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Advertising Leadership Diversity & Inclusion

The changing face of Madison Avenue: how women are leading the way in New York's legacy agencies


By Doug Zanger | Americas Editor

February 15, 2018 | 11 min read

The Drum looks at the changing landscape of senior female leadership at the New York offices of nine legacy agencies.

Legacy New York agency leadership, like the industry itself, continues to work its way through massive upheaval and change. For some time, and somewhat quietly, the world’s largest advertising market has seen a significant increase of women in the highest, most important roles. While there’s still clearly progress to be made, women have slowly but surely been making their way to top posts within the industry in recent years.

In 2012, and out of the New York offices of 14 agencies that are considered legacies in the New York City market, only five of those offices were led by women. Today, nine women are leading those same agencies that were the domain of men for decades — Saatchi & Saatchi, Deutsch, Droga5, BBDO, McCann, FCB, Publicis, Grey and J. Walter Thompson.

According to the 3% Movement, in their ‘Where We Stand’ research from 2016-2017, women across agencies of all sizes hold 29% of creative director positions and 39% of executive roles. While those numbers have risen throughout the last decade, it still leaves plenty of room to grow.

The Drum gathered five of the nine business heads — chief executive officers (CEOs) and presidents — together at McCann New York for a roundtable discussion in November 2017, led by Americas editor Doug Zanger, to specifically discuss the changing landscape in New York and leadership by women in the agency community. Four chief executives could not make the discussion in person, but their answers were taken shortly afterward, giving all nine a voice in the matter.

The conversation covered plenty of topics, from the changes these women have seen over the years and what challenges remain to their own stories of how they rose to the top and how they continue to manage in the industry.

Taking a cue from fiction, when asked what Mad Men’s Don Draper would think of the agency landscape today, Val DiFebo, who has been chief executive of Deutsch’s NY office for nine years, said she believes the dapper, albeit flawed fictional character would have a hard time.

“He would be intimidated because it would be unlike anything he’d ever seen before,” she said.

Sarah Thompson, chief executive of Droga5, concurs to a degree, but with a twist.

“I think he would be slightly confused at first,” she said. “I think that he would wonder why the typing pool has such a big office.”

Sarah Thompson, Droga5 NY chief executive

Levity aside, the changing face of New York agency leadership is indeed no joke and begs the question of what David Ogilvy, one of the industry’s pioneers, would think about the increase of female leadership in the city.

“I think he would be proud,” noted Andrea Diquez, chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi New York. “He was a pioneer, and this is a pioneering moment in the market — and the world, actually.”

Countered Devika Bulchandani, president of McCann New York: “I can’t imagine that he’d walk into this room and feel comfortable. [In his time] that’s not what the norm was. In those days and even today, there is a ‘bro code.’”

Kirsten Flanik, president and chief executive of BBDO New York, frankly stated: “I think any man from the time would be a little shocked. But it’s pretty amazing that nine of the largest agencies in New York are run by women.”

New York leading the way for women executives

It’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement of the progress made at the highest levels in New York — and how quickly it’s happening. To the women leading the agencies, it is becoming, at least from a leadership perspective, a global beacon.

“I think it’s sending a message not only to the US but the rest of the world,” said Diquez. “I was with some of my UK colleagues and mentioned the number of women who lead agencies in New York, and they were in shock.”

As a comparison, in the UK and London in particular, most of the big agencies are led by white men, though Cilla Snowball of AMV BBDO and Sarah Tate of TBWA\London lead as chief executives. Grey also has a high number of women in senior roles, and Magnus Djaba heads Saatchi & Saatchi. In Japan, the legacy agencies are led nearly exclusively by men.

“I’m excited because when I was named CEO of my agency nine years ago, I was almost the only one and I felt out there alone much of the time,” said DiFebo. “Even today, I still go to a lot of meetings where I’m the only woman in the room.”

Indeed, the 'bro code' still lingers, especially in brands and in tech, with women not cracking into the upper layers of management. For brands, though, that is beginning to turn due to clear leadership from companies like HP and General Mills, who demand that their agency partners improve overall diversity numbers, and others like Mondelez, Cover Girl, Nike and General Motors, who have women in higher positions.

Kisten Flanik and Val DiFebo

While the male attitude is still widespread in the agency world, progress is being made, and with movements like 3%, Free the Bid, Diet Madison Avenue and #MeToo, change continues to accelerate.

Female-founded agencies like Joan, Badger & Winters, Co:, Swift, Rauxa and others are also welcome and important pieces of the agency landscape. Senior agency leaders in other markets like Christine Fruechte at Colle+McVoy and Liz Ross at Periscope in Minneapolis, Martha Hiefield at Possible in Seattle, Meredith Vaughn at Vladimir Jones in Denver among a number of others, point to bright progress.

Additionally, Wendy Clark's recent appointment as chief executive officer at DDB Worldwide illustrates strong forward momentum on a global scale.

A recent spate of high-profile exits of senior male creative and strategic leadership at agencies, including Droga5, The Martin Agency, CP+B, Publicis Seattle, Wieden+Kennedy London, TBWA and others lingers — yet signals an important sea change and a positive shift in ensuring a more inclusive and welcoming industry.

To counteract that pervasive male code, the female leaders in New York see a need to stick together while remaining inclusive.

“My relationships in the leadership position and my closest relationships have been with women, and I agree with this day, the truth is we’re still often in rooms that are all men, senior clients, whatever it may be,” said Thompson. “I do think it’s essential to have a women’s club to support each other and push each other...My biggest supporters have been women.”

As often is the case with New York, the city can use its widespread influence on the advertising industry at large to effect change in this area.

“This is a global hub for some of the largest brands in the world, and most of the agencies represent those brands. For the longest time, I think we’ve been a reflection of the way clients have been staffed,” noted Flanik. “And we felt that we needed to match up from a personnel standpoint. As we make changes across the industry, it also helps impact and move our clients, and that’s where it can help globally.”

A difference in leadership styles

While it’s a generalization to say that leadership styles differ between men and women, there are some key points to take away from how these leaders address their differences. Listening and reading body language are two tools that are used to understand people and a room.

“Maybe it’s the stereotype, but I think women will look at and hear nuance. When I was in a recent meeting, we walked out of the meeting, and the guy I was with looked at me, and he said, ‘That was amazing.’ Then I said, ‘We sucked.’ He asked ‘What do you mean? That was amazing.’ I said, ‘No, you didn’t read the body language.’ And sure enough, I got a call that wasn’t good. How do you read between the lines? How was somebody talking? We’ve always had to do that,” said Bulchandani.

Flanik thinks that women are more likely to say when something isn’t right, whereas a man might feel pride and hold back. She has been in situations where she questioned whether a man could see eyebrows moving, see body and facial language questioning actions, but she feels that listening and hearing are vitally important.

“There’s a whole other side to this conversation about listening and hearing, and I think it goes back to diversity,” she said. “It’s great to have a whole bunch of people who come from different backgrounds, who look different, but if you’re not listening to them and including them in conversations, then you fail. As women, we are used to being interrupted and I think because of that we’ve become very good at listening, paying attention and hearing what everyone has to say.”

Carla Serrano, chief executive at Publicis New York, said that their agency is already centered on cultural and diversity initiatives. “We launched a range of cultural initiatives, strategically designed to promote open dialogue and sharing. This year, we’ve invited external speakers like Valerie Graves to speak about her experience as an African American woman in the industry and Louisiana state representative Helena Morena screen 5 Awake, a film about five courageous women who set out to strengthen domestic violence laws."

Carla Serrano, Publicis New York chief executive

Additionally, creating environments for everyone to succeed can make a difference. From workspaces to conditions and attitudes, Karyn Rockwell, chief executive at FCB NY, believes that it can encourage more productive collaboration.

“We’ve moved to an open floor plan to promote the creative conversations and team building our industry requires," she said. "We do our best work and thrive when everyone has a voice and an avenue for contributing their unique ideas and perspectives.”

Creating those environments for success opens up opportunities, and when women on their way up are doing their best work there is more chance for them to be heard and rise to the top.

Next week, we continue our roundtable discussion with leadership at the New York offices of nine legacy agencies. Topics include advocating for women’s rights in the industry, how knowing your employees can lead to better productivity and morale, the business argument for women in leadership roles and more.

Additional reporting by Kyle O'Brien

Advertising Leadership Diversity & Inclusion

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