11 Inspiring Women Who Have Broken Down Advertising’s Most Persistent Barriers

How these trailblazers overcame difficult odds and found their voice

In Chicago, San Francisco and New York, advertising’s pioneering women strolled into Adweek’s photo shoot in a celebratory mood. After all, many of them knew each other back in the day. They’d risen together and supported each other as they overcame difficult odds to be The First—the first female and African-American chief executive at Starcom MediaVest Group, the first African American to serve as an IPG company officer, the first to launch a multicultural marketing group at Young & Rubicam, the first woman to become creative director at Leo Burnett and the first woman elected to its board, to name just a few.

“As a woman, as a Latina, who practiced a pioneering specialty, Hispanic marketing, it was a triple challenge,” recalls Daisy Expósito-Ulla, who headed up Y&R’s The Bravo Group and is currently chairman, CEO of d expósito & Partners. “Working at Y&R in 1980, no one knew what the heck I did. It was a challenge to prove to the corporation, to my clients that this was a really good business opportunity. I persisted, and I was there for almost 25 years.”

Here, Adweek shares what Expósito-Ulla and several of these women called a “historic” moment in time—not because they had stories to share, but because, as they say, now people are listening. —Lisa Granatstein

Cheryl Berman

The Determinator 
Cheryl Berman’s drive is so well known that a 2004 Wall Street Journal ad called her the “Determined Ms. Berman.” The former chairman and CCO of Leo Burnett in Chicago, Berman believes she landed the top creative job at the agency because of her persistence. “I just wanted to do it all,” she says. “I had a very healthy appetite.” Not that the ride was easy or smooth. “There were obviously obstacles,” she notes, “but I was competitive, a hard worker and a good writer so I think that helped me move up the ranks.” And she says, she always spoke up, especially when she was excluded from meetings: “I was very upfront about it.” Clearly, it worked. Not only did Berman work on some of the biggest brands in the world, including Coca-Cola, Kraft and McDonald’s, during her three-decade career at Leo Burnett, but she became the first woman elected to the agency’s board of directors. Looking back, says Berman, who founded Unbundled Creative in 2006, “It was quite interesting to walk in that room and be the first woman with a bunch of guys who, you know, I don’t think they even wanted me in that room. I think they felt they had to do it.” And that she insists must change. “It’s not that you have to [be more inclusive], but you should want to do this,” she says. “You should support it with all your enthusiasm and your energy because it’s going to help you move forward, going to help the world move forward.” —Kristina Monllos 

Daisy Expósito-Ulla

The Entrepreneur
Expósito-Ulla built her career by seizing opportunities when they presented themselves—and when they didn’t, she created them. The award-winning marketer entered the agency world in 1976 as a creative writer and producer at Conill Advertising and worked closely with co-founder Alicia Conill, who, she says, “empowered me and gave me the confidence to come out of my shell.” In 1981, Expósito-Ulla became creative director for Y&R’s The Bravo Group, where she led accounts including AT&T, Kraft, Mazda, the U.S. Army, Sears and USPS. She was the first Latina to hold the cd role at a major global agency and later rose within the ranks to become chairman and CEO in 2001. Under her watch, Bravo went from a $1 million shop responsible for producing marketing and communications programs aimed at the U.S. Hispanic market to an umbrella group of multicultural agencies at Y&R/WPP with half a billion dollars in annual billings. While Expósito-Ulla faced “twice as many obstacles being both a woman and a minority,” she says that challenge “became the biggest opportunity of my career.” In 2006 she launched her own independent agency, d expósito & Partners. Looking forward, she is optimistic. “Women have woken up,” she says. “We have raised the level of consciousness and awareness.” —Erik Oster

Constance Cannon Frazier

The Educator 
Frazier, who is currently the American Advertising Federation’s (AAF) chief operating officer, has made her mark championing diversity and inclusion in advertising for over 30 years—especially on the creative side. “I think it would benefit the industry if we had more women of color involved in creating campaigns,” she says, “because they might be able to bring some insights to how women of color like to be portrayed.” In addition to her industry work, Frazier taught at Howard University for over 12 years, making her as much of an educator as an activist. Her achievements during 14 years with AAF include increasing corporate support of diversity programs, doubling the number of participants and financial support for the Most Promising Multicultural Students program and creating the first-ever AAF student conference. “The industry for many years has tried to [attract] students of color,” she says, “but those programs basically focus on entry level … it’s a matter of keeping them.” Frazier has high hopes for the future, saying, “One would think that if any industry really can solve the inclusion dilemma, it would be the advertising industry.” —E.O. 

Heide Gardner

The Change Agent 
Since the 1990s, Heide Gardner, IPG’s svp and chief diversity and inclusion officer, has been at the forefront of countless movements that work to advance minorities in advertising. In 2000, as svp of diversity and strategic programs at AAF, she helped push former President Bill Clinton to sign an executive order requiring all federal departments to compensate minority-led agencies, based on fair market rates. In 1996, she founded the AAF’s Mosaic Center on Multiculturalism, publisher of the seminal The Mosaic Principles, a guide for improving diversity. Although Gardner says progress remains a challenge (according to 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 5.8 percent of women holding jobs in advertising and public relations were black), she believes that movements like #MeToo (founded by activist Tarana Burke) and Time’s Up Advertising demonstrate that we are entering into a period of real and positive change. “We’ve created an environment where it’s OK to bring less egregious behavior that derails careers and demoralizes people to someone’s attention,” Gardner says. “Time’s Up Advertising is about women who are in power taking on the responsibility to lead change with accountability. It’s not just about white women. It is about women and men of color, LGBTQ talent.” —Lindsay Rittenhouse

Keesha Jean-Baptiste

The Mentor 
Jean-Baptiste got her start in advertising when a friend referred her to a program called MAIP ( Multicultural Advertising Intern Program). “I was scared,” she says. “I didn’t know whether I would get in, and I didn’t feel like I’d be as prepared as others who had studied advertising longer.” But the former broadcast journalism major’s fears were unfounded. Not only did she earn a spot, she also scored an internship at Philadelphia’s Tierney & Partners and went on to hold top marketing and HR roles at Digitas and Wieden + Kennedy. Last year, Jean-Baptiste’s career came full circle as she landed her current job as svp of talent, engagement and inclusion at the 4A’s—the very group that launched MAIP 45 years ago. Her focus now is to expose other young, aspiring advertising professionals to all available industry access points. “I have mentored people informally for all my career,” she says. “[I’m] constantly in pursuit of making my story known so they know that what I achieved is possible for them too.” As a “darker-skinned black woman,” Jean-Baptiste says she has always been aware of perceptions of her otherness. But she calls her time at Digitas a formative one, adding, “I could see a future version of myself” in the agency’s minority leaders. In her new role, she hopes to dispel the myth that a lack of diversity stems from a lack of interest while helping the entire industry develop a greater sense of empathy. “It’s about small, intentional, tightly choreographed actions that move you forward every day,” she says. “We are not as educated as we all need to be in other cultures.” —Patrick Coffee

Linda Kaplan Thaler

The Independent 
In 1997, Linda Kaplan Thaler and five women opened The Kaplan Thaler Group, on the third floor of her family’s brownstone, as an escape from the male-dominated agency world. “I didn’t want to be in cultures where I felt like there was this endless alpha male attitude,” she says. Two years later, Thaler’s team ballooned to 250 people and was racking up more than $1 billion in billings. Among the groundbreaking and award-winning work coming out of her shop: the Aflac duck and the “Yes, Yes, Yes” Clairol campaigns. Now retired, she was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 2015. These days, Thaler spends much of her time touring the country, giving motivational speeches to corporations. Reflecting on the state of the industry today, she says: “There’s so much room for improvement in every profession. I would like to see more and more women in leadership positions. After all, we are seeing more women as our clients.” —Katie Richards

Shelly Lazarus

The Chairwoman 
“Women have equal talent to men,” says Lazarus. “We don’t need any remedial programs. We just need an even playing field.” Ogilvy & Mather’s chairman emeritus has proven this over and over, during a career that spans more than 40 years and saw her rise through the ranks starting with president of O&M Direct North America, then CEO and finally chairman. Recalling her early days (she began on the client side at Clairol), Lazarus says that she often found herself as the only woman in the room. “We would mostly be working on products that were sold to women so there would invariably come this moment in any meeting I was in, where the whole table of men would turn to me and go, ‘Well Shelly, what do women think?’ So, I was central to this whole proposition.” In 1996, when Lazarus succeeded former Ogilvy CEO Charlotte Beers, she became one of the first women at a major agency to take the reins from another woman. Her climb to the top spot at an agency of Ogilvy’s size was considered so newsworthy that it became the focal point of a 1997 New York Times article, questioning why there were so few women at the top of major shops.  —K.M. 

Renetta McCann

The Support System 
A pioneer from the minute she landed in “client services” at Leo Burnett in 1978, McCann rose quickly, becoming the agency’s first African-American vp and later CEO of Starcom MediaVest Group Worldwide. To get ahead as a woman, especially one of color, meant having to brush off the misogynist comments made by male colleagues—like when top executives would ask her younger, pregnant self if she was having twins. “I would growl and say, ‘No, I’m having one,’” she recalls. “You just answered and moved on. We didn’t get distracted by things that were going to take our eye off the ball.” Having lived through the civil rights movement, McCann says experiences like being barred from entering Chicago’s South Shore Country Club, where her white friends were allowed to play, taught her that the only thing she could focus on while pursuing her career was her own success. Currently, Publicis Groupe’s chief inclusion experiences officer, McCann says her trailblazing days are behind her. “I think the women who are in the industry now, who have years to go in their careers, have to find the kind of workplace they want and the kind of workplace they want for their daughters and sons,” she offers. “For me, it’s about supporting them.” —L.R.

Tiffany R. Warren

The Innovator 
“I had many more opportunities as a black woman than my mother or my grandmother, who worked in a tuna canning factory,” says Warren, Omnicom’s svp, chief diversity officer—which is why she feels a special sense of responsibility every time she enters the office. But her advocacy work extends well beyond Omnicom. Eleven years ago, while managing diversity programs at the 4A’s, Warren set out with “few resources and lot of hubris to honor people of color in marketing and media.” The result was Adcolor, which has since grown to become the industry’s premier minority advocacy organization. “We weren’t taught about multicultural change-makers in class,” she says, and Adcolor seeks to counter that disparity by paying tribute to talent at all levels, from rising stars to icons and agency executives who “have stood up as allies.” Warren acknowledges the role that #MeToo and Time’s Up Advertising have played in bringing the industry to the precipice of change while noting that women of color have been waiting “in the shadows” for decades. She adds, “We have this moment to make changes across the board, not just in terms of gender.” —P.C.

Carol H. Williams

The Legend 
Williams never planned to go into advertising. Growing up on Chicago’s South Side during the 1960s, the legendary creative director nursed twin passions for hippie culture and biochemistry. But a 4A’s internship program landed her at Leo Burnett in 1971, and three years later she helped make Secret the market’s top antiperspirant on the strength of the still-running “Strong Enough for a Man, but Made for a Woman” campaign. “If you don’t have a seat at the table, find yourself a chair and pull it up to the table,” she says—and that bold approach, combined with memorable work for Pillsbury, KFC and Kimberly-Clark, helped her become the first African-American woman named vp, creative director at any ad agency in 1977. “Once you proved that you could produce brilliance on an ongoing basis, the industry embraced you,” she says. In 1986, Williams took an even greater risk in launching her eponymous shop, which has since produced noteworthy campaigns for brands like Allstate, General Motors and The Walt Disney Co. Last year, Williams became only the second African-American woman inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame. While she calls most diversity initiatives “PR talk,” she also sees potential for progress in the intersection of #MeToo and the challenges that women of color still face in both the ad industry and our culture at large. “It’s time to rewrite the rules,” she says, “and that’s not a joke.” —P.C.

Mary Wells Lawrence

The Force 
A singularly powerful, not to mention prolific force during the 1960s, Lawrence conceived of iconic campaigns for Alka-Seltzer, Braniff International Airways (think Pucci-clad stewardesses) and TWA, among others. In 1966, when the management team at Jack Tinker & Partners turned down her request to be president, telling her "no one would come" to the agency, she left and co-founded Wells Rich Greene. Within six months she helped win more than $30 million in billings. Two years later the agency went public, and Lawrence made history as the first female CEO of a company traded on the New York Stock Exchange. As she told The New York Times in 2012, “There were and are so many talented women in the advertising business, and the real wonder is why they aren’t all running worldwide agencies of their own.” —K.M.