The changing face of Madison Avenue: raising voices for advocacy and success

The Drum's Americas editor, Doug Zanger, leads a conversation with nine NY agency leaders at McCann, November 2017

In the first part of The Drum’s roundtable discussion with the nine CEOs who lead the New York offices of these legacy agencies — Saatchi & Saatchi, Deutsch, Droga5, BBDO, McCann, FCB, Publicis, Grey and J. Walter Thompson — those interviewed discussed the changing faces of leadership in the agency world, how New York is setting the example for women in leadership roles and how differences in leadership styles can benefit female executives.

Though, according to the 3% Movement in their 2016-2017 ‘Where We Stand’ research, women across agencies of all sizes hold 29% of creative director positions and 39% of executive roles, there is still ample room to grow. Additionally, the continued positive acceleration of movements like 3%, Free the Bid, Diet Madison Avenue and #MeToo signals a significant sea change in the industry.

Continuing the final of part of this roundtable discussion from November 2017, we look at how these leaders advocate for women’s voices in the industry, how getting to know employees can help boost productivity and the continued business case for female and more inclusive leadership.

Advocating for women’s voices

Karyn Rockwell, chief executive officer at FCB New York, says that their agency is always looking to identify innovative ways to empower women from all backgrounds and disciplines.

“I look forward to more diverse, female representation, both around the table and in our work, reminding us of women’s uniqueness, strength and invaluable contributions to the world," she said. "We need to ensure that women have a voice in those conversations so that we can deliver on that goal.”

Creating strong voices means speaking up when necessary, and letting other voices be heard through strong leadership. That means that sometimes the women in charge need to speak up for those that haven’t honed their voices or developed the courage.

“I’m often in rooms where I know (the woman) is amazing, but they’re very, very quiet,” said Sarah Thompson, chief executive officer at Droga5 New York.

Val DiFebo, chief executive officer at Deutsch’s New York office, and the longest-serving among the group at nine years, agrees, especially when she sees women sitting at a table full of men and waiting until they are entirely sure they had the right thing to say before speaking up, if they do at all. Sometimes they need a helpful push.

“You need to ensure that you are advocating for all the other women in the office and calling them out. The interesting thing is I think that’s starting to change now. The women who are coming up are much bolder. They’re coming up and seeing now that agency leadership is being run by women. I think it’s exciting to see that they’re not going to have some of the same challenges and some of the same barriers that we may have faced and just worked our way through,” she said.

Having advocates or not, Thompson believes women — especially young women just getting their start in the business — should be direct and ask for what they want.

“I have an amazing group of women around me at Droga5. And I would say a good portion of them have never asked to be promoted,” said Thompson.

Most of the New York senior leaders interviewed have seen plenty of women working hard and pushing themselves, yet not stating their goals, while men who are far from being chief executive level have been bold and upfront about their intentions.

“Men ask for two jobs ahead before they can do them. Women do two jobs ahead before they even get them," added DiFebo.

That said, Devika Bulchandani, president at McCann NY, thinks that women are more comfortable having tough conversations, talking one-on-one and being told what is not working and what they need to do to improve.

“The most important thing I find is letting people walk out of the office and not feel judged, and I think that’s one thing we can do better and that’s what we try to do here at least,” she said.

“I do think that we can also be direct, take on conflicts. You can tell people ‘I know you want to be promoted, but it’s not happening because here’s going on with you. That gives them feedback,’ and still sets them up for success. You can’t make people great without some hard love at times,” added Thompson.

Knowing your employees helps them thrive

Getting to know your employees is vital, but doing it in smaller groups - microcultures - lets managers get to know their employees and creates a culture of trust. Andrea Diquez, chief executive officer at Saatchi & Saatchi NY, knows this first hand in helping build plans for the entirety of her team.

“The first thing I did was to meet with everybody in the agency in groups of three,” she noted. “I learned so much sitting with these people because some of them are 21, and some of them are 60, and some of them are 50, and some come from different backgrounds. What I hear from my team is ‘I care about creativity,’ which is good, and ‘I care about the clients, I care for the people and I care for our culture,’ and for me that’s success.”

While all strive for perfection, they know that they have to allow themselves room to fail so they can improve, and a love of their work helps get them through those times of failure.

“It’s okay to fail as long you pick yourself back up again and make it better. Also, the talent is critical. I love the work. All of us love the work. We wouldn’t do this if we didn’t love the work. So, if you see that the work’s not right I think it’s on you to get the right people to get the right work out, and so that’s not always popular,” said DiFebo.

The continuing business argument for gender diversity

A continual refrain in the industry for some time, research continues to point to more inclusion positively impacting the bottom line of agencies and brands. A study on gender diversity by Barbara Kotschwar, Marcus Noland and Tyler Moran for the Peterson Institute for International Economics from 2017 says there is a definitive link between the women in corporate leadership and performance "in a magnitude that is not small."

An agency’s success, especially under successive women in the chief executive role, is a big argument for gender diversity at the C-level.

“Publicis has a long legacy of strong female leadership,” said Carla Serrano, chief executive officer at Publicis New York. “In fact, I have the honor of being the third female CEO of Publicis New York. Susan Gianinno opened that door, and today she is chairman of Publicis Worldwide North America. Our leadership team includes a female chief digital officer, a female chief operating officer, a female chief marketing officer and a female chief talent officer.”

Lynn Power, chief executive at J. Walter Thompson New York, believes that women are popularizing new leadership styles, which could potentially point to greater momentum and, in turn, accelerate leadership and change in the overall business.

“There is a generation of women in a position of power allowing themselves to lead according to their own new set of values: empathy, intuition, flexibility, patience,” she said. “I also think we are less complacent. However, business transformation – and it is what we are talking about here – takes time, and I think it also still takes too long for women – and minorities – to access the positions in which they can lead this change. It would be interesting to compare the average age of female CEOs versus the average age of male CEOs.”

Rockwell believes that IPG has done a good job at developing and executing programs for gender equity, which is smart for business, but also acknowledges that the talent pipeline and retention are crucial moving forward.

“It makes me very proud to work for an agency that recognizes the need to even the playing field and make room for diverse perspectives at every level," she said. "While our global network is doing a great job of representing remarkable women in C-level and managerial positions – 70% of FCB New York managers are women – it’s important that we continue to support entry- and mid-level talent through sponsorship and mentorship so that they can also find success in this industry.”

Even though inclusion can be a boon to business, Power thinks there are still barriers in that impede progress, further pointing out that growing younger talent — and giving them the opportunities to thrive — is vital.

“There is still a ceiling for women, it might be higher than before, but it’s still there. The question today is not if women can be considered for a leadership position but when. It feels you must be extremely experienced and seasoned to be considered,” she said.

Debby Reiner, chief executive at Grey New York, says it pains her that the industry needs to discuss promoting inclusion and gender equality but the data shows that it is imperative.

“We have to talk about the need for equality until we've reached equality. Until more women are in leadership positions across all disciplines, and until we actively include their perspectives as part of our industry's culture, our potential is still limited. And one issue begets the other, regarding portrayals: improving the representation of women in all aspects of the business of advertising will improve our potential for greater insight, storytelling, connection and effectiveness. We have to strive for progress over perfection,” she said.

Looking forward to a positive future in NYC and beyond

These pioneers in agency leadership know that they have helped pave the way for the next generation of women in the industry, but they look to the future with cautious optimism.

Flanik hopes that in five years, all the talk of having to advocate for women will no longer have to happen.

“I think that when I look back even at the conversations that we were having five years ago about, ‘how do we instill confidence in women?’ How do we make sure that women have a seat at the table?’ I am proud and inspired by how much progress we have made. However, I hope in five years, that it is just the norm, and it’s no longer surprising or shocking to have these many women sitting in the room.”

Further, Thompson adds the importance and shortcomings of agencies related to ethnicity and race.

“I hope that in five years we’re not even talking about people of color because I hope we’ve made real progress," she said. "Because the truth is we suck at it right now. I hope that when women see other women in these positions, they at least see a career path for themselves, but we have to figure out the diversity issue, and I don’t mean just diversity of thought. I mean people of color.”

Power would like to see women in succession for the holding companies and thinks diversity initiatives should place a premium on being as inclusive as possible.

“It should be about the importance of diversity to creativity and business – that’s when people will take it seriously," she said. "And we need to make sure that we don’t leave anyone behind.”

Even as the industry and agency community grapples with change from every direction, Power believes that progress for women and talent of color takes the initial step of commitment across the board and ensuring that growth and opportunity is never left behind.

“We all need to take more chances on women and minorities, give them more opportunities to show potential. I believe that our industry doing that will encourage women to take risks and be bolder. Make it a priority. We cannot be distracted by all the other unprecedented changes that our industry and clients are going through. We need to make sure that diversity and inclusion stay at the top of the priority list.”

Judging from the perspective of each of these leaders, progress continues thought there is still a lot of hard work yet to come. That said, each believes that, as New York continues its upward arc of leadership for women, a legacy is being built that points to a substantial contribution outside of the world’s largest market.

“If we’re talking about five years from now, I hope all of us made a difference in the industry,” said Bulchandani. “Because if we’re saying this is happening in New York, I would hope that five years from now it also made a difference in the whole industry.”

Read the first part of our conversation with these nine senior leaders at the New York offices of legacy agencies. Additionally, you can hear Debby Reiner, Val DiFebo and Lynn Power in The Drum's Exceptional Women of the World podcast.

Additional reporting by Kyle O'Brien

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