The Martin Agency’s New CCO and Other Female Leaders on Why They Signed Time’s Up Advertising

Karen Costello, Denise Wong and Renetta McCann got personal at 4A's Accelerate

On a 4A's panel, The Martin Agency's Karen Costello discussed what's she's done to take action toward inclusion.
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During one of the last panels at the 4A’s Accelerate conference in Miami yesterday, The Martin Agency chief creative officer Karen Costello gave insight into her shop’s culture, highlighting the changes made since the high-profile ouster of predecessor Joe Alexander over harassment claims made against him.

Costello admitted that “creative departments often represent the worst behavior in agencies.” However, she continued, they can also be “ground zero” for where the most innovative people can be found … and innovation makes way for change.

“My experience at The Martin Agency has been a unique one because that agency was a bit of grassroots for the #MeToo movement in advertising,” Costello said. She added that the agency was “built on people that have raised their families in this community; who have stayed there a very long time. When this happened, so many of the men were horrified and didn’t know how to act.”

She said she was most encouraged by the responses she received from her male colleagues, adding, “They wanted to do something.”

Costello spoke alongside Denise Wong, president of Midnight Oil, and Renetta McCann, chief inclusion experiences officer of Publicis Groupe, on a panel exploring the importance of diverse leadership in the agency world. The panel was moderated by Keesha Jean-Baptiste, senior vice president of talent engagement and inclusion at the 4A’s. Baptiste and McCann were both featured in Adweek’s #MeToo issue cover story.

McCann noted that it’s important when discussing inclusion that men are just as involved in the conversation as women.

As an example, she pointed to a task force at Leo Burnett, where she also serves as chief talent officer. The task force was originally started by a group of Leo Burnett’s female executives to discuss behaviors they want to promote at the agency, as well as problematic issues they want to target. However, McCann said that at a certain point, these women decided, “we need to go get some men.”

“They were invited, and they contribute, and they are the signal that this is important to the broad audience in media agencies,” McCann said. “Part of it is realizing that there are men who want the same things we want.”

McCann added she knows all too well the feeling of being excluded, given that she’s a black woman who was born in 1956 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. “That gave me the motivation to include others,” she said.

The new face of inclusion will be an important consideration on May 14, when the signees of Time’s Up Advertising’s pledge meet for the first time to discuss goals and action strategy.

Wong and Costello, who both signed the pledge, agreed that this movement in particular is about action. Wong said Time’s Up Advertising was born out of a “crisis” and that the organization needs to be “focused on doing something now,” whether it’s through “task forces or operational teams.”

“Sometimes, it was messy; there was a lot of back and forth, email chains, phone calls,” Costello said when recalling the earliest days of Time’s Up Advertising. “We would share stories and talk about how we can solve things together.”

She added that it was “really invigorating” to witness competing agencies “coming together to solve a much bigger problem” in the industry. “I found that very inspiring to be a part of, and I am very optimistic of what we can do together,” she added.

Costello herself has already started taking action at The Martin Agency. Since Alexander and former CEO Matt Williams were let go following the allegations of sexual misconduct at the shop, Costello said the agency has tried fostering an environment where “everyone feels like they can speak up,” no matter how big or small the issue.

“We have a fun, lightweight word we say if someone feels uncomfortable but doesn’t necessarily want to be a buzz-kill,” Costello said. “We just say ‘ouch.’ And it’s a way for people to say ‘I don’t know what to say anymore.’”

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@kitten_mouse Lindsay Rittenhouse is a staff writer at Adweek, where she specializes in covering the world of agencies and their clients.