional intelligence, communication—oral, aural and written. Creative leaders must know how to inspire and foster creativity in others, and understand organizational culture.

That class now dovetails with the strategic planning for the CreateAthon event, which is a creative marathon program launched by Riggs Partners, an agency here in Columbia, South Carolina in 1998. It started with a small agency dedicating all of its resources for 24 hours to one or more nonprofits that needed marketing and advertising assistance. They found the idea was sort of magical, and it got a great buzz, and they began sending it out, sharing the concept with others. I don’t think franchising is the right word but basically inviting others in other markets into the program, and now CreateAthon is international, involving hundreds of advertising agencies and design agencies, as well as a growing number of colleges and universities. In my Creative Leadership class, students learn how to get a creative brief ready and have all the basic groundwork done in order to lead their peers. Close to 100 student volunteers jump in and create all kinds of marketing communications work for 8 or 9 nonprofits.

We have mentors who come from far and wide–people from the professional community here, and some of them are alumni from our program that come from places as far as Atlanta, New York, Bethesda, and Texas. They come in and help the students and do an amazing job, and 24 hours later we’re presenting campaigns that have won all kinds of awards. It’s been really gratifying.

[MastersinCommunications.com] In addition to your roles in higher education, you have also taken on leadership positions as VP/Creative Director at numerous advertising agencies, including TBWA/Chiat/Day, Saatchi & Saatchi, and Rosenfeld, Sirowitz, Humphrey & Strauss. May we have an overview of your professional journey in advertising, the responsibilities you had as VP/Creative Director, and the major milestones of your career?

[Professor Mallia] Well, my agency career started off as most people did in the late 1970s and early 80s—as a secretary. They don’t have them anymore now that everyone has their own computer. But back then writers typed roughs and creatives had secretaries to type up their storyboards and their scripts, and so I started at Ogilvy & Mather (now Ogilvy) as a secretary and rose to junior copywriter and copywriter and associate creative director which was a typical career path. And like most others, I went from just creating my own work to beginning to supervise others in their creative work, and I did that at a number of different agencies.

I think my career was unique and very special, and I’m actually very fortunate to have worked on a real breadth of different brands and product categories, because people in advertising tend to get typecast, if you will: “Oh, you’re a car guy, or you’re a fashion and beauty woman, etcetera, etcetera.”

I worked on everything from fashion to fiberglass to fragrance to Pella windows and Volvo cars and Chase Bank and any number of different products. I feel like that gave me an exposure to problem solving in different ways that not everybody has because they tend to get a little bit more focused in a particular product area. I honestly believe that if you can create and get in the mind of a consumer, you can work on anything, but stereotyping says otherwise. And so I actively worked to resist being typecast. My last agency position fulltime was at TBWA, when I worked on Nivea, Woolite, and a champagne brand, and those were my brands until the merger.

That’s when I decided, “Been there, done that, what’s my next move?” I was getting more money and was doing more, but I was really just doing more of the same. I was looking for a new creative challenge. At the time a friend had gone to teach at Boston University, and I thought that was a really interesting move because teaching is all about enthusiasm and fun and the challenge of creativity, and it’s fresh every time because every new semester there’s a new cohort of students with new ideas and unique energy.

So I thought, maybe this will satisfy my quest for something different because it’s a lot of what I like about the business, but without the aspects that I don’t like. I was getting uncomfortable with the shark tank and some of the people that I was dealing with the higher I rose. Perhaps I was naïve, but the stealing of peoples’ ideas and the backstabbing, it tended to go along with industry leadership, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to become that. I wanted to retain my own moral compass, and still do great work, and so I quit my job and freelanced for quite a time while I went back to school to get a Master’s. Actually I was “permalance” for several years with Della Femina. When I graduated, I started teaching and freelancing simultaneously. I taught many years as a part-time professor in New York at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In fact, I taught there long enough to get the part-time equivalent of tenure, which they call a certificate of continuing employment.

But I was still looking for a fulltime position because I wanted to make the switch and, as I said, higher education positions are few and far between without the doctorate. I really struggled with whether I should go back and get the Ph.D., and then I realized I’m a creative person. I don’t want to get a research degree. I don’t like doing research for its own sake. That’s not what gets me fired up. The whole point of doing research, in my opinion, is to get answers and to use the answers to do something, not just to study the answer. I wanted to teach, and change things and create. So I narrowed my focus to positions that I could get with just the master’s because I really wanted to focus on teaching first and have the research be secondary.

As a tenure track professor, you have to do research, and I got my opportunity to do that in 2005 when Neil French, who was an Asia Pacific advertising executive, made some incendiary comments about women in the business at a conference in Toronto.

The world just sort of converged in a very interesting way because when he made those comments, it was during the birth of social media. And Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk who had been co-creative directors of Ogilvy Toronto were in the audience, and when he said, “Women don’t succeed in advertising – they’re crap at this because they go off and suckle something” – that got a lot of people really annoyed, and that comment rocketed around the world in about 48 hours.

And for my part, I knew that this was what I needed to get a research agenda going. This is what I’m going to look at, because it piqued my curiosity about what really stalled me in my career as a woman creative. Maybe it wasn’t me, but something about the business. That was the larger question: why are there so few female creative directors? Great, talented women have been starting careers for decades now. What is going on here? It can’t just be gender; it can’t be that simple because there are so many complicating factors—and women are doing much better in other fields, and even in other advertising roles. The more I dug, the more I realized that there was no simple answer, and it wasn’t just motherhood as some thought, and it wasn’t just gender stereotypes. There are so many things, in a creative position, in a creative field, that converge in a whirl of factors that make it extremely difficult for women.

One of them that most people don’t think of is the amount of brain focus that’s required for creative work. You’re thinking about a problem until you find the answer, and you’re thinking and you’re thinking, and whether you’re home or whether you’re in bed, whether you’re in the office, whether you’re riding the bus or the train, you’re thinking and trying to solve the problem.

And if you have a deadline on Thursday, you have to have an idea by Thursday, and if it means missing your kid’s party or if it means not going home that night or working around the clock, you’ve got to get the job done because it’s all on your shoulders as the creative person. Even within an advertising agency, that’s not true for any other person or position other than the writer and the art director, the creative people who have the ideation on their shoulders.

So that’s one really difficult factor that makes having a life outside of work that is predictable in any way almost impossible. It’s true for men and women, but research shows that the vast majority of care work falls on women, even in two-career households. But that wasn’t enough to explain the problem, because the more research that we did, the more we found that even measures to address gender inequality in the workplace aren’t having the effects we want them to have. Another researcher did an analysis of global Agency Red Book data looking at other countries around the world and what percentage of female creative directors they had. And one of the saddest moments of my life was when I learned that all the things we had hoped would solve things for women like flex time or paid parental leave of a decent duration didn’t really matter as much as we thought. Because even in a country like Sweden, where they have the most generous benefits and one of the most egalitarian societies in the world from a gender and work perspective, there was still huge underrepresentation of female creative directors in advertising. Why was this the case?

The biggest answer to that seemed to be the agency culture and the industry culture that is so embedded in advertising–that whole frat boy locker room mentality in the creative department is so universal, so ubiquitous across the world. It’s a little worse in some countries that have a machismo factor, but generally speaking, even in a country where we thought they had all the answers, like Sweden, things were not that much better for women. We found that women were still more likely to sacrifice their careers for their families. So seeking to untangle the answers around this became one of my central research objectives. I realized that although there are unique barriers that women struggle with, many of these barriers are across disciplines. And many men face these same factors in a workforce where Millennials have very different perspectives about life and work than the generations before them. And that became the genesis of my book on leadership in the creative industries.

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we have more information on your new book, Leadership in the Creative Industries: Principles and Practice?

[Professor Mallia] There is a lot written out there about leadership, and there’s a growing bit of research and interest in the creative industries. But nobody had really looked at those two together, which is important because creative people are different, and they need to be led differently. They work differently in terms of workspace; they tend to have more intrinsic motivation. They tend to not want to be told what to do. They tend to have unique characteristics, like really wanting to polish their craft, and they focus with their noses down and often tend to ignore what’s going on around them. So in order to be leaders, they sometimes have to be pulled out of that space.

A lot of those issues that were initially identified as gender barriers. For example, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the term presenteeism, but this is embedded in the culture of a lot of companies, no matter what the policy says on paper—they want everybody in the office 9:00 to 5:00 or thereabouts – 10:00 to 6:00 – and they want them all there under the guise of collaboration and people are perceived to be more dedicated simply because of all the hours they’re in the office. It’s a very old-fashioned (and erroneous) notion that people will do their best work in the office, and it tends to not be the case especially in creative industries.

Many creative people do their best work elsewhere, and they need to free their minds, and they need to see things and be exposed to things in order to have proper ideation, and come up with breakthroughs. And these breakthroughs don’t happen in the office from 9:00 to 5:00, but most employers are uncomfortable with letting everyone loose, because they feel they have no control.

I’ve done some research recently with a graduate student who took a look at the agency and creative space issue and how that dovetails with personality. On the premise of encouraging collaboration and trying to bring people together for ideas, employers–particularly those in the creative industries and in the tech industries–have crammed more people into fewer square feet with very little personal or private space. The tech industry came up with this concept called the long table, full of computer banks, people facing each other with about three feet of personal space, and they sit there with their headphones on. That is the opposite of collaboration.

They’re realizing that this kind of a work space could potentially be discriminatory because while most people suffer a bit of input overload in that kind of situation, introverts suffer incredibly more because by and large the noise and the stimulation is more painful for them, and it also undermines their careers when we focus on this sort of jovial, extroverted ideal that is perpetuated as the ideal creative type. Which is basically another myth because in reality, introversion correlates highly with creativity, and yet we want our leaders to be vivacious salesmen, if you will, and people who are outgoing and cheerleaders for the rest, which may or may not be the right model for leadership. She presented a paper on this at the American Academy of Advertising 2019 Conference, and we’ve got a related article under review for publication.

In researching and writing my book, I discovered that many of the challenges to cultivating diversity in workplaces span gender, racial, and ethnic lines, because they all go back to that concept of being the “other.” But each of those groups also has unique factors, and being in a creativity industry has commonalities that made me broaden my focus. My Leadership in the Creative Industries book does cover a lot of what I have just mentioned to you. Though it started out with the gender and the diversity, it really is now about creativity, the creative process and how unique that is when it’s applied to business as opposed to just making fine art. How leadership and creativity intersect when making something that solves a problem and does it on time and in an innovative way and in a way that is unique.

So, it takes the bigger view. Diversity is an important part of that, because creativity is contingent on diversity, but it also talks about the industry codes which is so important and how we can change those, as well as creative space to optimize the environment psychologically and emotionally for creative professionals.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What are some barriers to advancement that you think women and other minorities face in the creative industry?

[Professor Mallia] I think that one of the biggest problems is that people buy into this myth of meritocracy. They think, “If I do a good job, that’s what’s important, I’ll get ahead.” Where sadly, as the old truism goes, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. People need to understand that simply doing great work is not enough because there are a lot of people out there who do great work.

Who will rise to the top are the people that have those extra skills like communication skills, emotional intelligence, and a certain astuteness in understanding business. Creative people tend to not want to understand business, but it is essential to understand advertising as a business and what makes for profitability. Because that’s what drives the top leaders. The myth of meritocracy has got to be dissolved.

The other major challenge is that there is a huge problem with diversity in creative industries. All the research will tell you those diverse voices, diversity of internal and external character, and diverse backgrounds are all hugely important in nurturing creativity. But time and again, across countries and eras, people tend to hire people like themselves. It’s a phenomenon known as homophily in hiring, because I hire someone whom I like, who I want to feel that I can go out and have a drink with, who is going to get along with the rest of the people here. And that right there is the opposite of diversity because that means I’m hiring someone who looks and sounds and feels and thinks like me. That’s the first thing employers will say when they want to interview someone and recruit them: “We want somebody who’s going to fit in.”

It may be unconscious or unintentional but that is diametrically opposed to advancing diversity, and it undermines not just the individuals involved, whether that be underserved minorities or women, but it also means the product is very myopic. Tons of creativity research will tell you that diverse people on a team will have a certain amount of tension and conflict but that that conflict will result in better work ultimately because you’ve got different voices at the table. And that is so important–that people be able to live with that small degree of discomfort in a place in order to get to the other side, if you will.

To get to that place where you can have truly breakthrough ideas you have to work against that human desire to not live with the other, to have someone like yourself. That desire is so powerful that it undermines every law, every company policy, and all the diversity initiatives. It is shown as evidence in attrition, particularly among African Americans. There are numerous programs run by trade organizations designed to promote diversity, to identify the best talent, to bring them in and give them idealized internships and fantastic entry-level job opportunities. Take a look at where they are in five or ten years. The attrition rate is phenomenal, and the attrition rate gets back to the fact that they don’t feel welcome. They’re treated like the other. They’re excluded from the club. And again, whether it is a racial minority or whether it’s women, the same factors are at play. Inclusion is essential.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Who have been your primary professional mentors, and how have they supported your development? How important do you feel is mentorship to career growth, and what recommendations do you have for women in the communications field who are seeking similar mentoring relationships?

[Professor Mallia] I think it’s really important to understand the idea of mentors. I for one am really resistant to this idea of calling up strangers and asking them to have a cup of coffee with you. They’re really busy. I mean, I am the strongest advocate of mentorship, but the number of people that have the time to do that as well as do their day job are limited because the higher you go, the more responsibility people have. They have tremendous weight on their shoulders, so there has to be a certain amount of reciprocation involved, and you have to really prove your mettle, because everybody wants a mentor but not everyone wants to be a mentor.

Like everything else, women tend to volunteer more than men for these kinds of things, because if you really want to get down to nasty stereotypes, men are more self-interested. Data on volunteering in any regard, whether it’s volunteering in schools or in community projects, women volunteer at a much higher rate than men. This means that they’re burning the candle at both ends because, first off all, they are a small percentage, and so there are fewer of them in higher level positions, and second of all, they’re being spread beyond their capabilities.

I also think there’s a naïveté in not understanding the difference between mentorship and sponsorship. Sponsorship is incredibly important to people who are underserved minorities who are women who want to get ahead in a field that is dominated by someone else. A mentor will help you and guide you and coach you, but a sponsor becomes an advocate for you.

And that is extremely important, to have someone with power, someone who has a seat at the table who can speak out on your behalf, and there are even fewer people who are in a position to do that or willing to do that.

There are a lot of different places to connect with potential mentors, but I think that you have to start with your own small network and expand out from there. I think that joining the trade groups that are pertinent for your industry is probably one of the best ways to do it because you’re going to get different perspectives from people who have taken on a diversity of roles, and you can hopefully find someone who can take you under their wing. I’ve found that you often need multiple mentors for different arenas. One might be a mentor in your particular skillset–if you’re a writer, someone who can help you be a better writer. If you’re a designer or an art director, someone who can help you be better at that, or become a better filmmaker. But you also need somebody who can provide some of these other skills and coaching in terms of selling yourself. Someone who’s great at being an advocate for themself can guide you in how to do that for yourself. Depending on all the multiple skills that you need to acquire, you may need multiple mentors who each have strengths in different areas.

When I came to academia, I certainly knew my craft very well, but I was less experienced at teaching. I needed someone who could show me how to teach because it’s very different to have knowledge than to be able to share it. You need to meet everyone where they are at in terms of their baseline intrinsic motivation, and foster it. You have to discern what excites each student, and also figure out how to pace a classroom. Similarly, you may want to make a transition to a different area or explore something else, so you might want to have people who are in a related discipline be a mentor because they can advise you on other aspects that are not necessarily the same trajectory that you may be on in your current position.

The first people that you look for to mentor you are often your immediate supervisors, and I was fortunate to have people who were willing to do more than necessary, people who would go above and beyond and help me improve all of my skills.

I was very good at the written word. I was not as strong initially as many people are in terms of video and understanding how you write for television versus writing for the printed page or the digital page. Learning the voice for broadcast, the voice of a brand–I learned all those things from my mentors.

I also sought out people within a bigger organization. You can find people in other departments in other areas who can help you in other ways. You learn from people who are outsiders as well as suppliers, and I of course felt, you know, after having been fortunate enough to have people help guide me, I felt that I wanted to give back as well, and I would take young people under my wing and give them the benefit of whatever I had learned in both the specific sort of craft skills as well as an understanding of organizational behavior and the codes of the industry and what the expectations are in a place.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What have been some of the principal challenges and barriers you have encountered during your career, and how have you addressed them? What advice do you have for women in communication facing similar challenges? How would you recommend women individually and collectively address the barriers they face to career advancement in the workplace?

[Professor Mallia] A lot of the challenges I faced when I first started work in the advertising industry have since been more or less resolved through technology. I mean, when I started out, we didn’t have email. We didn’t have computers. I worked on an IBM Selectric typewriter. When I started to ascend in my career, you couldn’t work from home. You couldn’t work remotely because there was no internet yet. There was no connectivity. We had dial-up service, so you couldn’t do anything productive. When I had my daughter, I also faced a mid-life crisis, because I could not spend the time with her that I wanted to as a parent and commute an hour and 15 minutes each way and work an eight or nine-hour day. If you add that up and you look at a child, they’re in bed before you get home if you are gone five days a week in the office.

So I think that many of the challenges that I faced are not as prevalent now because of technology. Technology in today’s day and age has done a lot of good in terms of allowing you to put your kid to bed and then go back and login and work, which is something men and women couldn’t do as easily a decade or two ago. But despite technology facilitating it, many creative people still face the cultural and organizational barriers to remote work.

I also think that I faced barriers when I bought into the myth that if you just do a good job and go home people will notice. Now I realize that the things that are often dismissed as self-promotion, and which you might perceive as a negative or be uncomfortable with, are in fact essential to career building. There has been a growing awareness that you have to have a personal brand. You also have to have longstanding relationships that will then serve you for the length of your career, and you have to have relationship skills and the communication skills, especially verbal skills. Many young people are raised on texting and are not really good at being able to communicate in person. Even using the telephone is becoming a rare skill. So getting practice in conducting yourself, building your in-person presence, and building your brand, and articulating yourself well, is so important.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Can we have more information about your participation in The 3% Conference?

[Professor Mallia] It was an interesting story, how I got involved in the conference. I wrote articles on the topics of gender and what the digital revolution might mean for women and their success. Those articles were read by people in the industry, and a year after the first one was published, I got a call from Kat Gordon who had decided that she was going to throw a conference for women and talk about women creative directors and why there are so few and what’s going on here.

And I, behind the scenes, worked with her for over six months connecting her with other women who were likeminded, both in the academy who had done research in the area, and also professional women and advocates for diversity in their industry. And we put together a panel. I was at the first conference in 2012 in San Francisco.

It was sold out–500 people wall-to-wall, but they couldn’t get anybody from the industry trade press to cover the event. Nobody was there from Ad Age. Nobody was there from Adweek. Nobody was there from the newspaper because they thought it was nothing. Well, this thing hit like wildfire – the right events at the right time uniting these voices – and through masterful organization and putting the right people together and compounding that message and, again, the wonder of social media bringing this topic around the world in ways that you never could have a decade earlier – it grew and it grew and it grew into two-day conference. And suddenly, all the trades were there and other press was there covering the event, and, it became a major event. It has now gone from being the 3% Conference to being the 3% Movement. And with that growth has come greater inclusivity–while the 3% Conference was initially about gender disparity, it has now also come to include racial disparity.

Probably one of the most telling examples of the impact of gender is from a guest speaker at the 3% conference from a few years ago who was transgender. He’d built his career as a man and then had become a woman. The disparity in the way that he was treated as a male and as a female was astounding, and it was the same person. If you want to eliminate the variables, you couldn’t possibly do a better experiment.

Since its inception, the 3% Conference has now gotten so big that it has moved to New York from San Francisco. The conference organizers realized that they had to be at the epicenter of the industry, so they moved the main conference to New York, and the now hold mini conferences in different locations like Chicago. The greatest gain I guess in terms of the number of women in leadership positions in advertising was revealed about a year and a half ago–a research study came out that touted that 11% of creative directors in advertising were now women.

And while that is fantastic, again, what you have to look at is why is it still so low when 50% of those who enter the career in creative advertising are female. In fact, women are actually a majority. And by the point that they should be promoted to an associate creative director at about the ten-year mark, the ratio suddenly changes. So where are these women going instead, and why? That has been the dilemma all along. It’s not lack of dedication because they’re working just as hard if not harder and yet they’re departing.

Now, some people are saying well, they’re going to find a better life. They’re going off freelancing. That makes it really hard to track the numbers to know exactly how successful they are and whether they’re just barely getting by or whether they’re actually building a thriving freelance business or starting their own agency. It also says something important about the culture that you can’t change the place, that you have to leave it. There is still a great deal of work left to be done to turn around those intractable bits of organizational culture and codes and unconscious bias and behaviors that undermine genuine inclusiveness. But we’re moving in the right direction.

Thank you, Professor Karen Mallia, for your fantastic insights into the advertising industry and how women and diverse professionals can succeed in this space!