About Professor Nancy Tag: Nancy R. Tag is the Program Director for The City College of New York’s (CCNY) Branding + Integrated Communications (BIC) Master of Professional Studies. As Director, she oversees the curriculum design and extracurricular opportunities for the program, such as speakers and special events both on and off-campus. In addition, as a Professor in the program, she teaches courses in advertising and serves as advisor to the students of the Management/Planning track of BIC. As the founder of Tag | Scordato, Professor Tag engages in creative advertising projects alongside her roles in academic leadership and instruction. She earned her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Pennsylvania and her Master’s in Media Studies from the New School for Social Research.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have an overview of your professional background, and how you first got involved in the field of communication? What initially drew you to advertising and marketing? What have been some highlights of your career, and how did you achieve them?
[Nancy Tag] I was an English major in college with a fine arts minor, which was a strong fit for the analytical and creative aspects of advertising. I love visual communication and playing with language — I also love to laugh. Creativity, a sense of humor, and the ability to connect the dots are all characteristics of people who are successful in this industry. The other thing was I wanted to be in New York City. Advertising was huge in New York City in the 1980s; still is. So that attracted me to the business, too. Finally, I like fast-moving projects. Of course, relative to today, we had the luxury of time. But back then, I was thinking, “Well, advertising as a process moves pretty quickly, compared to other fields.” So those were the things that drew me into the world of communication.
My first agency job was at Cunningham and Walsh, a mid-sized agency that handled a lot of national accounts, such as Procter & Gamble. I started out as a secretary and moved pretty quickly to become a TV commercial producer. I shifted over to the creative department within about a year and a half. That’s a pretty fast rise. It’s interesting to note that when I started in the production department there was only one female producer; by the time I left that agency, the production department was nearly all female. Account management also began welcoming more women. That type of female dominance did not happen in the Creative Department.
Later in my career, as a female creative director, I never appreciated that I was in the minority. I think in part it was because I was very lucky to find myself in a place with a number of strong, powerful women who supported each other. We just kind of plowed forward, which I think you hear a lot from people who come from the position of being a minority. When you’re a hard worker and you keep working three, four, five times as hard as everybody else, it’s hard not to be noticed and it’s hard not to move forward. That said, there were issues of sexual harassment and disparagement in the workplace. There were times when I actively asked not to be on accounts because I thought they were disparaging to women. It sometimes caused me to backslide a little. But I also think that in the end people appreciated my integrity. Perhaps I’m a little idealistic, but I think that if you operate from a point of integrity and hard work, you bring most people along with you.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How did you grow into your current role as founder and Creative Director of your own company, Tag | Scordato?
[Nancy Tag] I just love to work. I get a lot of joy from working. When I was a creative director at Dentsu in New York City, I had just given birth to my son and found that I was having a hard time pulling myself away from the office. As a mother, I knew that was not a good thing. And so I thought, how do I do the work I love while also achieving some kind of balance to raise my son? As a workaholic, as an “addict,” you can’t just say, “Oh, I don’t want to be a workaholic anymore.” It’s in your DNA. So how could I structurally rearrange my life so I could work but also be a great mom and spend time with my family? That’s when I left Dentsu and started to do freelance which gave me more control of my time.
During that time, I also found myself getting into academia. I fell in love with teaching, but you can’t be a dedicated faculty member and also be employed at an agency. However, I still wanted to be actively involved in the industry. I think it makes you a better professor if you’re also a practitioner. My creative partnership, Tag | Scordato, came out of that desire to continue working at a high level, which I could only do by creating my own firm. I’m also able to apply the insights I gain as a teacher into my own practice.
[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?
[Nancy Tag] That is a really interesting question. I think about it a lot, especially in regards to my students. I think about the type of world that my students are entering and the types of barriers that they’re going to encounter. I’ve attended and participated in many conferences about this as well. The Three Percent Conference, for example, has given me a lot of insight into the systemic challenges women face today in advertising and communication.
One of the things I said to Kat Gordon of the Three Percent Conference a few years ago was, “women will rise a lot faster when they harness the power of their critical thinking by articulating it more assertively and visibly.” This connects to my book Ad Critique, but is particularly good advice for women: get better at critique, which is the manifestation of a highly valued silent activity: critical thinking. I’ve been in situations where really smart women are pretty quiet. Those same women are capable of giving valuable, truly productive critique in a less public venue. But in a crowd, they’re less likely to use their voice. If you’re really good at critiquing and you have the confidence to insert real substance into the discussion — which is essentially what creative leadership is all about — others will notice.
Being a really good critiquer is more powerful than just being opinionated. You speak from a position of constructiveness and collaboration and problem-solving. That’s more authoritative, actionable and useful than mere opinion. So don’t just think it, speak it. Be demonstrable in your critique. And if you become known for that, you’re usually the person that everyone wants in the meeting. You’re indispensable. That’s what I found myself being — the person everybody wanted in the meeting. And I think that is one way of overcoming inequity in the workplace: as women, we must aim to be that person everybody wants in the room. That way, the room gradually gets to be filled with more women.
Critique skills are only as good as one’s ability to amplify them. Lack of confidence is one of the greatest barriers. Here’s how we address this in our program: first, we tell our students to recognize their personal discomfort and don’t beat yourself up over it. Second: purposely put yourself into situations where you can grow stronger. Finally, be over-prepared so you can’t give yourself an excuse for not speaking up. Eventually, you’ll rise to the occasion without overthinking it.
The beauty of being a part of the Branding + Integrated Communications (BIC) Master of Professional Studies at The City College of New York is that we practice the skills of critique every day. We ask people to stand up in almost every class and deconstruct projects — in all various states of process. And we don’t let anybody off the hook. The person who doesn’t want to present or critique is usually the person who needs it most. So we’re constantly working with people to increase their level of comfort. By semester’s end, the transformation is incredible.
Relative to men, I think so many women wait too long once they’re in the business world before they speak up. The solution is to accelerate your exposure; get into as many meetings as possible. Just being present. Also, study your discipline more. Read about it, analyze case studies, talk about it. Hear what your voice sounds like talking about it. I think the reason why art directors and copywriters are so articulate and opinionated about their work is because that’s what they do all day behind their office doors—they talk about it constantly. And they’re competitive, so they study what everyone else is doing as though it were a hobby even outside of working hours.
So steal some of that thunder: if you are in, say, account management for example, and you want that sort of confidence, spend more time sitting with creatives asking them about their work and discussing it with them. It doesn’t have to be a formal meeting—you can just go in and say, “I just want to hear about your work and what you think about it.” And then engage in those conversations. I think that starts to develop your body of expertise, allowing you then to be more comfortable doing what appears to be shooting from the hip.
For women, I think confidence is also about comfort. I tell my most nervous students when they are presenting, “Think about the space you’ll be presenting in. Think about what makes you most comfortable. Are you comfortable standing? Are you comfortable sitting? Are you comfortable speaking in a lower voice? Then sit closer to the client. And so on. Make yourself physically comfortable.” It’s generally true, but more so for women: The more comfortable you are, the more likely you are to succeed. And then the more you succeed, the more latitude others will give you. As you’re working to increase your comfort level, be mindful of what’s effective. Take note and then continue to act on it because being comfortable is what often propels us into the most productive situations.
Also, show off your humor. I think that some of the most successful creatives are funny. And for some reason people don’t think women are as funny as men. The Creative Department is still mostly dominated by men — at the award shows and at the top. And so is the comedy industry. It’s probably about being immodest; that’s easier for men and fuels humor. The other is our stereotypes about who and what can be funny.
When I was in college at the University of Pennsylvania, I was part of Bloomers, an all-female comedy group founded in 1978 — the first one in the country. It was the counterpoint to Penn’s Mask & Wig Club, the oldest in the country founded in 1889. Imagine taking nearly 90 years to finally figure out that women are funny, too! Well, a lot of my female college friends were very, very funny and some dated guys in Mask & Wig. When we’d all go out together, I began to realize how super competitive humor is. Everyone was aggressively funny, trying to build on a concept and come out on top. In their competitive frenzy, the guys would get louder and louder as the stakes got higher. At that point, when a woman said something funny, she’d be ignored. And then a guy would say the exact same thing, and the whole group would say, “That’s hilarious!” And I’m thinking, “No, she just said that.” Being around male and female humor for that long in my life, I’ve come to recognize that. Women have to fight harder and be louder to be perceived as funny. You know, the women are fighting all the time.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What do you feel are some key developments in the field of advertising? Where do you feel the industry is headed?
[Nancy Tag] In our program, we don’t have any online components because I think what’s important today is learning how to connect with diverse people, in terms of talent, skills, ethnicities, background, and more. The more diverse the group you work with, the bigger the toolbox everyone has at their disposal. Finding a result at the end of that collaboration is such an amazing and powerful learning experience. We’re lucky to have a very diverse group of students in the program, which is partly an outgrowth of being situated in New York City. I remember one of my students saying, “This is probably going to be the most diverse group of people I’ll ever work with in my whole life.” And I said, “Well, no. I mean, it’s great that you’re working with an amazingly diverse group of people, but it’s sad that you think this is the most diverse group of people you’ll ever work with. Your job as a BIC grad is to impact the industry in ways that will make it better. So go out and do that. Make it better. Make it like this.”
So I’ve created a program that doesn’t just theorize about where the industry should be heading, it serves as a laboratory where we help create a model for the future. On the issue of diversity, as one example, we don’t just talk about its value, we live it. By actually being diverse, students experience the rewards. The impact is manifested in results and outcomes.
Another major industry shift is towards integration across disciplines and functions. So again, our program serves as a model for that. BIC is the only graduate program to teach branding and integrated communications in an integrated way. We don’t talk about it. We ARE it. When we developed our program, we constructed it to be diverse, cross-disciplinary and collaborative like a utopian agency. Our curriculum is steeped in project-driven learning so that theory is experienced. We do research, we present. We actually produce the work we conceive. Because we do this in an academic context, we don’t just do it, we analyze why something succeeds or fails. Then we make hay with that. It’s iterative learning that the industry isn’t structured to do. So we’re a “future lab.”
Of course, beyond the industry, the main beneficiaries are the students. They graduate with a bucket of interdisciplinary skills that allow them to be agile in an age of constant transformation. That’s about mindset as much as skill sets. Our program gives them the structure and support they need for what often amounts to self-discovery. So I would advise any person who feels marginalized in their job or siloed in their discipline to find external resources that will help their inner growth. Structure and support can prove invaluable to self-actualization.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What communities and resources would you recommend women leverage either while in school or working in the communication industry? What have been some of the most helpful professional resources and networks for you in your professional experience?
[Nancy Tag] As I mentioned, I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by really strong networks of professional women who were very supportive and fun. That’s huge. So whenever you can, seek that out. But in some ways, that’s also about being lucky. You can’t always pick your co-workers.
Looking back on my career, I think that starting out on the production side of the industry helped my growth tremendously. Because of that, I was constantly exposed to outside vendors, such as film directors, editors, and music specialists. So early on I formed this very rich network of professionals that was bigger than just my immediate work family or the people in my department or on my floor. I’ve built this lesson into the structure of my program. One of the things that BIC requires is that our students actively go to the conferences that happen here in New York City so that they build the muscle of getting out there and actively networking. I highly recommend to your readers to get outside of themselves, go to conferences, join a program, become a member of some of the associations in their field of interest.
Advertising Week, which happens here in New York City once a year, is one of those types of amazing opportunities — you cannot possibly go to every single event that happens during that week. In fact, you can only probably make it to 20 percent of them because there are so many that happen simultaneously. They offer students the opportunity to go to this four-day event at a discounted price of $95. BIC offers membership to the Advertising Research Foundation. And as members of the ARF, our students can take advantage of certificate programs, symposiums, and conferences that are free. The AD Club here in New York also has amazing programs. Just familiarizing yourself with these conference and organizations can lead to great opportunities.
Many of these trade organizations are actively working to address the diversity issues in the field. For example, I’m a member of The One Club which has a number of advocacy programs and events that are just for women because they have recognized that Creative Departments need to do much better at retaining women and other underrepresented groups and promoting them to positions of leadership. While there are important organizations devoted to increasing women’s representation in communication, such as The Three Percent Conference, there aren’t many that are so mono-focused, so I’d also advise people to seek general industry organizations like The One Club or the AD Club, and see the individual advocacy efforts that they’re doing within those organizations.
Thank you, Professor Nancy Tag, for your insight into the field of advertising and communication!