A Candid Conversation With 5 Women Leaders of Advertising and Media

The triumphs and trials of smashing the ceiling

Two years ago, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a provocative essay in The Atlantic called "Why Women Still Can’t Have It All." The piece, which sparked a national debate about the impossibilities of work-life balance, stressed that unless a profound change in mind-set occurred at the highest levels of business and government, professional women are basically screwed. The stats bear it out. Women account for just 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, while 3 percent of executive creative directors at ad agencies are female. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg stormed the zeitgeist with her rallying cry to "lean in," producing a book on how to succeed in a high-powered job as well as a movement. While this drive is nothing new—think Gloria Steinem, Camille Paglia and Helen Gurley Brown—the hope is that as more women in positions of power speak out and create change, the door will swing open and a new generation of leaders will take their rightful seat at the table.

Women in media, advertising and technology understand well the challenge of reaching the upper ranks of power. While a handful of top television executives (A+E Networks’ Nancy Dubuc) and magazine editors (Time’s Nancy Gibbs) are female, there remains a dearth of women running ad agencies, agency holding companies and digital companies.

To shed some light on the state of women in the business, in mid-March we gathered an accomplished group of executives and journalists, all trailblazers in their own right, for a roundtable discussion at the Hearst Tower in midtown New York. Joining me, Adweek’s managing editor, were Cosmopolitan editor in chief Joanna Coles; Sarah Hofstetter, CEO of digital marketing agency 360i; Nadja Bellan-White, senior partner and managing director of Ogilvy & Mather; Nancy Reyes, managing director of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, New York; and Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe. The talk was candid, intimate, enlightening—and revealing. Here are some highlights.

Joanna Coles, Editor in chief, Cosmopolitan

 Adweek: From Helen Gurley Brown on, it seems Cosmo has pushed hard to empower women. And it almost seems—maybe because of Sheryl Sandberg—there’s something in the air right now. Is there something like a cool factor about being empowered in the workplace? 

Joanna Coles: Well, I think it’s more than a cool factor. I mean, it’s what’s happening in the culture—and it’s about damn time it’s happening in the culture. Suddenly, I think women are feeling more comfortable talking about it. I think people like Mika and Sheryl [who both pen career advice content for Cosmo] have led the way for women to own their ambition. And the really shocking thing is how few female leaders there are still, and that’s what we need to be working on. The message that we feel resonates in the magazine, that we’ve really seen resonate is about female leadership and about women fessing up to being ambitious and wanting big jobs, a lot of money and leadership roles.

Mika Brzezinski: I’ll go there on a deeper level and say, the change that I’m seeing is women are fessing up about not being so afraid of each other anymore.

Coles: Although I am still afraid of you. I’m really afraid.

Mika Brzezinski Co-host, Morning Joe

Brzezinski: I’m 46-years-old. So when I was starting at out at 21, 22, 23 and going into my late 20s and early 30s, I feel women were still kind of like the only ones in the room. And when another one came in, it wasn’t so easy. And now what I see is women realizing that there’s a lot of value and really helping … not just mentoring or doing the right thing, like really investing in each other on a friendship level, on a business level, and that’s been fun to watch. But I think also women stepping up and owning their ambition, as you put it, a lot of men and women are finding that to be a very good business model.