Women in Advertising: Top Leaders, Resources, and More

"Ad women" have come a long way since the 1960s in "Mad Men", as proven by these 5 female dynamos.

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Taylor Tobin
Taylor Tobin1.84k

Anyone who’s binge-watched the Emmy-winning landmark series “Mad Men” may justifiably equate the advertising industry with the 1960s model presented in the show, featuring men in sharp 3-piece suits swilling cocktails and chasing women- clients and coworkers alike. 

But in 2019, female advertising executives wield all the power of “Mad Men”’s troubled genius Don Draper, but with the practicality and stick-to-it-iveness of (far superior) characters like Joan Holloway and Peggy Olson. 

These women run companies, devise marketing strategies to help their clients grow their profiles, and make a very comfortable living in the process. If you dream of becoming an ad woman, here are some present-day marketing masters to emulate, each one a powerful leader at the top of her profession.

Top Women in Advertising

In no particular order:

1. Wendy Clark

Now the CEO of DDB North America, one of the largest advertising agencies in the world with high-profile clients like McDonald’s, Hewlett-Packard, AT&T, and Pfizer, Wendy Clark began her advertising career just as “Mad Men”’s Peggy Olson did: as a post-collegiate receptionist at an ad agency. Eventually, she rose within the agency and accepted a role at AT&T, rising to senior vice president of advertising before departing to run strategic marketing at Coca-Cola. In her new CEO role with DDB, she oversees 17 offices and over 2000 employees. 

2. Cheryl McCants

Cheryl McCants, the CEO of New Jersey-based PR firm Impact Consulting Enterprises, considers marketing a powerful form of storytelling. Her career emphasizes her commitment to helping clients convey their messages in clear and compelling ways, and she’s offered her marketing services to major companies like AT&T (where she served as a communications strategist) and Nike (where she was the Global Corporate Responsibility Manager and the Director of Communications for the Jordan brand). McCants also uses her influence to advocate for women and minorities, winning a Time Warner and Essence Magazine Power Leader award for her professional and volunteer efforts. 

3. Rachel Mercer

A regular fixture on Forbes’ “30 Under 30” round-ups before reaching that seminal age in 2018, marketing maven Rachel Mercer worked on major accounts like Adidas and Kiehl’s at London agency The Upside before receiving the role of Vice President of Digital Strategy and Invention at Deutsch in New York. Now, she’s the Executive Strategy Director at R/GA, a major player in the digital marketing space with clients including Uber, Samsung, ESPN, and Verizon.

4. Katrina Craigwell

The world of financial marketing comes with its own individual challenges, particularly for those trying to make banking appealing to a younger generation. But Katrina Craigwell, the Executive Director and Head of Marketing for Chase Bank’s new youth-based product, Finn, encounters these difficulties with enthusiasm and aplomb. With a strong background including VP or Marketing positions at J.P. Morgan Chase and General Electric, Craigwell brings considerable experience to her team at Finn, but also welcomes innovation. When asked for her best advice for early-career marketers, Craigwell told Marketer Moves: “My advice for marketers starting out is to get in the trenches and practice making things. I think making things matters for marketers at all levels. Our space is evolving so quickly, being users and staying curious about how things work are great ways to build instinct around creating meaningful experiences.”

5. Dara Treseder

The tech industry boasts a wide reach, and Silicon Valley firms affect everything from social networking to sales practices to, increasingly, manufacturing. At the helm of one of the Valley’s premier digital manufacturing firms, Carbon, is Dara Treseder, a General Electric alum who came aboard in December as Carbon’s first Chief Marketing Officer. Prior to GE, Treseder provided marketing support for Apple, so she’s well-versed in the intricacies of tech marketing. In her free time, she campaigns arduously for women’s rights and public health, serving as an advisor to UN Women Initiatives and on the board of directors for the Public Health Institute.

History of Women in Advertising

While women worked in advertising-related environments even in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most scholars agree that the first major push for female employment in the industry in non-secretarial positions came in 1910, when the J. Walter Thompson Agency launched its “Women’s Editorial Department”. Headed up by copywriter and feminist Helen Lansdowne Resor, this group of women took pride in pumping up their product descriptions with creative and appealing phrasing. They specifically sought to appeal to the “modern woman”, creating ads like a Pond’s Vanishing Cream spot featuring a woman in shirtsleeves playing on a golf course. 

Resor’s work at J. Walter Thompson inspired more and more women to enter the advertising game throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and in 1949, prestigious advertising firm McCann Erickson promoted 4 women to Vice President roles. In 1969, Mary Wells became the first woman to head up a major ad agency, which was known as Wells, Rich, Greene. And in 1970, Barbara Proctor founded Proctor and Gamble as a reaction to a failure of other firms to effectively market to the African-American community, becoming the first black woman to own and operate her own ad agency. 

Subsequent decades have witnessed a major rise in women holding executive positions in advertising, but there’s still plenty of work to be done. A 2008 statistic showed that only 3% of creative directors identified as female, and as of 2018, only 4% of Fortune 500 companies as a whole claim a female CEO. However, women in marketing continue to push for greater representation, launching high-profile projects like the anti-harassment initiative Time’s Up Advertising.

Resources and Groups for Women in Advertising

Female-identifying individuals hoping to begin or advance their careers in advertising can draw from a variety of resources to gain inspiration and support. A few prime examples can be found here:

She Runs It

A collective of female professionals in the marketing and advertising fields. Originally founded as the Advertising Women of New York, the group started in 1912 as a rebuttal to the all-male Advertising League. Now, She Runs It hosts conferences, seminars, mentorship match-ups, and leadership training programs for female advertising employees at all career levels.  

The 4A’s

While membership to The 4A’s isn’t exclusively limited to female-identifying applicants, this nonprofit group focusing on creative collaboration between advertising firms claims a female CEO and numerous women within its leadership, and The 4A’s actively seeks to recruit a diverse pool of members. If your company joins, you can expect invites to industry-centric events, the use of The 4A’s’ networking resources, and more.

The 3% Movement

A 2-day conference specifically designed to combat the “only 3% of creative marketing directors are female” problem, The 3% Movement seeks to extend its reach past the once-a-year event, launching “Minicons” in cities nationwide throughout the year, implementing agency consulting programs, and maintaining an active online community of female-identifying advertising professionals.

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