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A Candid Conversation With 5 Women Leaders of Advertising and Media


Two years ago, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a provocative essay in The Atlantic called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” The piece, which sparked a national debate about the impossibilities of work-life balance, stressed that unless a profound change in mind-set occurred at the highest levels of business and government, professional women are basically screwed. The stats bear it out. Women account for just 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, while 3 percent of executive creative directors at ad agencies are female. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg stormed the zeitgeist with her rallying cry to “lean in,” producing a book on how to succeed in a high-powered job as well as a movement. While this drive is nothing new—think Gloria Steinem, Camille Paglia and Helen Gurley Brown—the hope is that as more women in positions of power speak out and create change, the door will swing open and a new generation of leaders will take their rightful seat at the table.

Women in media, advertising and technology understand well the challenge of reaching the upper ranks of power. While a handful of top television executives (A+E Networks’ Nancy Dubuc) and magazine editors (Time’s Nancy Gibbs) are female, there remains a dearth of women running ad agencies, agency holding companies and digital companies.

To shed some light on the state of women in the business, in mid-March we gathered an accomplished group of executives and journalists, all trailblazers in their own right, for a roundtable discussion at the Hearst Tower in midtown New York. Joining me, Adweek’s managing editor, were Cosmopolitan editor in chief Joanna Coles; Sarah Hofstetter, CEO of digital marketing agency 360i; Nadja Bellan-White, senior partner and managing director of Ogilvy & Mather; Nancy Reyes, managing director of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, New York; and Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe. The talk was candid, intimate, enlightening—and revealing. Here are some highlights.

Joanna Coles, Editor in chief, Cosmopolitan

 Adweek: From Helen Gurley Brown on, it seems Cosmo has pushed hard to empower women. And it almost seems—maybe because of Sheryl Sandberg—there’s something in the air right now. Is there something like a cool factor about being empowered in the workplace? 

Joanna Coles: Well, I think it’s more than a cool factor. I mean, it’s what’s happening in the culture—and it’s about damn time it’s happening in the culture. Suddenly, I think women are feeling more comfortable talking about it. I think people like Mika and Sheryl [who both pen career advice content for Cosmo] have led the way for women to own their ambition. And the really shocking thing is how few female leaders there are still, and that’s what we need to be working on. The message that we feel resonates in the magazine, that we’ve really seen resonate is about female leadership and about women fessing up to being ambitious and wanting big jobs, a lot of money and leadership roles.

Mika Brzezinski: I’ll go there on a deeper level and say, the change that I’m seeing is women are fessing up about not being so afraid of each other anymore.

Coles: Although I am still afraid of you. I’m really afraid.

Mika Brzezinski Co-host, Morning Joe

Brzezinski: I’m 46-years-old. So when I was starting at out at 21, 22, 23 and going into my late 20s and early 30s, I feel women were still kind of like the only ones in the room. And when another one came in, it wasn’t so easy. And now what I see is women realizing that there’s a lot of value and really helping … not just mentoring or doing the right thing, like really investing in each other on a friendship level, on a business level, and that’s been fun to watch. But I think also women stepping up and owning their ambition, as you put it, a lot of men and women are finding that to be a very good business model.
Coles: I remember when I was working at a magazine, which shall be nameless, in New York. I remember calling up and saying, “I’m going to be two hours late today because I have to take the older son for shots.” It was an annual routine thing. And the editor, who was female, was sort of, “Oh, well, this is going to be a drag.” She had children, too. She was older than me. But I was surprised that she was sort of annoyed about it. And then the very same day, one of the male editors on a similar ranking took the day off to go on a field trip with his son, who was the same age as my son. Everybody was like, oh my god, he’s such a good dad, going on a field trip. And I was like, this is absurd.


Sarah Hofstetter CEO, 360i

And so I can then say to the hundreds of employees that work for me, if I'm unplugging, that’s permission for you guys to say take your time. If you don’t unplug in your way, you're going to end up burning out.

Brzezinski: So the culture of change really has to come from the top.

Nadja Bellan-White: It does. I mean, I set the tone for my team. I tell them to manage [their] day. I mean, there's 24 hours in a day. If you have to come in late or you worked late or have to do something, I do not scrutinize that at all. As long as the work gets done, I don’t judge how you do it or when you do it. And I try to offer that for … the guys that work for me, as well as the women. I'm an equal opportunity manager.

Reyes: That’s the thing that’s happening now, is since we’re the bosses, since we’re up at the top, we start to set the rules. That was a piece of advice I got from a male boss back in the day, is when you get to the top, you set the rules and people work around you. Because we are all programmed to work around our boss, you know. If I'm a nine-to-fiver, then folks will want to get in to see me between the hours of nine to five. You know, if I stay from nine to nine, the people feel like they have to stay from nine to nine. But if we're up at the top now, we can make the rules and we can shape and allow people to feel like they can have all the things going on that we all have.

Adweek: Sarah, you run an agency, and I’m just wondering why you think there aren’t more women at the top, and do you think we are on the verge of change?

Hofstetter: I can say that I think there aren’t more largely because a lot of agencies end up mirroring the clients, and the clients haven’t necessarily turned over nearly as much. So when there are CEOs walking into a room and then the senior clients are all men, and they say to you, “Oh, hi. How are you?” and I say, “Hi, I’m Sarah,” they say, “Oh, so what do you do?”—as if I’m an account executive. And I say, “Oh, I’m CEO.” “Really?”

Coles: Why do the businesses think they can do that? We know that 30 percent is the level you need of diversity on a board to make it maximum effective. It’s nonsense, the idea of walking into a room where it’s all men like that, and you’re one woman. It’s insane. These people are stuck in Mad Men, you know?

Nadja Bellan-White Senior partner & managing
director, Ogilvy & Mather

 Bellan-White: It is really hard. [At a client meeting in Asia once], when I walked in with my white male colleague from [Young & Rubicam], I was actually the one in charge. But you can tell … first of all, there was the shock: she’s tall, she’s black, she’s a woman. I was kind of like, “OK, why don’t you just take two minutes and just get it together? Just speak amongst yourselves, because I’m still going to be here while you’re talking about me and then we can get the meeting started.”

Coles: And is that generational? I mean, do you see that changing when you have younger clients?

Hofstetter: It’s definitely generational, and it’s mid-change. There’s no question in my mind, there are more women CMOs, there are more women in the senior ranks, at least on the marketing side, and it’s definitely refreshing. And what I like even more is that what I’m seeing less of in the industry—less but not gone—is that there are fewer golf outings and champagne ladies’ lounges and more opportunities for just general collaboration or, hey, let’s just go out and have a drink or have dinner.

Adweek: I’m curious, Nancy. There’s a real lack of women who are executive creative directors. It’s something like 3 percent. Why is there such a ceiling?

Nancy Reyes, Managing director and associate
partner, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, New York

Nancy Reyes: What I do think, as everyone had said, advertising in particular was an old boy’s club. I mean, look at Mad Men. So many of us sort of suffer through the ramifications of a time in which men ran the show in every single way, and the idea would always come from the man. You know, it was the person who sort of broke through and was able to deliver something in a way that nobody else could.

Coles: Which is why you have those crazy ads still on telly now where women get orgasmic over cleaning products … or with a Swiffer, as if it’s the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to you. It’s nonsense.


Reyes: [Goodby’s] Margaret Johnson is a great executive creative director, and she’s also a partner at the agency. She’s made some of the funniest ads, some of the most emotional ads, some of the most rugged, hard, edgy ads. And I think the less sometimes we think of her as, like, wow, this woman made this ad and more like, what a great thinker, what a great creative, what a great idea. That’s the kind of conversation I think I would rather have than have it be, what did a woman make this year?


Brzezinski: … I don’t think the glass ceilings are the same [in TV news]. We have had now two women who have anchored the evening news. We have a lot of women anchoring morning news and cable dayside television. And in fact, I think the numbers may be skewed the other way. But it’s the ones who make it to the top that I think … I think there's kind of an inherent problem, which is somewhat sexist, although it is not overtly sexist, it's something that happens almost subconsciously. And that is, a lot of young women are hired into television when they're not ready, because other aspects of their … you know, what they bring to the table, [they] really shine brightly. And a lot of male executives will … and female, will say well that … you know, pretty or poppy or she's got this. And it's not the talent—she doesn’t have what backs it up. And I actually remember in my career being pushed up too soon and paying for it several times to the point where, by the time I was offered a really, really big possibility of a promotion at CBS, I said, “We ought to wait a year, because I'm going to get killed.” And I did wait a year—and I still got killed.

But the bottom line is, there are these inherent problems I think that leave a lot of women at the bottom and a few at the top who finally make it because they are so freaking scrappy that they somehow, somehow hang on and stay there. But those women, if you look at them, work around the clock, around the clock. They have lifestyles that are not balanced, they have lifestyles that have taken a toll, they have made tremendous sacrifices, and not the sacrifices that men who have made it to the top in our industry have made.

Adweek: I want to ask about the Super Bowl. This year, the ads seemed very different. They weren’t these oversexed spots, it was more about puppies and kids. Is something changing out here?

Hofstetter: I think so. I think what’s changed actually is the fact that a lot of the research is finally getting into the creative, which is that more men are going grocery shopping, more women drink beer—shocker. And so, what do we do about that? Well, we actually cater to human behavior. So if you look at Budweiser doing [a puppy ad], well, that’s because you’re catering to a broader audience, you’re catering to behavior instead of to a stereotype.

Bellan-White: Since the recession, the people making the decisions, the clients, they’re so conservative. They have to answer to their shareholders, they’re pushing the agencies to say, you know, I just need this to be as effective as possible. And what we try to say is, you know, pervasive creativity. You can be creative and effective. Let’s not lose that humor. And so we’re constantly trying to push the envelope of humor in a very culturally relevant way. And it’s hard sometimes because clients are looking at their board saying, “You know what? I don’t know if you can spend that money anymore. I don’t know if you can do that ad anymore,” and they shift your dollars to other, far more effective channels. So we’re constantly trying to tell the clients, let’s find different ways to engage them. And what you’re seeing on the Super Bowl is the manifestation of that.

Adweek: Do campaigns by women outperform those created by men if it’s a product for women?

Hofstetter: I would say it’s actually less about the creative and more about the strategy. If you look at those who are creating the strategy, if you can really get into the mind of the consumer and guide the creatives, the creatives should be able to get into whatever character you’re designing. Good creative should be flexible, so a woman can create for a man and vice versa, and different mind-sets, different cultures. That, I think, doesn’t matter.

Bellan-White: The insights really have to drive the work. I think of the Dove campaign, for example. One of the reasons why Dove is so successful is that it started with a real insight about how women felt about themselves, and it started with the planning team really kind of doing the research. And we had clients that listened to the research and said, look at what women are really feeling about themselves. That drove the success of that campaign.

Reyes: Respect for the consumer is critical. ... What do we know about this consumer, gender-neutral, that can help us make an effective [campaign]? Once you’ve identified that and stop thinking about us as women and more as consumers ... it changes the conversation completely.


Adweek: Joanna, I have a question here from a Cosmo reader [via Twitter]: Could [photos of] un-photoshopped women sell magazines?

Coles: Well actually, the funny thing is, when I was at Marie Claire, we did a cover and whole shoot with Jessica Simpson with no makeup. We didn’t retouch it. Nobody believed us. You cannot win at this game. And in fact, I was just on the Today show, and we had the Today show anchors come in and we did a big photo shoot with them. We retouched it at various levels. And I've never said we don’t retouch magazines, retouch images in the magazine—and I want my Editor's Note to be the first to be retouched, I am telling you right now.

But we do very light retouches, so you know, if someone comes in with a zit or a cold sore or they’ve got a piece of hair sticking up here which nobody noticed at the shoot, we will take it out because otherwise it's distracting. And what often people don’t realize when they haven't been to a photo shoot is the disproportionate impact that very strong lighting can have. So you know, one limb could look enormous or your shoulders are suddenly up here. So we might address those things because photographs do weird things to people. So, we don’t do drastic retouching—I never take 30 pounds off someone.

[Photoshopping] has become a sort of conversation out there, which I feel isn't actually one of those real conversations. I feel people get very excited about it and think, oh, advertising or magazines, it’s all your fault, it's all your fault. But actually, most people who use Instagram love the filters …

Brzezinski: Well, everyone is doing it to themselves now. My new phone has [the app] Pretty Face on it—and I've put it on [level] five. And I mean, everyone's editing themselves now and I think it’s less of an issue.

Coles: People take 30 photos before they find the photo to put on Facebook, so I find it an old-fashioned question. And the one time we did [a makeup-free shoot], no one believed us.

Adweek: Isn't that funny.

Coles: Yeah, and then they accused us of lying, and it was, like, honestly, you should have come to the shoot.

Adweek: In February, the Today show hosts went on-camera without makeup. Could you see yourself doing this?

Brzezinski: [Calling out to her publicist] Lauren, get my license. I'll show you something worse. I'll show you a picture … it's in my phone. Bring my phone. I'll show you a picture of me after working all night long, after having my second child and coming home, but I had to go get my license [photo taken]. It is the worst … it's what I look like in real life. It's fantastic. … So no, I'm not afraid of that. I think it was kind of shtick-y. I mean, just take your makeup off and … wow. [Shows driver’s license to other panelists.] I'm unrecognizable.

Reyes: Oh my gosh, there's no way.

Coles: I don’t think that’s you.

Brzezinski: But my point is … you know, it’s fun to see people without their makeup, and I've done it a few times in my career. I've been in television for 25 years—I've done that once.

Adweek: Joanna, you run a magazine for women and I’m sure published mostly by women. I’m wondering what it’s like in your office. What kind of culture is it?

Coles: We have a lot of women with children. People are pretty upfront about the stresses. A lot of people find the office very calm compared to home. A lot of people come in and go, “Thank god it’s Monday.” So there’s a feeling of camaraderie among the staff who do have children that this is exhausting doing this stuff. But it’s also fun. …

I don’t think there is any [work-life] balance, and I don’t think we should be pursuing balance. And I think it’s a particularly American obsession, as is the quest for perfection. I think we should embrace the chaos. ... I think life and careers have ebbs and flows and you can’t give everything, all things, all the time. And you just have to have judgment on it and judgment comes a little bit with experience, and from listening to female friends and the bonds. Nadja and I met each other at school where our children go together. Mika and I have met through work. ... But that sense in which women have a camaraderie, it’s almost like we have a code that the men have no part of. We have all been in rooms where men have looked over to us and said, “Let me tell you what women want.” And we’re just sitting there, quietly nodding, and thinking in the back of our head, oh, yet another dick guy. And then there is this kind of code that goes on with women, which is, you know, we’re all supporting each other, we’re laughing, we’re falling about, we’re saying, “Jesus, can you get me a glass of wine?”

Adweek: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career, and the worst?

Hofstetter: The best I got—and listening to people here, it looks like either you’ve gotten it or you’ve given it to yourself—is, you are going to be spending a lot of time working, so you better love what you do. And I've switched my career a couple of times, and I think that that was what gave me my North Star—you have to love what you do. Because you're trying to inspire a lot of other people, you're spending a lot of time doing it, and it's got to be rewarding. So somebody gave me advice very early on: If you're going to be spending all this time, you better love what you do. And when you don’t, it’s time to do something else.

Coles: And what about the piece of advice that was wrong?

Hofstetter: You might want to stay home. It was after my first child was born. It wasn’t a debate whether or not I was going to go back to work—I knew I was going back to work. And in fact, when I told my boss—that was a very male-dominated environment—and I told my boss I was pregnant and he said to me, “I figured it was going to happen at some point.” And I'm like … congratulations, I'm so happy for you. Anyway, so when I was on [maternity] leave, there were a few women that were at the office who said, you know, “You might want just a little more time for yourself, like, maybe you can come back when you're done having kids.” And I'm like, “Uh, nah.”

Coles: Good for you.

Hofstetter: I like it. And like you say, you can’t be ashamed if you like what you do. And the truth is, my kids, they're at an age right now where they really love that their mom is doing great stuff. When I got my most recent promotion, I came home from work that night and my kids had made dinner, they decorated the front of the house, they had this whole, like, “Congratulations, mommy!” They had a candlelit dinner and a big card, and they're so incredibly supportive, and I think it's really great that they're seeing that and saying, not, “Oh, you're not home again” but like “Hey, you're doing something really cool.” My kids … I get to work on a brand like Oreo, so they get to go to school and tell their friends, “My mommy makes this stuff work in advertising.” And that kind of stuff is really … it's kind of cred for them, so that kind of stuff is kind of fun. I love that my kids like it and respect it and work with the system. They don’t really know any other alternative, although they certainly see their friends around them [whose] moms generally don’t work.

Coles: Well, I think the best piece of advice—and I don’t really know where I heard it, but everybody hears it—is, listen to the voice within. When faced with a fork in the road, I feel like, for the most part, I've … instinctively known where to go. And I think the other piece of advice that I wish someone had told me is, you know, be open to opportunity because you never know where it's coming from. And it sort of blindsides you.

And I'm not doing anything that I ever sort of dreamt I would be doing, but I'm having a fantastic time, thoroughly enjoying it.

Bellan-White: 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.

The second thing is, I was once told that I would never survive in this industry because I was not white male. So I had a client who said, “I don’t want someone like her calling on me”—and I remember crying about it. And my then-boss, who was also upset, said, “Now I'm going to give you 10 minutes, 10 minutes to cry about this, and then I need you to dust yourself off and go back out there and do what you do.” So I've always believed that I've got to do better, be better than everybody else, so that I can continuously discount others that might try to dissuade other women from doing the same thing.

Brzezinski: The best advice I've ever gotten is advice I give to young women … especially young women trying to get into television and this type of career, but any type of high-level, high-stress job: Don’t forget to get married and have kids if that’s something you want. A good guy is hard to find, and the most important decision you'll ever make in your life. And for me, anything that I'm doing in my career is, for me personally, not worth it if I don’t have a family to share it with. And when I was fired and I went home, I was very proud of that decision because I would have been really upset if I had passed up on that opportunity.

But I think it actually is the best advice because I think nothing makes you better at what you do and who you are than having a partner in life and children to raise. That’s my opinion—some people choose not to have that. It is also the worst advice I've ever gotten. Because it’s hard, and they don’t like you back sometimes. Do you notice that, teenage girls … What? They don’t like you.

Hofstetter: Yeah, I'm not looking forward to that.

Brzezinski: No, don’t.

Reyes: I guess the best advice I ever got was, try not to do it all, just do what works. It’s not about, how do I do the family thing? How do I do the work thing? Do one thing at a time and it'll figure itself out, you know. And if it means sleep with your kids because it feels good and you have that moment, then you do that. So doing what works for myself and for my family has always been a guiding principle.

The worst advice actually was when I started my career, I worked at Ogilvy, and after a couple of years, I decided I wanted to do something else—I wanted to leave, I wanted to go to work on something which allowed me a more strategic opportunity. And you know, my boss at the time said, “Don’t leave. It's too risky. You're making the biggest mistake of your life.” And you know, I definitely thought, wow, I'm 23. If this is the biggest mistake I'm going to make, I am set. Like, this is as bad as it gets? Cool. No problem.

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