International Women's Day: Trailblazing women of marketing and advertising

International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8 and falling within Women’s History Month, aims to commemorate the cultural and socioeconomic achievements of women, while shining a light on the ongoing gender inequality issues they face worldwide. This year’s theme — #BreaktheBias — is a call to break down the barriers and stereotypes keeping women from seeing the same success as their male counterparts.

There’s a long way to go. Worldwide, women earn only 77 cents for every dollar men earn, and many women struggle with discriminatory workplace practices such as the “motherhood penalty.” The global coronavirus pandemic has only worsened the gender gap, pushing back the estimated time it will take to close the gap, from 99 years to now 136 years, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report.

In honor of International Women’s Day, we are highlighting exceptional women in marketing and advertising who embrace change and challenge the status quo. From Ford’s head of U.S. and global media to GroupM Hong Kong's CEO to ad agency 19th and Park’s founders, these female leaders are making a difference at their companies and trailblazing the path forward for future generations of women. The following conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

As head of U.S. and global media at Ford Motor Company, Marla Skiko brings over 25 years of experience in marketing to oversee the strategic approach of creating relevant connections with consumers for Ford and Lincoln brands worldwide. Coming from an agency background, Skiko now works across internal teams and agency partners to advance Ford’s data-driven media, measurement, and innovation strategies. Recently named The Chicago Advertising Federation’s 2022 Advertising Woman of the Year, Skiko represents a strong female leader who has proven she can conquer any new challenge presented to her.

What drew you to the industry you’re in now?
I am fairly new to the automotive industry, having started at Ford about two years ago. What drew me in is the relationship people have with their vehicles. It’s more than a purchase, it’s an emotional and exciting decision. With the industry in such transformation, it’s so great to work on how we pivot from an original equipment manufacturer to a brand that helps people move and pursue their dreams.

What was your first job? Is there a lesson you learned from that job that you still apply today? 
My first job out of college was in retail. I worked for a department store. It lasted only a short time until I moved into advertising, but it was eye-opening. I learned a lot about listening and empathy. Customer service skills are essential in retail, but necessary in almost every business. Understanding what people care most about and what will make them happy is so important in any role in any company.

What have been your biggest successes in your career so far?
Big successes always have come from working with great people and solving problems or going after new business areas together. Developing one of the largest multicultural media agencies in the industry with talented women who are my closest friends to this day was a massive success. The role I have now is tremendous and having the ability to work with an insanely talented team in the midst of such unprecedented disruption will absolutely be something I look back on as an example of success.

No advertising International Women’s Day list would be complete without honoring Madonna Badger, who has not only set an exemplary example for other women in the industry, but has pioneered change for how women are represented in advertising itself. With more than 30 years of experience, Badger works with impressive clients such as P&G, Olay, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Target, as founder and chief creative officer at self-named Badger Agency. She has always led by example in making women a priority. Her agency’s first-ever Super Bowl ad for Olay was staffed with 70 percent women. In 2016, Badger launched the viral #WomenNotObjects campaign, declaring that her agency would never objectify women in ads, and successfully lobbied Cannes Lions to prohibit creative work that did.

What was the biggest success in your career so far?
It became my passion to help all creatives understand the harm we were doing by creating ads that sold bottles of beer in women’s cleavage, sold women in vending machines, used naked women to sell burgers and shoes. Women being used as props, parts or plastic are no longer seen in ads at Cannes. An entire generation of international creatives have stopped doing that kind of work. Impact is how I measure success, and this was creative with a message that changed the ad world.

What was the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
Starting my agency. I had an incredible job at Calvin Klein, and I walked away to start my own agency. I literally jumped off the side of a cliff with only faith. I had little money, no backers, and was 29 years old. Once I jumped, I never looked back.

What can the industry do to be more equitable to women?
Representation matters, both in front of and behind the camera. We must work every day to bring women into leadership roles — and then use our collective power to tell women's stories authentically. Also, commit to working with diverse suppliers. Our agency hires female-owned and female-led companies across all aspects of our work. Be committed by making sure your partners include significant numbers of women-owned and minority-owned businesses.

Over her more than 20 years of experience in the media industry, Caroline Chan has acted as chameleon, with roles tackling everything from content and sponsorship strategy to management. Today, she’s the CEO of GroupM in Hong Kong, where she oversees agencies Mindshare, Mediacom, Wavemaker, and Xaxis. Chan has embraced how the media landscape has evolved towards being more data-driven and performance-led over the past decade, and has exposed herself to different experiences to keep up with the changes. “I am always excited to be exposed to new things and remind myself to do something different every year,” she says.

What was the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
I took on a new role in content and sponsorship at GroupM in 2015-2017. It is a totally different arena that I was never exposed to before, especially in sponsorship. It was a regional role that required generating global and regional sponsorship opportunities as well as activation ideas for GroupM clients across the region. I worked with the teams in China, Singapore and Indonesia. The work was not easy but it was fun and exposed me to a different aspect of marketing.

Who has been the biggest influence in your professional career?
My mom. She is a superwoman who runs her own business and still works every day at the age of 78. As an entrepreneur, she is a down to earth person, and has built a long, trusted working relationship with her partners and clients. She’s my role model who has demonstrated that one will not fail if one works hard and keeps trying. No short-cuts and speculation.

What can the industry do to be more equitable to women?
The long working hours creates a lot of stress for working moms, in particular. I think we must offer them more support through flexible working hours and a more conducive workplace.

About 10 years ago, Whitney Headen and Tahira White were only interns starting off in the advertising industry. Flash forward to today, and the two are co-founders of creative marketing and production agency 19th & Park, one of the first Black woman-owned and operated agencies. Headen and White work with brands like Coca-Cola, Lyft, and Coach to ensure inclusivity is present at every level of the creative process. The two also operate their own secondary companies. Headen manages Life Currency, a professional skill development company, and White is launching Wercflow, a SaaS tool that streamlines contacts and information for content and creative production.

What have been your biggest successes in your career so far?
Tahira: I would certainly say 19th & Park has been my biggest success thus far. To go from interning at a production studio 10 years ago to now owning a full-fledge agency required a lot of hard work and determination with a bit of humility on the side. Being in this position also allows me to create more opportunities for others as well as spread awareness of the trade to those who may be curious.

Who has been the biggest influence in your professional career?
Whitney: Not to be all Kanye, but I think I’m my biggest influence on my career. I never allow myself to be complacent, I’m a constant learner, and allow myself to be teachable but not easily influenced by everything that’s going on around me. It keeps me grounded but also keeps me interested in achieving new things.

What can the industry do to be more equitable to women?
Whitney: I think the biggest thing we can do to be more equitable is to stop putting women and people of color in separate boxes. We should be judged by the same standards that men are being judged by in terms of opportunities, business growth, and sustainability. Allow us to be true competitors amongst everyone and then pay and hire us accordingly.

Tahira: Pay women higher salaries. Provide more vendor opportunities to female-owned businesses (not just cultural initiatives). Fund more women-owned businesses. It’s pretty simple.

Recently named as Burns Entertainment executive vice-president, Courtney Worthman has been committed to advancing women within the agency as well as in the agency’s brand partnerships with celebrities like Mandy Moore, Scarlett Johansson, and Zoe Kravitz. In addition to female-forward commercial partnerships, the Burns staff has grown to 75 percent of women representation, with women making up 50 percent of executive leadership. The largely female team is behind the agency’s highest visibility deals with brands like Nissan, Hellmann’s, and Rakuten, all of which had commercials in the 2022 Super Bowl. For the Nissan Super Bowl spot, Burns worked with actress Brie Larson to secure an all-female crew, and is currently working with female student athletes to secure over $1 million in sponsorships and endorsements.

What was a turning point in your career and why? 

I was working at Alison Brod Marketing and having the time of my life. I was leading VIP and PR services at the agency for some of the best brands in the world (L'Oreal, Mercedes, the GAP etc.). An opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and start a new company which focused on celebrities for advertising campaigns came my way. I took the leap, left a dream company (who I still love and am in touch with!) and started fresh. Needless to say it set the stage for me to come to an iconic company like Burns and open the NYC office.

Who has been the biggest influence in your professional career?
My current CEO Doug Shabelman. Let me tell you about this man — he is a father of two daughters and treats his employees like family. We are a company of 75% women — half of us are working moms — and the environment is very friendly to working mothers. There are no questions when it comes to picking up children, unexpected sick days, snow days — whatever it is. We are given the space to be parents, and also succeed at work.

What is your favorite piece of culture today: What are you streaming, reading, consuming?
TikTok. Can’t stop, won’t stop. I spend my days immersed in celebrity culture and I love TikTok because it gives access to real people in all their weird and quirky glory.

Adele Wieser joined Index Exchange in 2017 to help the ad tech company open its Sydney, Australia, office after 15 years of experience in programmatic buying. Today she holds the title of regional managing director, and works with publishers, advertisers, and demand-side platforms to scale Index Exchange’s operations across the APAC region. Prior to working at Index, she co-founded her own consultancy, CoLab Media Consulting, to help clients prepare for the rapid pace of digital marketing.

What have been your biggest successes in your career so far?
Launching and establishing two international ad tech businesses in APAC.I absolutely love the hustle that comes with the early days of market entry, building teams, and working closely with product teams to find ways to address new customer needs.

Who has been the biggest influence in your professional career?
Starting my career in the early 2000s there weren’t many women in senior leadership positions. However, I was lucky enough to work for some awe-inspiring females that made the juggle of being a full-time mum and full-time employee look doable. They helped me realize that I could continue to pursue my career, while building a family.

What can the industry do to be more equitable to women?
Continue establishing parental leave policies that provide equality. I’m fortunate that my husband was afforded generous paternity leave when my son and daughter were born, enabling me to rejoin Index six months after I had my son, and then again when I had my daughter. Normalizing fathers taking time off to be a dad is also important, my husband fielded so many questions around what he was going to do on his “time off” or his “vacation.” That question wouldn’t be asked to a mother, and any parent knows those early months are definitely not a vacation!

A self-proclaimed “self-starter,” Sheetal Goel, head of digital marketing at global healthcare company GSK, is determined to be an impactful leader for others. With more than 15 years of experience, Goel leads the digital practice for the ISC region (Indian subcontinent) including countries India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Goel works with the company’s brands like Sensodyne, Eno, and Crocin to chart out digital strategies and execute data-driven content and campaigns, focusing on a range of initiatives, from e-commerce to innovations. A constant theme in her career: Adapting to change.

What was the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
I have not stuck to any one industry. I have experienced working in consumer goods, media and now consumer healthcare — all very different, with different approaches to digital marketing, and different expectations on how and where you can function. Every time I have switched jobs, it has been about proving myself, what I can do differently, and how I can help the company do better, be better. When I joined the corporate world, it was a big learning curve for me as the way I had been functioning had to completely change – I needed to be more aware, work a lot closer with more stakeholders in various fields which I had never been exposed to before. It taught me humility and patience.

What have been your biggest successes in your career so far?
Professionally I have always been self-taught. I joined the digital marketing space in India when digital marketing was limited to building a website. I believe the biggest success in my career has been staying the course and being part of the change in the industry. I have always built my teams from scratch and seeing my old teammates do extremely well in their own careers is immensely satisfying.

What can the industry do to be more equitable to women?
I believe it starts with the small things. I have been part of interviews where my family and personal life situation has been asked about, when male candidates have not been asked the same questions. I do see a lot of women now in mid-management and some senior positions as well, but it is still quite a male-dominated senior leadership space.

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By Ilyse Liffreing