The women walked in, one by one, exchanging pleasant smiles and the typical formalities of greeting someone for the first time. The brightly lit, French door-flanked room was a refreshingly serene respite from the din of Las Vegas and the Consumer Electronics Show outside. As coffee was poured and croissants and fruit salad passed, the initial pleasantries quickly turned to the passionate, unvarnished exchange of personal stories, wins, woes and laughter.
Indeed, at this closed-door, invitation-only, unscripted breakfast held for the first time at CES and cohosted by The Trade Desk CMO Susan Vobejda and Pandora CMO Aimee Lapic, some of the world’s most innovative and influential marketing leaders, all of them women, started as strangers and ended as friends and supporters, eager to meet again at the next industry event.
It’s an example of how executive women in the marketing and media sector have, in recent years, elevated their game by engaging in groups of other women leaders, sharing, collaborating, exchanging ideas and discovering kindred spirits.
As the need for women’s leadership has taken center stage in the industry—at times thrown into the spotlight by headlines that decry the lack of women in C-level roles at ad agencies and missteps like the tone-deaf absence of female speakers on the CES stage one year ago—there has been a rise in and evolution of events and groups—both grassroots and more formal—that bring women executives together. These groups also parallel the rise in initiatives on the part of influential leaders in the marketing and media industry to push for equality in gender representation in advertising, initiatives like the Unstereotype Alliance, brought together by UN Women, the United Nations entity for Gender Equality, which “seeks to eradicate harmful gender-based stereotypes in all media and advertising content,” and #SheHer, driven by the Association of National Advertisers to push for accurate representation of girls and women in advertising.
Examples include She Runs It, founded in 1912 as Advertising Women of New York, which, under the leadership of President and CEO Lynn Branigan, hosts gatherings throughout the year with guest speakers, panel discussions and awards presentations with the goal of fostering women’s leadership in the advertising, marketing and media industry.
Shelley Zalis, meanwhile, seven years ago founded The Girls’ Lounge, an answer to the storied “Boys Club” concept, which has since evolved to become The Female Quotient, an organization dedicated to advancing equality in the workplace with an embedded event series at all major industry confabs such as the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, CES, the World Economic Forum, SXSW, Shoptalk and many others.
And just in January, Carolyn Childers and Lindsay Kaplan cofounded Chief, a private network for senior leaders designed to help women advance in their careers.
Common among the groups are professional goals such as helping women get on boards and navigate board positions, finding ways to collaborate, advancing to senior and C-suite roles, and exchanging best practices. But also important, particularly at the closed-door CMO breakfast at CES, are creating opportunities for women to share and learn from one another around issues such as striving for work/life balance, handling the toll extensive business travel can have on kids and families, and grappling with other personal issues—health and relationships, for example.
Why such an increase in these groups? “As we’re all so busy, as digital has become so much a part of our lives and we are working to keep up with everything that’s coming at us, we are placing more value on having human connection,” said Vobejda, who with Lapic had the idea of doing a CMO women’s breakfast when the two were informally meeting at Cannes and wished, based on the depth and authenticity of the conversation they were having, that other women CMOs could be there to join in. “There’s this rise in the desire to connect. The moment where someone understands where you’re at, where you’re talking to someone and you feel that connection, that’s precious,” she said.
Women CMOs, in particular, are craving this kind of connection, she posits. Indeed, in my own off-the-record conversations with women CMOs, the need is real. “It’s a unique experience to be a female CMO,” Vobejda said. “Increasingly at the center of what’s going on with the growth of the company, your purview is increasing and increasing and the opportunity to connect with other people in that seat is especially valuable. As women we are balancing so many things—family, personal, health. It’s a unique experience, and being able to connect with others in that seat—you can feel that energy when that connection happens.”
The breakfast at CES was “extraordinary,” she said. “It was like what you experience when you see a friend you haven’t seen in years and you see them and start talking [like no time had passed]. That’s how I felt with 12 strangers—it was this moment when everyone wanted to talk and share with each other because we were all going through the same experience as CMOs.”
It speaks to a trend of women helping women in new ways, said Lapic. “Women seem to be having not just a broader voice within marketing and the C-suite but are being way more supportive of each other,” she said, referencing other groups in the Bay Area, for example, one sponsored by Stanford Business School for alumni, and another informal women-only group made up of Harvard Business School alumni.
“Typically women who are successful in their career are being pulled in multiple directions—personal, community, [the need to be] drivers in terms of role models. Men have had natural networks to rely on for a long period of time, and in general, they don’t have as many pulls on their time. Women often are the key executives in their family life. They are active in community boards and schools. People want to have access to female leaders. I think it’s been in the last five years or so where it’s been noticeable to me that women are bonding together to be helpful to one another,” she said, adding, “Women are very comfortable just asking for help and not pretending that we have all the answers.”
Women CMOs, in particular, benefit from such groups because the practice of marketing is transforming so radically and swiftly, and finding common best practices, particularly across industry sectors, benefits everyone. “It has to do with the focus on the end consumer and the fact that the customer expectations are changing so fast and so dramatically that no one industry owns it, and everyone is facing the same challenges,” Lapic said. “And in marketing you have a higher percentage of women at the top rather than in a CFO or COO role, for example. We haven’t been at the C-suite for decades and decades in large numbers. There aren’t a ton of examples of how you do that balancing act really well. At this moment when a lot of women are at the C-suite level, a lot of them aren’t choosing to do one or the other, they’re choosing to do both and so we need role models/examples of how to do it,” she said.
For her part, Zalis has made women’s leadership a permanent fixture at some of the world’s most well-attended and influential industry events through pop-ups, and with good reason. “Originally called the Girls Lounge to combat the ‘Boys Club,’” she said, “we created the destination to connect collaborate and activate change together. That space has been for CMOs. Once you have girlfriends in business you just want more of that,” said Zalis, whose organization—now 17,000-strong—developed the #SeeHer movement and brought it to the ANA. “We are creating the platforms and space to connect,” she said, “a destination and home for everyone to come and share, and we know that we’re better together. We share the good, bad and ugly.”
Of the need for such groups specifically for women CMOs, Zalis said, “There are very few women who get to the top [role of CEO]. CMO is the notch below CEO, and so there’s more of us at that level. When you share not just marketing strategies for your brand but when you’re trying to create a movement, women are better together and women are natural sharers. And when it’s a space where women are the majority, it’s easier to find each other and create a relationship.”
But in what she said is an important shift, Zalis at CES changed the official name to The Female Quotient and actively invites and encourages men to join in FQ Lounge events.
“Now we’ve moved to equality. Men are welcome, and all of our conversations are around equality and creating change together. The commitment was in January to make sure women are the majority in the space, but men are all welcome and men belong, and I wanted to move the conversation to activating change, and women can’t do it alone.”
The new model is resonating, she said. “The Girls’ Lounge resonated, and I’m going to miss it, honestly. I took it on to be a little controversial and have that wink to it to the ‘Boys Club.’ But now that there are so many organizations connecting women together, really making it the destination for equality seemed like a very natural evolution for us.”
Tara Walpert Levy, VP of agency and brand solutions at Google and a board member of The Female Quotient, has long been a proponent of Zalis’ model, and the busy working mom also engages with multiple other executive women’s group to lend her camaraderie and expertise. “I’m a huge believer in getting women together and using forums like that to get some strength in numbers and provide mutual support around common experiences,” she said. “[Zalis] has been extremely effective at building community and raising the level of conversation and careers of women who have been a part of that community from the beginning.”
Levy is part of several other women’s and industry groups, including those at Google as well as She Runs It and Women in Telecom and the Women’s Forum of New York, through which she engages in conversations around how and why women can secure board seats. Levy also drove Google’s involvement with #SeeHer. “One of the most powerful things our industry can do is use the power of the pen to show women in more relevant, diverse, accurate contexts for the range that women do and that we want women to do,” Levy said of the power of the marketing industry’s involvement. “The overwhelming majority of women say that advertising doesn’t represent them,” she said, adding that there are principle and business reasons for wanting to correct that.
She believes women in marketing, in particular, are gravitating toward one another because “the job of marketing is to connect and influence other people’s mindsets and behaviors. People drawn to that field similarly have that instinct to want to have authentic connections with peers,” she said.
“A lot of us feel the responsibility of our positions in this business because we do have more influence broadly. Because advertising and marketing affect so many people, we see an even higher focus on and involvement in diversity and inclusion activities, and so the desire to share and connect with your peers is higher in this area. Marketing and marketers and storytellers tend to be passionate people, and that leads to the desire to dive in, connect and make progress,” she said.
“That responsibility CMOs feel is also for their teams,” Levy added. “Many of us have large numbers of women (my team is 60 percent) working for us, and we want to make sure we are doing everything we can to support them—both structurally and through mentorship and sometimes by putting our own oxygen masks on first,” she said.
As we move through to the next decade, the expectation is that the need for groups connecting women in senior roles in the marketing and media industry should only grow stronger.
To that end, at the start of this year, former startup VPs Kaplan and Childers cofounded Chief, a private networking group for women in the industry.
“The idea for Chief came from a very personal place,” Kaplan said in an email. “We both worked hard to forge our path to the boardroom table, and spent time mentoring women along the way. But we realized that there was no one to support the women like us at and near the top of the ladder — where the biggest drop-offs of women in leadership roles occur. We decided to create an organization to support and accelerate female leadership, starting at the top. Chief cross-pollinates power across industries and creates lines of succession to drive exponential change in the C-Suite,” she said.
Officially launching in January with 100 members, it now counts more than 300 and has a waiting list of more than 4,000.
“The media and marketing industry — like retail and fashion — is a popular choice for women entering the workforce,” Kaplan explained of the industry focus. “But it’s disheartening to see an industry with such high female representation across the board be dominated by men in the C-suite. Chief was created for women at the VP level to help drive them into seats of power, and give support to the women who have already made so they can be a positive force for diversity and inclusion within their companies.”
Chief’s member base is approximately 40% C-suite and 60% VP level, Kaplan said, and its members span across an array of industries, including media and marketing, consumer and enterprise technology, retail and e-commerce, financial services, non-profits and consumer goods.
“Chief clearly struck a chord with senior women who want to gain access to meet the right people and receive support designed specifically for senior leaders,” she said. “We reject waiting decades to get to gender parity in the C-suite, so we’re building a time machine at Chief — and we want all the powerful women to join us.”