Women, Ads & Adworld: 10 Life Lessons from Succesful AdWomen

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Women, Ads & Adworld: 10 Life Lessons from Succesful AdWomen

“That the memory of my fashion choices exists at all, speaks to the self-questioning that women wrestle with after they have been reduced to a stereotype—was it something I did?—and the deeply engrained belief that we can change men’s responses to us simply by changing our clothes.”

Client 1: Could you please move to your left so that the audience could see the presentation better?

Me: Sure

Client 2: Hey, that’s alright, we’d rather see you! ( salacious grin )


I go blank! What do I say?


Question 1: Is it my red A-line pencil skirt?

Question 2: How much respect will I lose if I say nothing?

Question 3: How much wrath will I invite if I say too much?

Question 4: How do I get back to my presentation without missing more than a beat?

5 seconds later
Me: I’d rather have you guys look at the presentation. ( Delivered with the requisite smile, of course )

NO! This was not a scene from ‘Mad Men’. That was me, giving the presentation!                        

As a senior client service executive, with more than 4 years of work ex in New York, Mumbai, Singapore and South America, I didn’t expect to face this. Especially from a big client.

It is sad that decades after the ‘Mad Men’ era, we haven’t made nearly the progress we should. On the outside ( client side ) as well as inside (Agency culture).

…the ‘benign’ free-floating sexual innuendos

..unofficial client meetings at a club

..inappropriate jokes

..upper echelons of the agency filled with boys

The male dominated environs of ad agencies remain less of an anachronism than we might think.

According to a 2013 article in Fast Company, only 3 percent of agency creative directors are women, even though women control 80 percent of consumer spending. The underrepresentation of women in advertising is contributing to an industry that is too often churning out work that relies on female stereotypes to “gain eyeballs,” as a Slate article about 2015’s sexist Superbowl ads makes clear.

Thanks to the efforts of Madonna Badger and her #WomenNotObjects campaign, this issue is enjoying a mainstream debate today.

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No wonder that in a recent study, where female consumers were asked if brands understood them, 90% said NO!

Even from a business POV, that’s just bad business! Considering that women are driving the economy by bringing in more than half the income in 55% of U.S. households and dominating social networks. We need an urgent paradigm shift.


‘There is something wrong with you. We’re going to create shame and anxiety inside of you and then we’re going to provide the product, goods, service or brand to fix that anxiety.’


‘Understand, listen, have compassion, get inside of her life, understand her value system and then put your brand out there in such a way that makes sense with her value system.’

What’s taking so long ?

Working in an ad agency, day in and day out, I find that there are certain factors which are propagating the wrong paradigm.

#1. Lack of female role-models: There aren’t enough real life role models whose career progression other upcoming young talent pool of women can emulate. When all the high ranking positions are occupied by men who get to call the shots, you can imagine the kind of message that sends out. Studies show that women in an organization perform better when they see other women above them or on their side. Just picture this, you’re a man and you walk into a room full of women, wouldn’t you be intimidated? Women that climb up the ladder, find more men than women around them and this huge imbalance sometimes tends to hit the confidence.

#2. Lack of proper mentorship: In a male-dominated industry, women often find themselves left out of informal networks. A mentor can help you build or expand your already existing networks. This helps open doors within the company. Mentors in turn inspire you to work more efficiently. Thanks to their wisdom, you have a clearer view of what’s to be done. It’s harder for women to find this kind of support and camaraderie easily. Many women are forced to step up and be their own mentors.

#3. The unwillingness of agencies to support young women with families: Can women balance motherhood and have successful careers at the same time? Yes, but they need to be supported through this process. Due to demanding schedules, women are often made to choose between their work and families.

“Women do not vanish from the industry, it’s no mystery where they go, they exit the workforce en masse to create the next generation of humans. And then they are punished for it as they watch their career aspirations fade”- Director of branding agency Bellman, Emelye Lovell to Adnews. There have been talks at some high profile agencies to bring in-house childcare. Such measures would be instrumental in accommodating more women in the workspace.

#4. Inherent gender biases still exist: Second-generation gender bias, as examined in the recent Harvard Business Review article “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers” written by Robin Ely, Herminia Ibarra, and Deborah Kolb. The authors describe second-generation bias as “cultural assumptions and organizational structures and practices that inadvertently benefit men while putting women at a disadvantage.”

There’s still a subtle (well, not always subtle) gender bias that persists in most organizations. Many continue to believe that women do not aspire to top positions. Research suggests that men and women are assessed differently at work. According to Pew research center uneven expectations and companies not being ready to elevate women are cited more than any other factor as a major reason that more women are not in top leadership roles. About four-in-ten cite as significant barriers that women are held to higher standards than men and that many businesses aren’t ready to hire women for top executive positions (43% each).

What about the women who have made it to the top?

Now the women who have made it to the top (into the top 3% bracket), who’ve managed to overcome these hurdles, have some really inspiring stories. What’s interesting is that each of them have a style of their own, a unique way of dealing with people, which could mean real life lessons for all aspiring adwomen. Read ahead, get inspired 🙂

# Life Lesson 1: You’ve got to be really, really good to the people around you

Nadja Bellan-White
CEO, Ogilvy & Mather Africa

“There’s got to be someone who’s willing to do the tough job, there’s got to be someone who’s willing to say, “Ok, I’m going to break this ceiling. I’m going to be different, I’m going to be bold, I’m going to take a chance. I’m going to break the barriers so somebody else can come up behind me. Someone has to do it. If everybody runs for cover, the industry would remain the way it is.”

And break the ceiling she certainly did, a very well known face in advertising, a celebrity of sorts who now works out of Nairobi, Kenya to manage Ogilvy and Mather in Africa. Her career graph is what great stories are made of. In 1989, she graduated with degrees in Foreign affairs and Spanish from the University of Virginia. Like her father, she wanted to work for the United Nations. However, things didn’t go as planned. She soon found herself in New York University studying business.

It was at NYU that she first discovered the prospect of working with brands. After graduating from NYU, she joined the marketing strategy team of IBM. When she was studying IBM’s competitor Dell at the time, Bellan- White first came across Ogilvy and was impressed by the people working there.

She made some very bold suggestions to IBM about learning from how Dell was playing with the market. This boldness and foresight led her to be involved with Strategic Interactive group which later became Digitas. This put her on the map in the advertising and marketing world.

“Don’t take anything personally. I think it’s easy to take things personally, but don’t hold grudges. You never know what’s going on in people’s lives or why they are the way they are in meetings”

Bellan is also the mother to two lovely children. According to her, she’s been able to do the great work she’s been able to do and balance her personal life at the same time, thanks to the immense support from her husband & family.

In 2007, she became the senior vice president and marketing director of Publicis. After having worked with Publicis for a few years, Ogilvy, the company that had left a lasting impression on her, knocked on her doorstep. And well, there has been no looking back ever since.

Bellan says that the biggest challenge of her work is also the most rewarding. She enjoys the rapid/changing dynamics of the business. ‘It is exciting to watch a brand platform unfold’ – based on the consumer insights that she develops with her team and the clients. She is constantly working on giving her clients a competitive advantage.

In 2014, she was made the CEO of Ogilvy Africa, the continent’s largest agency network, overseeing branding, advertising, marketing, and strategy for clients like Nestle, Coca Cola, and Airtel. This meant her family had to move to Kenya. What do you expect from a person who is always on look out for change? She moved, with her family!

Be it New York or Nairobi, it’s about working with people and she is really good at it.

“I think for me, the best advice I’ve been given, and what I try to do, is really be good to the people around you – people you’re competing against, your clients. Because the people that you see across who you may think are your enemies could be your friends the next day. So be good to everybody. I try to tell that particularly to the younger folks coming in. They think you can be so competitive that you cut people off. You’ve got to be really, really good to the people around you.”

# Life Lesson 2: Provide adequate support to the people working for you

Susan Gianinno
Chairman, Publicis

Named as one of the ‘100 most influential women in advertising’ by Advertising age, Gianinno is the chairman of Publicis and also currently an advanced leadership fellow at Harvard. She has donned several hats in her career so far, Chairman and President of D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles Worldwide and also held leadership positions at J. Walter Thompson, BBDO and Y&R.

Susan was the first person to serve on the board of directors at all four companies. Susan leads the only agency to be awarded the P&G ‘Excellence Award’ an unprecedented three years in a row.

So what makes her tick? It could be her educational background in Psychology. Susan has two master’s degree in Educational psychology and comparative human development, one from Northwestern and the other from the university of Chicago. Psychology, she says, is a very good tool to have in advertising because this gives her an understanding of people.

She often talks about the stress in the advertising business. How there’s a lot of stress from the clients, there’s stress in terms of time. This issue doesn’t get addressed because people don’t talk about it. Moreover, people don’t even know how to think about it.

Susan adds that not all types of stress is bad, there’s also positive stress wherein people working for her thrive under pressure, people who look forward to challenges. People struggle only when they don’t have the resources or the required skill set to solve a problem.

The worst type of stress according her is the toxic stress with abusive clients and psychopathic bosses. Sadly, this is widely seen in the advertising world.

The solution that Susan offers is four fold:

Empower your people: When you give big challenges to people, provide them the basic resources that they’d need. Also makes sure that they have the skills to meet those challenges.

Giving people flexibility: If someone wants to work for three hours and then wants to work from some other location then as a leader you should be able to accommodate that request.

Being appreciative (simple but strong): Just thanking the people that work for you tirelessly day in and day out. To make them feel appreciated truly makes a difference.

In a business where you’re expected to get smart really fast. She has realised how important it is to go deep and think through an issue in order to really make a difference.

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# Life Lesson 3: Put the right people in the right places

Olga Lucia Villegas
CEO, Leo Burnett, Colombia and Latin America

Here is a woman breaking stereotypes in more than one way. Let me just start by confessing my love for Colombia and its people. Having worked there for more than a year, I realised that Colombia is very far from the image that is usually portrayed in the media. What disturbed me the most was the general perception of the Colombian woman. Colombia is known for producing beauty queens year after year such as the Miss Universe this year (sorry the first runner-up, I’m still confused!) , the other popular personalities are the likes of Shakira and Sofia Vergara. As much as I love these two ladies, it’s so refreshing to see a Colombian woman making her mark in the male dominated world of advertising.

So here’s presenting Olga Lucia Villegas or Luchis as she’s known. She’s currently the CEO of Leo Burnett Colombia and Latin America. Luchis attended the University of Jorge Tadeo Lozano in Bogota, graduating with a bachelor’s in Fitness and Publishing. She later earned a postgraduate degree in marketing.

A seasoned veteran, Luchis joined Leo Burnett as a publicist in 1990. She slowly grew up the ranks. Under her leadership, Leo Burnett Colombia has grown significantly. New business accounts from strong local brands such as Davivienda, Alpina and Seguros Bolivar, as well as international brands such as Carrefour, Coca-Cola, DirecTV, Moviestar and Chrysler, were added to Leo Burnett’s roster. Also, during her time as Managing Director, Leo Burnett Colombia was named the Most Creative Agency for three years in a row and was awarded a Gold Lion in radio at Cannes.

As Leo Burnett always said “This is a business about people,” I am deeply convinced of this, especially for a region that has always characterized itself for its talent. The most important thing for me is to ensure that we have the right people in the right places to reach our creative and business goals and dreams,” says Villegas.

# Life Lesson 4: Keep an eye out on the trends and ride the tide!

Sarah Hofstetter
CEO, 360i

Sarah Hofstetter is the CEO of 360i, a digital ad agency in New York that’s been making waves and so is the CEO. Hofstetter has been promoted three times in two years and this is her first agency job!

She started her career as a reporter for the New York Times and then founded her own PR company Kayak Communications. A boutique marketing agency focused on developing brand strategy and communications plans for new media brands such as Adobe Systems, Vibrant Media and Covad. Sarah says she dreamt of being an unbiased reporter that would expose the world’s wrongs before turning over to the dark side, as she humorously calls it.

In the years that Sarah has been with 360i, many feathers have been added to its now overcrowded cap. 360i has been named ‘Best Place to Work’ by Advertising Age and Crain’s New York Business. Sarah’s expertise is in providing strategic counsel to clients such as Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola, JCPenney, NBC Universal and Reckitt Benckiser, on utilizing digital to help marketers foster relationships and form emotional bonds between brands and consumers.

“When we started out, we were in the search business, and we came into the ad industry in an era where nobody was buying text-based ads. They certainly weren’t buying them in an auction. They were negotiating deals over three-martini lunches and they were buying beautiful experiences. And we said, “Well this is the way people are going to be discovering, so let’s figure out a way to get ahead of that.”

A few years later, the same thing with social media. We were one of the first agencies, if not the first, doing social media for clients through, originally, blogger outreach. Not only was that not a practice, but other agencies looked at us as if we had three heads. It was, “Why are you talking to bloggers?” But that was something we saw as being an influential part of the decision-making process. So, for us it’s about looking at where consumer behavior is going and not looking at other agencies and saying, “This is the one to be.”

It is this foresight that has led brands such as Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola and OREO turn to Sarah to help them transform their communications by putting digital and social behaviors at the center of their marketing strategy and overall communications She currently serves on the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s (WOMMA) Board of Directors. Sarah lives on Long Island with her husband and two children. She regularly writes about tips and strategies to survive and thrive in the digital advertising space.

# Life Lesson 5: Transparency builds trust and credibility


Laura Weintraub
CEO, aimClear

The CEO for aimClear, an INC 500 honored, integrated social, search, display, and PR marketing agency. What Laura Weintraub brings to aimClear is specialized expertise surrounding implications of big data, legal trends, compliance, and human resource matters. Previously, she taught business law at the University of St. Francis and spent almost a decade as a featured lecturer on employment law for human resource personnel and business owners. Laura was initially involved as an attorney for aimClear during its early years and joined the company full time as Chief Operating Officer in 2011. She became CEO in 2012 after aimClear, which then had 16 employees, earned Inc. 500 honors.

From a start-up to an established business, Laura says that the secret has been picking goals that impact growth rather than specifically targeting growth. They recently reorganized the company to gain more accountability and instituted more metrics. Data is critical and Laura knows that. She makes sure to keep tabs on data that affect contracts, projections and manage growth so that they don’t point arrows in the dark anymore. Their decisions are much more informed – and this only the beginning according to the CEO.

Laura adopted the open book business principles associated with The Great Game of Business.

“We’ve always shared things with our staff, that’s something Marty [Weintraub, aimClear Founder & Evangelist] believed in from day one, so we started with strong credibility in place and there were no objections to taking this approach. Literally he had our first employees open the mail for the pleasure of receiving checks from our clients. We explained to our staff before we “launched” that open-books is a process, not an event, that adopting it would challenge the way we were used to working. Explaining that we want our team members to help us run the business and teach them how to run a business resonated and made it something to be excited about.”

She says she makes sure that everyone at aimClear feels appreciated and recognized for their good work. They have now made it a regular weekly feature. “Ringing the bell” – the ritual is called. Every time a milestone is reached by an employee, no matter personal or professional, the customary bell is rung.They recognize and celebrate everything from buying a house to running a marathon to client successes. Maybe, there’s a lesson to be learned for other organizations too.

# Life Lesson 6: Don’t worry about the competition, focus on outdoing your own performance

Linda Passante
CEO, The Halo Group

The CEO of The Halo Group – With over 30 years of experience, Linda Passante has consistently generated growth and increased the bottom lines of brands across all categories (in almost every market).

Linda is a pioneer and inspiration for many in the industry. A co-founder of one of the few female-owned ad agencies, Linda has grown The Halo Group from a small Long Island based shop to a full-service player in Manhattan. She is a strong, visionary leader and she has built a terrific team across all key disciplines: creative, business strategy, account management, media, interactive and PR. Under her leadership, we can expect to see great work in the upcoming years.

She co-founded Halo in 1994. Since then, Linda has worked hand in hand with regional, national and international CEOs and Senior Marketing Executives to create, reestablish and grow lasting brands.

Her history of delivering on business goals has helped Halo grow into a top tier New York agency that lives and breathes her “defy or die” philosophy. She has always encouraged thinking outside the box rather than outspending the competition. Linda has a passionate executive team, a team she hand-picked. A team that shares her philosophy as they build the businesses for Halo’s clients.

With a wide range of clients across domains – Nikon, Magnavox, Brown Jordan Furniture, and international brands such as Letts of London, Freed of London, and Dynatech Laboratories. She has helped different companies worldwide make billions of dollars. Linda won the 2007 International Stevie for Best Entrepreneur award, a testament to the above statement. She was also featured in the Business section of The New York Post on Sunday, April 24, 2011.

In 2004, Linda completed the Harvard School of Business Executive Leadership Program followed by the NYU Executive Finance and Accounting Program. Linda also attended the School of Visual Arts for Communications. Linda serves on the AMIN Network Global Committee, Womensphere Advisory Council and is a member of the Women President’s Organization.

# Life Lesson 7: Kindness isn’t a weakness, it’s a choice

Sarah Thompson
CEO, Droga5

Droga5 is undoubtedly one of the hippest creative agencies in New York. And Sarah Thompson, the CEO is leading the charge. From a humble background to becoming a CEO, Sarah Thompson surely has come a long way. She worked with BBH New York for nine years, where she had served as head of account management and international accounts. There she worked with brands such as Levi’s and vaseline. Infact, she was the Global Account director for Vaseline.

She made the bold choice of joining Droga5 as a general manager in 2008, when it was just a start-up agency. She was also six months pregnant at the time! It turned out to be a very good gamble. She was promoted to President in just two years. In 2013, she was named the CEO and in 2014, she was named the Global CEO. Now she works alongside the leadership teams in all the three offices in New York, Sydney and London. Sarah was recognized with the Advertising Women of New York’s Quantum Leap Award in 2012.

Interestingly, she learnt her first business lessons in a small market at age of 15, her boss at this job would set the benchmark for her on how to treat people. She loved the way he treated all the customers with equal respect regardless of where they come from.

Unlike the popular notion of cut-throat, fear inducing female bosses, Sarah believes in being kind and nurturing. According to her, kindness goes hand in hand with being strategic and confident. She also believes in pushing people to achieve that extra mile.

“I know I have really high expectations and the agency works really hard across the board, but positioning people for success means empowering and believing in them. And I know certain people have moved up the ranks in our organization and have been pushed out of their comfort zones just like I was at different points in my career – and I think that is the world of leadership. It’s belief but not blind belief.”

She never gave too much thought about the career progression of other women at the organization. It was after she had her first child, she realized the importance of pulling other women up. She herself was stuck in mid-level management for many years for the fear of taking on too much responsibility. She now feels the responsibility to help other women and push them as she had been pushed.

# Life Lesson 8: Enhance freedom and instill confidence in your employees

Kirsten Flanik
Managing Director, BBDO New York

Since joining BBDO in 2006, Kirsten has been named a “Woman to Watch” as well as one of the “100 Most Influential Women in Advertising” by Ad Age. Apart from her other responsibilities at the agency, Kirsten supervises the Mars business. In her first three years she added major pet-food brands and built sales for longtime accounts such as M&M’s BBDO. Her biggest achievement was perhaps getting Snickers back to BBDO. The brand had been with the agency since 1995 but went to TBWA (Omnicom group sibling) for three years.

“I believe that freedom and confidence are the essential elements needed to inspire success. Freedom and confidence can relieve us of the stress and tension we face when we set balance as our goal and can achieve for us the kind of respect we deserve as leaders within our respective industries and communities.
Enhanced freedom certainly helps with balance between personal and professional time.” This is exactly what she has been implementing at the agency and the results are extra-ordinary.

It is this leadership philosophy that helps her uncover the combination of the most consumer-relevant and creative executions. A leader who can reduce complex problems down to actionable nuggets, Kristen led the Snickers “You’re not you when you’re hungry” campaign, which can resonate with consumers from their teens to their 80s!
She’s also actively involved in the agency’s efforts to support the organization Autism Speaks. Kirsten serves on the board of Somerset Hills Learning Institute, one of the premier institutions for children with Autism. She’s also a member of Advertising Women of New York and BBDO’s Women Leadership Council, a group dedicated to helping women succeed in the workplace.

# Life Lesson 9: Be direct. Be who you are

Shirley Au
President & COO, Huge

Shirley Au is President and COO of Huge, where she oversees the company’s global business operations. Shirley joined Huge in 2004 as a project manager, the agency’s sixth employee and since then, she has played a critical role in directing the growth of the company.She has also led some of Huge’s largest initiatives for clients including JetBlue, Disney, FreshDirect, New York Philharmonic, Kate Spade, Nutrisystem, College Board, and Turkish Airlines. Prior to joining Huge, Shirley held marketing positions at AOL and New Line Cinema.

Au currently works from Huge’s London office, Shirley oversees agency’s international growth including expansion into Europe, Asia and the Middle East. In an interview with Forbes, Au spoke about the glass ceiling, “I’ve never personally experienced a glass ceiling but I also went into an industry where what I did and how I did it made more of a difference than anything else. I don’t think about my career as having been affected by being a woman and I don’t think my gender has ever come into play in my access to opportunity or my ability to do my job – at least to my knowledge. I’m always happy to see successful women in leadership positions though, and I’m personally really proud of the fact we have a lot of female leaders at Huge. Half of our offices are actually run by women and many of our discipline leaders are also women.”

Au says that her “incredibly direct” manner has also helped: “I’m very clear with my position and point of view. I don’t tend to hold back. There’s this idea that the only way to be successful if you’re a woman is to be bitchy. That’s not true. I’ve seen women take that tact and it really turns me off when I see it because it’s just so counterproductive.”
In 2013, Adweek named Shirley one of the most influential people in media, marketing, and tech. Shirley’s accomplishments have been recognized by Forbes and Business Insider, who named her one of the most powerful women in advertising. In 2015, she was one of a handful of women honored by AWNY for “changing the game,” and by Cynopsis Media as one of the industry’s “Top Women in Digital.”

# Life Lesson 10: Just be a badass

Mercedes Erra
Founder of BETC – Executive President of Havas Worldwide

Erra is the Executive President of Havas Worldwide (formerly Euro RSCG Worldwide),Co-Founder of BETC, and Managing Director of Havas. She started as an intern at Saatchi & Saatchi in 1981, she successively became Advertising Chief, Client Manager, Deputy General Manager and finally became in 1990 General Director of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising until 1995. She is the “E” of BETC (Babinet Erra Tong Cuong).

Mercedes Erra is an expert and specialist in branding and communication building. She is famous for working on different subjects and inspiring new ways of communication for brands such as health for Danone, young for Evian, or the vision of Air France. Her “Roller Babies” campaign for Evian (played to the song Rapper’s Delight) made the Guinness Book of Records for being viewed over 75 million times. The agency she co-founded, BETC Euro RSCG, has, in 15 years, become the first French agency and the second most creative in the world (Gunn Report January 2011). Her annual compensation is $1,730,741 a year, making Erra the only woman to make Business Insider’s list of the richest people in advertising.

She is a founding member of the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, a member of Human Rights Watch’s French Committee and a permanent member of the French Commission on the Image of Women in the Media. Erra is also committed to serving UNICEF and the ELLE Foundation. She lives in Paris with her five children.


In 2012, the 3% conference was launched by Kat Gordon. The idea behind this conference is to change the landscape of creative leadership through mentorship, community outreach and research. Advertising Women of New York’s (AWNY) is another such example that empowers women to achieve personal and professional fulfillment. Many such movements are propping up all over the world. The mantle now lies in this generation’s hand, to have more diversity in all the top positions. As Sheryl Sandberg says in her book Lean in “In the future, there will be no female leaders.There will just be leaders”. Let us hope that this future is not too far away. What do you think? Is this notion too far-fetched? Let me know in the comments down below.

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