The Lead Off: Women’s Rise to Power in Advertising, Media, and Marketing

by | Jul 14, 2023

Conversations about women’s advancement in the advertising industry – both in terms of leadership and representation – are nothing new at Cannes Lions. And, yet, there’s still considerable progress to be made. And, indeed, “There is this moment where you think, ‘Oh wow, it’s 2023 and we’re still having this discussion,’” Infillion Media president Christa Carone said as she kicked off The Lead Off: Women’s Rise to Power in Advertising, Media, and Marketing, a panel at Cannes Lions 2023 to discuss just that. 

The panel, moderated by Carone, was the conclusion to the first day of programming at the Inclusion Café, a series of talks hosted by Infillion to discuss better inclusion and representation in advertising and media across underrepresented groups. She was joined by an extraordinary panel of female leaders: Donna Speciale, President of US Advertising at TelevisaUnivision; Julia Boorstin, journalist and author of When Women Lead; Lisa Buckley, Managing Director at VaynerMedia LA; Louisa Wong, CEO of Extreme Reach; Monique Nelson, Chair of UWG, and Viviane Paxinos, CEO of AllBright.

Each panelist shared a different journey on her way to the top, but the culmination of their insights and experiences reflected a unifying theme. Leading with four distinct aspects – inclusivity, multicultural competency, empathy, and authenticity – has been key not just to their success as leaders but to the success of their organizations. 



Leading Inclusively

Women are more likely to hire and successfully lead diverse teams that are representative of the whole of society with respect to gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, neuro diversity and age.  They understand that diverse teams are more creative, and that creativity in advertising leads to diverse receptivity to advertising. Viviane Paxinos summarized this concept succinctly: “Growth comes from innovation, and the only way you get innovation is through diversity, diversity of thought, diversity of gender, diversity of generations. It’s a really simple equation. Do you want to drive business growth? Have a diverse team.”

This also has implications for which communities are represented throughout advertising. Research from Extreme Reach, where panelist Louisa Wong now serves as CEO, found that 75% of the voices and faces in U.S. advertising remain male. Inclusive leadership can change that. 


Multicultural Competency

The panelists were unified in their belief that inclusivity is not a matter of checking off boxes or filling quotas. Leading inclusively demands multicultural competency, and a willingness to embrace differences. Monique Nelson expanded on this:, “If you are there and doing the work, you’re going to have higher returns. Why isn’t it happening more? Because it’s hard. The challenge with diversity is innately the diversity, which means I have to take into account that you are different, that you have special needs, and that I may need to accommodate you a little differently. Which means as a manager, I have additional work to do. Most managers have not been trained or supported to work on the human, and not just the work. The process is only as good as your training of the people. And some people learn differently. Actually, everyone does.” 


Leading with Empathy

Leading with empathy encourages individual and collective growth. Louisa Wong highlighted listening as a critical component of empathic leadership in that it encourages the contribution of different perspectives and allows the leader to serve as a facilitator of the process. Julia Boorstin emphasized the communicative aspect of empathic leadership adding that leaders must “communicate clearly and with vulnerability, and lead the way that women typically lead.”


Leading with Authenticity

Leading authentically involves a willingness to be seen and risk demonstrating a sense of vulnerability.  Ultimately, that allows women leaders to move beyond a male-identified paradigm of leadership. As Lisa Buckley shared, “Growing up in advertising, I’ve seen all different types of leaders. And one of the things that stuck with me to this day, that I continue to pass on, actually came from a female CEO of a British advertising agency and she said, ‘Don’t feel you ever have to compromise on who you are to be successful.’ I thought, ‘Yes, because it’s about authenticity.’  And that’s the part that I encourage everyone to be… who they are.” 

There is still work to do to create workplaces that are demonstrative of who we are in our communities. Growth toward that end has been slower than might be expected. Vivian Paxinos provides a staggering illustration of this: “Women represent 46% of the workforce within the industry, 30% of the senior leadership within marketing and advertising. So there’s some work to do. And that 30% has only grown by 1%!”

Nevertheless, this esteemed group of women remain resolute. As Monique Nelson said in the panel, “We just cannot be afraid of doing the hard work.”


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