Charlotte Beers: Lonely at the Top

What keeps women from climbing the corporate ladder all the way up?

She’s one of the few females to run a major ad agency. But Charlotte Beers is also known for some more colorful moments: like the time she took apart and reassembled a power drill in front of Sears execs, or when she wolfed down dog food during a pitch. Post-9/11, she took on the unusual assignment for the Bush administration of rebranding Osama bin Laden as a murderer in the Muslim world. Her career took her from researcher to the executive offices of major agencies, including Ogilvy & Mather and JWT, where she would become the shop’s first female vp. Adweek talked to Beers about smashing the glass ceiling.

Adweek: You wrote a book that focuses on knowing oneself. Are women more in need of this skill than men?

Beers: Being able to speak clearly and memorably is a valuable asset to anyone. Saying it persuasively is the absolute mark of leadership, so that need is really gender neutral. But the big catch is that the most persuasive people are always speaking from the center of who they are.

Have you seen this manifest in your own advertising industry career?

When I was at [JWT], I was rewarded over and over again for being good at the job. There’s nothing wrong with that. A big part of that job was relationships and client services, but it was nothing like the job I stumbled into when I became CEO of Tatham/RSCG. I wasn’t prepared for this very disruptive and challenging set of relationships. I had no idea whether I could perform in those arenas. That threshold, when the work is overwhelmed by the relationships and it’s intensely competitive—women will withdraw from it.

Is that why most of the industry top executive jobs are held by men?

I’m surprised at that. I feel like I came back from my role as an undersecretary to find that women had been frozen in place. Why are women not making themselves inevitable as a choice [for leadership roles]? I think you have to learn how to express unruly passions and deep convictions and say in a way that no one can doubt it: “I believe.” I honestly think no one can cross a woman who is inflamed in that way. We have the work, education and energy. We just need permission to express all that.

What’s the most useful advice you received when starting your career as a woman in the advertising industry?

I don’t think it was written as words of advice, but there was a behavior that was somewhat to my advantage when I was in the room, which I quickly learned: That it ain’t personal. The criticism, or getting left out, or getting pushed around was not a personal indictment of me and my capacity to do my job. I would say to myself, “These people don’t know me, and they don’t know the size of me.” Well, then I found out I didn’t know either.

How do you respond to criticism that advertising contributes to sexism and the objectification of women in our culture?

The world is highly sensitive to anything that suggests manipulation. The beauty of advertising is that the market decides. We’re not really successful at investing the desires and needs of people as outsiders, but we will catch them and magnify them. And if it doesn’t work, we are nailed quicker than anyone. To me the best communicators in the advertising world were always the ones that had a great respect for their consumers and an intuition about where they were in their lives and how to fit that product into their lives. And I’ve always loved the fact that women are inherently good at that.

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