Ellie Anderson had been terrified her career would be derailed when she took maternity leave from the Minneapolis advertising agency where she worked five years ago.
But last month when she gave birth to her second child, a healthy baby girl, she didn’t have to worry about her job since she now owns her own creative firm, Griffin Archer.
Women until recently have been a rare breed in leadership roles in the “Mad Men”-like boys club of ad agency creative departments. However, in the past decade, women have slowly pushed their way into the C-suites of traditional firms, and many have changed policies, mentored others and launched their own shops where they wield the creative power to influence thousands of ads.
In the Twin Cities, the rise of women to leadership roles has heralded deeper changes. Many of the handful of top-billed local agencies have recently promoted or hired women to top positions for the first time.
What’s more, female executives are transforming the local ad industry by creating more inclusive HR policies, starting movements to empower other women and pushing back on traditional agency business models.
Anderson recalls how after six weeks of maternity leave at her previous agency, she wasn’t given the type of accounts and assignments she had before.
“I wasn’t in the same place as I was five months prior to that,” she said. “That was just kind of the impetus for ‘I can go out and do this on my own and really create a place that I feel can give the same opportunities to women that are available to men.’ ”
When Christine Fruechte first became president of Minneapolis agency Colle McVoy in 2006 (she is currently CEO), her counterparts at other local major agencies were all men.
“There were so many skeptics, and so many people waiting for me to fall,” she said.
It wasn’t the first time Fruechte was stereotyped due to her gender. Earlier in her career, friendly male colleagues would compliment her physical appearance and suggest she show off her assets more.
In May, Colle McVoy hosted nearly 300 women from agencies across the Twin Cities as part of the launch of the Time’s Up Advertising movement, an offshoot of the larger, female-led Time’s Up movement, that focuses on addressing workplace discrimination, sexual harassment and abuse specifically within the ad industry. At the Minneapolis meeting, participants discussed issues such as lack of diverse representation in agencies, outdated HR policies, and lack of open dialogue and education.
“I think the biggest thing for me is it’s not only a gender equity issue, but it is a business issue,” said Julie Batliner, president and managing partner at Minneapolis mainstay Carmichael Lynch and its public relations arm Carmichael Lynch Relate. Batliner has held the dual position since last year.
Women reportedly influence more than 80 percent of consumer spending and yet only make up a small percent of the decisionmakers who advertise to them, according to the 3 Percent Movement, a national group that was created based on a 2008 statistic that only 3 percent of creative directors at top ad agencies were women. The numbers have since improved but have not yet ticked up to full parity.
To encourage more women to enter and stay in the industry, agencies need to foster a more healthy environment where employees can balance their work life and personal priorities, said Donna Robinson, chief executive of digital marketing agency Nina Hale.
“Burnout is very high in this industry,” Robinson said. “There are definitely other ways of doing things.”
Carmichael Lynch has developed several internal programs and policies to support women in the workplace, including a women’s mentoring group, phased re-entry after maternity leave, and well-stocked nursing rooms in the office that have hospital-grade breast pumps and a partnership with a breast milk transportation company that nursing moms can use during business hours.
Liz Ross, president and chief executive of independent firm Periscope, found out she was pregnant in the middle of her interview process with Periscope.
“Places like Minneapolis — and uniquely Minneapolis — allow you to have a family and be a good mom and have a career,” said Ross, who also updated the firm’s parental leave policy to add leave and flex benefits for fathers and adoptive parents.
The need for better benefits for mothers isn’t the only issue that women in advertising face. Agencies also are adopting zero-tolerance policies on harassment, and monitoring wages to try to combat pay disparities.
Under Fruechte’s leadership, Colle McVoy has implemented an annual equity audit. Minneapolis-based agency Padilla was one of the first firms to sign the PR Council’s diversity and inclusion pledge, a promise to provide inclusive work environments for people of diverse races, gender identities and other backgrounds.
“I don’t know who drank the first round of Kool-Aid, but there seems to be more openness and appetite for [discussions on] how we hire, how we promote, how we retain,” said Lynn Casey, Padilla’s chief executive.
Women are not just influencing internal policies at agencies, they are also shaping how they are formed. Many Twin Cities women have opened their own firms and worked to change the definition of marketing companies.
Margaret Murphy, who led what was then the Olson agency for years before quietly leaving the company in 2016, formed her own agency Bold Orange this year.
In February, Bold Orange announced it had bought Great Lakes Scrip Center, the largest gift card fundraising company in the country. The acquisition is part of Murphy’s vision to run a business while also helping the world. It’s a different kind of business than the typical marketing agency.
“I think the key to this industry is to continue to change yourself,” Murphy said.
Industry veteran Sue Kruskopf has never felt the need to color within the lines either.
Sitting at Truth Bar which she opened in 2016 in the same downtown Minneapolis building as her Kruskopf & Co. agency, Kruskopf acknowledged that women tend to have to unfairly prove themselves in the industry, but she was always up for the challenge.
“I don’t want to get something because I’m a woman,” she said. “I want to get it because I’m the best.”
Similar to Murphy, Kruskopf also has another side to her business called My Wonderful Life, a website where people can plan their own funerals. It is set to relaunch next year with branding help from Kruskopf & Co.
In addition to elevating themselves, Twin Cities female ad executives are also working to empower other women.
Lynne Robertson, chief executive of the Fame agency who bought back the agency from marketing behemoth Omnicom Group in 2015, recently started Lead Like a Mother, a business management philosophy that applies the skills of motherhood to the challenges of running a business.
“I realized that a lot of the same skills that I was using raising toddlers and teenagers I was applying at work,” she said.
MPLS MadWomen, which formed as a nonprofit in 2015, holds popular events for women to network and empower each other. Local chapters of other female-focused organizations have also popped up recently like SheSays, a global organization focused on the engagement, education and advancement of women in creative industries.
“It’s refreshing,” said Lori Yeager Davis, president of the Martin Williams firm. “I feel like we are leading the charge.”