Mariam Guessous: Elephant on Madison Avenue

We need to talk about the elephant in the (board)room.

A few weeks ago, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States since 1993, penned ‘Advice for Living‘, appearing in the NYTimes. In the course of her career, she’s learned how to navigate being a working woman and working mother in a ‘man’s world’. Though she’s seen some great strides taken for women in the workplace, Ginsburg notes: “one must acknowledge the still bleak part of the picture. Most people in poverty in the United States and the world over are women and children, women’s earnings here and abroad trail the earnings of men with comparable education and experience, our workplaces do not adequately accommodate the demands of childbearing and child rearing, and we have yet to devise effective ways to ward off sexual harassment at work and domestic violence in our homes.” As an organization that champions craft and creativity on a global scale, it’s time we take a look at our own shortcomings, when we talk about creating a more fair, diverse, and equal industry. Because the fight is far from over, and we still have work to do, we approached ADC Member Mariam Guessous, who, with a group of talented, like-minded women under the 3% Conference, helped to launch the Elephant on Madison Avenue project during Advertising Week.  The stats are indisputable  and we are faced with the question “how can we solve this together?”  Our answers need to become our actions.




Tell us about the 3% Conference, your involvement and why we all need to be talking about it. (What does the 3% represent?)

Until The 3% Movement came along, only 3% of all U.S. Creative Directors were women. And in a world where women influence 80% of consumer spending—this was simply unacceptable. The 3% movement was started by Kat Gordon to address this issue, and it is now the leading organization that promotes gender equality in our industry. As a woman in advertising, I was already aware of the 3% Conference but I got even more involved when I entered a competition they held in 2013. They asked the creative community to “Rebrand Feminism” in a time where people were still afraid to declare themselves feminists. The goal was to show that Feminism is for Everyone. I didn’t think Feminism needed rebranding, so I created a simple manifesto clarifying its definition—I ended up winning the competition and became very involved with the 3% Conference ever since.

More specifically, tell us about the Elephant On Madison Avenue Project. 

As we all know, this year has brought many scandals to the ad industry. There’s been a lot of debates about whether things like gender bias and sexism were a thing of the past and if those incidents were isolated ones. Instead of speculating about it, the 3% Movement decided to take action and gather actual facts straight from those who know: women who work in advertising.

Then they partnered with researcher Michele Madansky, who was behind Elephant in the Valley—a similar project done for women in Silicon Valley—and conducted qualitative and quantitative research to uncover the truth. They interviewed more than 600 women and gathered a lot of stats and quotes that reveal the state of women in advertising.

As the Creative Director on this project, I took that data and brought it to life conceptually and visually. As a woman in advertising, I had my fair share of stories, so this project was my way of bringing more awareness into a subject I’m passionate about, because I truly believe that change starts with awareness.

Needless to say, the results are chilling. Which is why it’s extremely important for everyone in the industry to be aware of these issues and understand the consequences of their actions.



Do you have a personal anecdote you can share about your own experience that made you want to be apart of The 3% Conference & Elephant on Mad. Ave? 

I think most women experience some kind of sexism, gender bias and discrimination in the workplace (and beyond!) and I am no different. I think that younger women entering the industry experience it more frequently—or at least I have. This is very discouraging to someone just starting their career, because the message they’re receiving is: You don’t belong. For ambitious women like myself, this can be tragic and very disorienting. I will spare you the details of my stories but encourage you to read the quotes on Elephant On Madison Avenue, as they are a very accurate representation of what many women in advertising are experiencing.

I am a woman in advertising and I have a story to share. How can I do that?

You can share your story anonymously on The act of just getting it “out of your system” will sure feel good. But I also recommend having a support system of friends, colleagues (male and female!) to talk about these things and exchange stories and rants. Women should also remember that they have a voice, now more than ever, and they can easily turn to social media if they want to share their stories.

How do we turn awareness into action that gets results? 

Along with the research results, we provide a downloadable white paper with specific microactions that agencies and individuals can take to make the workplace more equal. For example, when it comes to wage equality, the microaction for the agency is to conduct an agency wage audit, publicize the results and make changes accordingly. For individuals, it’s to conduct their own wage audit (both in the industry and at their agency) and negotiate when necessary. At 3%, they expanded their programs beyond awareness to action by launching a consulting arm that partners with agencies to help make change and a 3% Certification program that establishes which agencies have truly gender equal workplaces. In partnership with agencies, they now know they can change the ratio.

Either way, both parties will need to step up their game and do something about the issue. Without action, there will be no change.




I think it’s ignorant for anyone to think that gender equality is a thing of the past. I’ve read articles wherein women talk about how they know for a fact their male co-workers get paid more, simply for being men. 

Most people are either unaware or they simply don’t care, because the issue doesn’t affect them directly. The work we have to do is to show that these issues do in fact affect everyone; from the CEO who’s held accountable for equality in the workplace, recent graduates considering advertising as a career, and to the savvy consumer, who wants to make sure they’re putting their money in a company that shares their values.

Let’s get out of ad land for a moment. Take a look at candidate Hillary Clinton, for example. She is automatically put under scrutiny for how she looks, what she is wearing, etc. and that’s completely beside the point of who she is and what she stands for. Political beliefs aside, this is just plain wrong. How do we get to the root of it and change how we as women are treated at work and beyond? 

This is an existential question, so I probably won’t be able to fully answer it…

But, what’s going on in politics right now—while horrifying—is not that uncommon. What Hillary is dealing with is a perfect metaphor of what some women deal with on a daily basis. You are put under scrutiny every step you take, while (some) unqualified, cocky and talentless men are celebrated and given a free pass. If this happens in the highest office in America, imagine what happens in smaller “offices”.

How do we change this?

First, women need to speak up and not put up with that kind of treatment. They need to truly believe that they deserve better. They need to put their happiness and well being first. So if they find themselves in a toxic workplace, they need to leave as soon as they can and report that workplace. Simply use their voice to bring awareness to the issue. If enough of us do it, change will happen. That’s what we call a movement.

Second, men who do understand these issues need to speak up as well. Speak up when you witness unfair treatment, speak up with your males colleagues and introduce them to these issues, to your bosses, to HR… This is your problem too, so don’t just sit there and be a witness. Don’t be a Billy Bush. You’re our ally and we’re all in this together.




Your focus is primarily on women who work in the ad industry – do you see this project being extended to other fields of work?

The Elephant series actually started in Silicon Valley with “Elephant in The Valley”. The 3% movement partnered with the same researcher, Michele Madansky to bring “Elephant on Madison Ave” to life, and I believe there will be more “Elephant” research projects coming out in other industries, so stay tuned!

In sharing women’s stories, these incredible stats and other information, what do you hope to achieve with the 3% Movement?

We hope to achieve equality and fairness in the workplace and beyond. The goal is for agencies to transform and become as diverse as the consumers and brands they serve.

We head up something called the 50/50 initiative, where we want to make the industry equal. Anyone can sign the petition. We are starting to see a surge in women’s led groups that advocate for equal rights in the workplace, equal pay, and more. 

The 50/50 is a great initiative, I myself signed the petition. There are tons of mini movements happening at the same time, this is the result of a global awareness of these issues and people, especially women, coming together to solve them. Women are known to be determined problem solvers and when they get together, they can move mountains. So what’s happening right now is just another manifestation of that awareness. We may not realize this now, but all these movements are truly revolutionary and we may not quite understand how they affect us, but future generations will sure reap the benefits.

After reading your white paper, which everyone should do, it’s clear that this issue is not only a day-to-day reality for women at work, but it is one that cannot continue any longer. Why do you think people are quick to deny the unfairness that so obviously exists? 

I truly believe that people are doing the best they can under the circumstances. Even people who deny the existence of these issues, are not necessarily “bad people”, they’re unaware and ignorant and suffer from unconscious bias—like we all do. Nobody wants to think of themselves as sexist or misogynistic, so instead of examining their behavior and being curious about why this is even happening, they automatically shut down and deny it. They do so unconsciously to protect themselves. This is why it’s important to continuously speak up and bring these issues to the forefront. The more we examine these issues as a society, the sooner we can start moving away from them. It requires education and awareness. And we’ll get there, eventually.



I think inherently, we as women are uncomfortable talking about money, how much we make, even asking for what we really deserve. What advice can you give for women who want to speak out but have reservations? 

Women have not been raised to speak up and demand what they deserve, it’s unfortunate but it’s the reality. Women have been heavily conditioned for hundreds if not thousands of years to comply and not put themselves first. And clearly, this has not served us well. This is the reason why women feel uncomfortable talking about money, because traditionally this was a man’s job, and even though our generation has evolved, we still carry that “DNA” with us.

The good news is, women can consciously change that. It starts with the understanding that as human beings, we deserve the same amount of respect as anyone else. We’re all equal! However, women must respect themselves first, and this is where some women fall short.

So my advice is to do some work on yourself until you establish your worth and then take action without obsessing about the outcome. For example, if you know you’re not being paid fairly, understand that it is your right to speak to you boss and ask for what you think you’re worth. Don’t torment yourself about it… just do it.

The conversation can as simple as this: Based on the quality of work I’ve been contributing to this company, I believe I deserve X amount of money, is this something you can help me get and if not, who do I need to speak to to get it? That’s it! The worse thing they can say is… no. And if they say no, then it is your choice whether you want to stay there or go where you’re valued and paid fairly. You have all the power. Remember that.

This is something you can apply to your everyday life as well, so start asking for what you want daily to start the practice and build that muscle—try it and see for yourself! Remember that you’re not alone and every little thing you do to advance yourself, you’re actually doing it for all of us.



Who else in the industry is helping to make it more equal for women that you look up to? 

Organizations like Makers, ADCOLOR, She Says, She Knows Now, Ladies Get Paid are doing great work in the industry and beyond to advance women.

One of my favorite organizations is The Representation Project. While it started as a documentary, it is now a large organization with a mission is to inspire individuals and communities to create a world free from gender stereotypes and social injustices. They do so through many social programs including the #NotBuyingIt program where women everywhere can call out advertising that is offensive, sexist or inappropriate, giving women everywhere a platform to use their voice to create change.

Special thanks to Mariam Guessous and the 3% Conference team.