9 Ways to Foster Women’s Advancement in Marketing

The State of Women’s Leadership in Marketing & Advertising

The business world is statistically dominated by male-run companies. Research published in 2017 revealed only 1 in 5 board seats of Fortune 500 companies were held by women, and just shy of  5% of them had a woman as CEO.

But are all industries essentially boys clubs? How does marketing and advertising compare? 

We wanted to find out. Earlier this year we analyzed hundreds of agencies across the country to paint a virtual portrait of our industry. Our analysis revealed that when it comes to leadership, 17% of marketing and ad agencies are run by women.

Is this enough?

Does the industry claiming to be home to creatives and innovators actually foster gender diversity when it comes to professional development?

We reached out to women in leadership and executive positions at agencies across the United States to get their opinions. After all, who knows about the pathway to success, and obstacles that may lay in the road better than women who have experienced it first hand.

Meet the Women:

Is the Marketing & Advertising Industry “Friendly” to Women’s Professional Advancement?

We asked this panel of women to reflect upon their own rise to success. Did they encounter any barriers when it came to progressing their careers? And when it comes to this industry, do they think agencies are “friendly” to women’s advancement to professional leadership positions?

Here’s what they had to say:

Angela Wei

“Yes & No. While the recent #MeToo movement has created momentum for women in advertising, there is definitely a lot more work to be done.  If you survey executive leadership of the top agency holding companies, it’s still top heavy with Caucasian men. In a world where the women are in charge of an estimated $20 trillion in annual consumer spending, our industry has to work harder to promote women in the workplace. As a female leader who is deeply committed to diversity, I’ve seen firsthand how the makeup of a team enhances an organization’s cultural fluency and has the powerful ability to change the way businesses function.”

Angela Wei, Managing Partner, Milk Agency

“No, not really. I think there has been more attention paid to it in the last 3 years with the #metoo movement. But women leaders still have to fight for a seat at the table. The leaderboard was already set and it was all men. There was no incentive to bring women into leadership roles in a boy’s club. It’s a misogynist culture and has only recently started to change. There’s still a long way to go. I started my company back in 2011 because there wasn’t a path in the existing landscape to advance. We need more female leaders to bring up more female leaders.” 

Jiffy Iuen, Founder & CEO, Frank Collective

“I think the marketing and advertising industry has been historically male-dominated, despite the numerous and fairly obvious findings that women primarily control the spending of households. There is a lot of discussions around gender diversity, gender discrimination. But at the end talking and making people aware only accomplishes so much. I think the way this industry changes is for women to continue to be advanced within agencies as well as create and start their own. For myself, as I looked for role models and careers I wanted to emulate, I had a hard time finding one. I realized that the biggest strides I might be able to make is by striking out on my own.”

Jolene Delisle, Founder & Creative Director, The Working Assembly

“I was fortunate to have enjoyed environments (big and small, holding companies and independents) that fostered my advancement and ultimately opened doors to owning my own agency.  This business is about ideas and relationships.  If you are someone who builds those two things, you will be afforded advancement.”

Lynne Robertson, CEO, Fame

I find the marketing industry has been very open to women leaders and have felt much more comfortable leading as a woman in the marketing industry compared to my previous environment at a semiconductor company.  For the first 11 years of my career, I was a chemical engineer at a semiconductor company and then led the digital marketing for a department.  Although I was treated well and given career opportunities, I found a small prejudice against women managing men in the engineering industry so I am grateful to be in the marketing industry.” 

Kelly Stark, Principal, Forward Vision Marketing

“I don’t believe I have encountered obstacles in my advancement in this industry, however, I also took my future into my own hands at the age of 30 and I know many others who have encountered said obstacles. I think it stems from a lack of diversity in leadership to carve out a place for more voices to not only be heard but acted upon. If positions of leadership were more diverse, I think opportunities for others to advance their careers in marketing/advertising would be created. Without this presence in leadership, there still remains a barrier to be chipped away at in order for change to occur.” 

Kiley Peters, Owner & CEO, Brainchild Studios

“I think there’s a strong desire for agencies to demonstrate their understanding of cultural trends. To that end, the majority try to exemplify these trends through behavior in order to stay relevant. My point is that it’s superficially motivated. I’ve been in leadership as a woman in advertising for almost twenty years and the reality of my promotions or title status is that it frequently felt token-ish. I say this because my opinions were often dismissed by the same men who promoted me. I was well-liked as long as I was docile. This is a very negative perspective, I know, but there is work to do.”

Lara Wyckoff, Owner + COO, Tasty Agency

“I personally found my path by starting my own agency over 10 years ago and part of the reason I did that was because I didn’t see room for my own ambition in the roles I had at other agencies. When I looked up to the women at the next level, they often seemed unhappy, creatively stagnant, and subject to the men who held the true leadership positions above them. At one agency, we even had a code for when our female bosses were crying – because it was so frequent. I remember thinking “well if that’s what my career path looks like here, no thanks.” When I looked across the industry, there were some role models at the highest levels, sure – but few and far between – they seemed like notable exceptions rather than the rule. Now, at my agency, SMAKK, it’s not uncommon for us to find that our meetings are completely populated by women on both the client and agency side. I hope that the younger women at the table see that and take away there are no limits to their advancement or potential, because those of us who are female leaders now are fiercely devoted to making sure that we create the opportunities – for success AND fulfillment – that we didn’t have.” 

Katie Klencheski, Founder & Creative Director, SMAKK

“Previous to starting FlyteVu, I worked in the entertainment industry as a Talent agent, a male-dominated industry.  I was the only female agent in the office for several years.  As I progressed up the ranks, I came to a place where there were no more seats at the table, so I set up my own table and created new chairs for other female executives.  At our agency, more than 85% of our staff is female.  As women, we have to stop complaining about the opportunities we don’t have and look for the ones we do (like setting up our own shops) and create new opportunities for other women.” 

Laura Hutfless, Co-Founder, FlyteVu

How to Foster Female Leadership in Agencies

Leadership begets leadership. With our study revealing the ratio of men to women in senior leadership positions leans heavily towards men, we wanted to know what advice female agency executives have for attracting women to the industry, and fostering their professional growth.

Here’s what we learned:

“An inclusive, enlightened environment, a clear path to growth, nurturing mentorships.”

Lynne Robertson, CEO, Fame

Mentorship from other female leaders is imperative  As I’ve interviewed women for positions in our company, many are excited to see a woman as CEO. I always want to know what career success looks like for them—what are the milestones they want to hit and how high do they want to rise. This is something that we track and revisit at each bi-annual review. Show a path to the success they are looking for, and if you can’t do that, don’t pretend to.”

Jiffy Iuen, Founder & CEO, Frank Collective

“Just recently, we offered promotion plans to both a female and a male depending on performance goals but gender wasn’t a factor at all.  I do a lot of speaking and mentoring at schools to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at schools since I studied engineering.  I like to remind girls that they can be whatever they want in their careers and what they study in college will likely change 10 times throughout their career so they need to be opening their minds to learning about all subjects and careers because I sure didn’t plan on owning a marketing company.”

Kelly Stark, Principal, Forward Vision Marketing

“Change expectations of the current work environment. The 9-5 workday was established in 1940 when the Fair Labor Standards Act was updated and was established to create greater efficiencies in our factories. However, 80 years later, so much of our daily lives have changed, but many work environments and expectations haven’t. As women are presented with the opportunity to have careers and families, we need to adjust these almost-century-old expectations to better support these lifestyles. Creating a more flexible work environment by allowing remote-working opportunities, four-day workweeks, on-site child care, and establishing appropriate breast pumping rooms are a few ways companies can begin to adapt their work environments. Creating a company culture that does not tolerate harassment, collaborates with their team instead of dictating to them, and equally believes testimonies from all employees are a few additional ways companies may begin to gain the trust of their female team members. Lastly, studies show that most people leave companies because of poor direct management and lack of growth opportunities.

Creating relationships that foster mentorship between employees and managers and continuing education and advancement opportunities for team members is key to fostering, not only their careers but also a perpetual thirst for advancement in all aspects of their lives.”

Kiley Peters, Owner & CEO, Brainchild Studios

“Being a woman-owned and minority-owned business has helped us naturally to attract diverse and female talent. That can only do so much. Once you have female team members, it’s imperative to foster a culture that not only promotes them to leadership positions, but also supports working mothers and a sense of autonomy that provides freedom for growth.”

Jolene Delisle, Founder & Creative Director, The Working Assembly

“Attracting female team members is easy if you’re truly fostering their career growth. That means considerations for maternity leave, a healthy work-life balance, a 50/50 split between male and female employees, and establishing a strong employee resource group for women — that’s inclusive of men. We all need to work toward equality together. I’m certain that many of the men who were dismissive toward me during my career didn’t realize their responses toward me were different. Sexism isn’t necessarily deliberate, so much as it’s learned, which means it can be unlearned.”

Lara Wyckoff, Owner & COO, Tasty Agency

“Give women the same opportunities as men.  Every individual on my team has access to a variety of opportunities to grow. From leadership and public speaking coaching, to business writing courses and educational sessions, our agency growth stipend allows each person on our team, regardless of age, sex, race, the same opportunities to excel. The same expectations re: work performance apply to women as their male counterparts.  As a woman, I do not want special treatment or exceptions, I just want to be given the same opportunities and tools to succeed.”

Laura Hutfless, Co-Founder, FlyteVu

“If you want more women on the team, put women on top. As a woman-led agency, we’ve never had trouble finding great female talent. In fact, it’s extremely common for us to receive unsolicited job inquiries from amazing women who let us know they’ve sought us out BECAUSE we have female leadership. And when it comes to fostering their growth, start by asking team members where they want to go, and then make it clear you’re willing to invest in getting them there – with the assignments you give, the educational opportunities you make available to them, and the feedback and mentorship you provide. If you find it’s a challenge growing female talent, it’s time to take a hard look in the mirror.”

Katie Klencheski, Founder & Creative Director, SMAKK

Angela Wei

“I’ve seen how important it is to create space for diverse voices to solve complex modern marketing challenges. And while growing female teams is important, as an agency leader –  REPRESENTATION MATTERS – not just at entry levels or middle management, but in executive leadership. How you recruit and hire is important, but more important is how you commit to creating cultural and infrastructure change in your organization. Create meaningful infrastructure and programs that support women in this industry – consider benefits, how to support motherhood, parental leave policies, sexual harassment and microagression training, allyship with men, formal mentorship, pay transparency and equity, etc.”

Angela Wei, Managing Partner, Milk Agency

Key Takeaways:

When it comes to making room at the table, there’s still work that needs to be done. While many of the women we talked to mentioned their experiences in the marketing and advertising world was better than it was in other industries, it’s still imperfect. 

Some expressed feeling like the “token” woman in a leadership role, while others look around and don’t see spaces carved out for female professional advancement. In the face of this, many women industry leaders see opportunities for women to set up their own shop, attract their own talent, and structure their organizations in a way that they ensure a diversity of voices are heard.

How can others improve? As one woman put it: “change expectations of the current work environment.”  

Many women are looking for agencies that support professional and personal goals and give them the tools and flexibility they need to succeed. These women don’t want special treatment, but just equal opportunities and clearer paths towards success spelled out from agency leadership.


Lyndsey Maddox

Chief Executive Officer

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