Paula Biondich thrives in her advertising job for the Minneapolis-based agency Mono. Her peers consider her one of the hardest-working creative directors in the business. Her present and past clients include Target and MSNBC.

But Biondich is an anomaly in the ad world: She’s a woman in a creative leadership position that’s still dominated by men.

The issue has received national attention in recent years, particularly in light of the fact that women control much of the consumer spending in the United States.

There’s even an annual meeting called the 3% Conference that aims to address the disparity between men and women leading the creative work of their respective agencies. One of the group’s tenets: “Female consumers deserve to be marketed to from a place of understanding.”

“Things are definitely changing for the better, but we’ve got a long way to go,” said Kat Gordon, leader of the 3% Conference (website: The 3 percent number refers to the percentage of women holding creative leadership positions. It comes from a 2008 academic paper that highlighted the gender imbalance. The 3 percent figure is likely outdated today, but it remains a rallying cry for women in the advertising industry

Women have made strides in creative roles in the Twin Cities advertising market but still fall behind their male counterparts in leadership positions. For example:

• At Colle+McVoy, 30 percent of its creative department are women with 16 percent of those in leadership roles.

• At Periscope, women outnumber men in the 78-member creative department, although the two executive creative directors are men.

• At Olson, five of 14 creative directors are women.

• And at Carmichael Lynch, which is a cosponsor of this fall’s 3% Conference, 25 percent of its total creative department is female while 43 percent of its product managers are women.

“Diversity and inclusion is a major focus for Carmichael Lynch,” said Ed Huerta-Margotta, the agency’s director of talent acquisition, in an e-mail to the Star Tribune. “Recent double-digit growth has created an opportunity to recruit great new people, including women, in key leadership roles.”

Indeed, Carmichael Lynch and several other Minneapolis agencies hosted a “portfolio night” last week that allowed students to share their work with professional creative directors and compete for attention on an international stage. But even in that event, just two of the 13 creative directors listed as participants were women.

Biondich, 35, began her advertising career in 2004 as a copywriter and moved into a leadership role at Mono two years ago.

As the agency’s creative co-chairwoman, she’s responsible for overseeing the work that basically takes an ad from the agency’s story board to client approval and production before ending up in the consumer’s living room.

Biondich considers her role in the process as a coach, rather than an autocrat. But she also acknowledges that some of her female traits come into play in the team environment, like nurturing, patience and empowerment.

“I’m not a feminist. Most of the people I look up to are men,” Biondich said in an interview. “But women have an easier time knowing what inspires people the most and what demotivates people.”

Earlier this year, BBDO Proximity in Minneapolis promoted Dawn Yemma to creative director with responsibility for some Hormel brands, including Skippy peanut butter, and residential real estate giant Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices.

Yemma said many advertisers don’t understand their women audience and tend to enforce stereotypes in their advertisements.

“I personally get offended if I see too many soccer moms in one ad,” Yemma said. “That’s not who we are. I want to be relevant to the audience.”

Historical, biological issues

Neil White, CEO of the Minneapolis BBDO office, is on the same page. “Creativity comes from diversity. Different people with different views leads to better ideas. The majority of products we sell are targeted to women. It makes sense that our [agency] population mirrors the people we sell to.”

The lack of women in creative leadership roles in the ad world is the result of a combination of historical and biological issues.

The AMC TV series “Mad Men” illustrates how male-dominated the advertising industry was through much of the 20th century and how difficult it was for women to get an opportunity and the experience to lead creative campaigns.

But the other issue that will always exist is that of motherhood. Work weeks of 70 hours, frequent travel and long periods away from home are common for creative directors who oversee production and execution of the finished advertising product.

“It’s a teeth grinder,” said University of Minnesota advertising instructor Jennifer Johnson of the stress of the job. “But I was a single woman [then], and I just had to board my dogs and take my bills with me. But you have to love it in order to show up as your best self every day. Maybe women are falling out of love with that.”

Sandra Heinen, an independent creative recruiter based in Minnesota, agrees. “It’s still a man’s world at the top of the advertising ladder,” she said.

But, Heinen said, the male-dominated decisionmakers she works with look for the best and the brightest among both men and women these days.

“I think women are at the center of the issue. In some cases they take themselves out of the game. Childbearing years coincide with peak career-building ones,” Heinen said, noting that many ranking women creatives go to work independently as freelancers.

A family-friendly workplace

Christine Fruechte is chief executive of Colle+McVoy and makes it a priority to keep the agency as family-friendly as possible.

“It goes back to culture and whether you value the inclusion of diversity,” she said in an interview. “Fifty percent of the leaders at Colle+McVoy have been women over the last decade.”

Fruechte said her agency offers flexible hours to accommodate the family needs of women as well as male staff members and provides yoga and Pilates classes as stress relievers for everyone.

When Alison Beattie gave birth to her son 18 months ago and returned to work in the creative department of Fallon, she said she felt torn by the demands of motherhood and of work, where she is a lead user experience designer — a job that helps improve the interaction between brands and consumers.

“It was a very difficult transition that I hadn’t expected or planned for,” Beattie recalled. “I had always done everything and that all came to a head and I couldn’t function.”

But Beattie quickly discovered she wasn’t alone with those feelings. She helped organize a support group called Mpls MadWomen and 50 of them braved a February blizzard to compare notes and talk about work-home balance, mentoring and job satisfaction. Men attended too.

Today, Mpls MadWomen is a LinkedIn group with over 560 members.