Trailblazing women in advertising

Advertising has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. While the thought of an advertising executive could elicit imagery of a smoke-filled room filled with men in suits sitting around drinking whiskey, these days are behind us now. Today over half of all marketing, advertising, and PR employees identify as women. 

In honor of International Women’s day, we wanted to highlight just some of the trailblazing women in advertising throughout history. These women defied social and professional constructs and inspired entire generations of women to move forward in their careers, changing the world, and advertising, forever.

The early days

Perhaps one of the earliest examples of a woman in advertising comes from Madam C.J Walker, America’s first female self-made millionaire. Walker came from a background of significant hardship and was orphaned at a young age after having been the first member of her family to be born free just after the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Walker suffered from scalp ailments that were worsened by the lack of central heating, indoor plumbing, and inadequate hair products of the time. Upon noticing the lack of suitable hair products for black women, Walker took it upon herself to create a solution. She then developed her own hair-care business. 

Her humble door-to-door sales beginnings proved so popular that she was able to rapidly expand and soon the demand warranted a mail-order operation to be set up. By 1919, Walker employed thousands of sales agents and had trained tens of thousands of young black women to build their own businesses, handle finances and become financially independent. Despite lacking a formal education, Walker was highly intelligent and understood the value of advertising. She advertised her products and services heavily in many newspapers and magazines across the country and drew considerable national attention. Walker’s creative advertising techniques are still widely used today including customer satisfaction testimonials, sponsored events, and product demonstrations. 

Aside from her successful career, Walker was also highly regarded for her philanthropic work and donated much of her fortune to charitable causes, including two-thirds of all profits from her estate upon her passing. Even in death, she continued to empower future generations of women and drive positive social change.

 Another early 20th-century trailblazer, Helen Lansdowne Resor, is often credited as being the first woman to develop advertising campaigns at a national level. She got her start in advertising as a copywriter in 1906. In 1908 she joined J. Walter Thompson as the first female copywriter. Soon thereafter, she was promoted and tasked with creating targeted advertising for the women’s market. 

One of her most prominent campaigns was for the Woodbury Soap Company and featured the tagline “A skin you love to touch.” Such an advertisement was considered bold for the time as sex appeal in advertising was generally unheard of. Despite this, the campaign was a great success, and Woodbury would utilize it for the next thirty years. Lansdowne Resor is also known for her involvement in the New York suffrage movement and her devotion to helping vulnerable women and children during the Great Depression.

Another woman who quietly rose through the ranks of advertising is Helen Woodward, the first female advertising executive in the United States. Woodward is highly regarded for her contributions to advertising and writing. From an early age, she possessed an intense craving to learn and was mostly self-educated. In 1907 she began her career in advertising by working with a number of high-profile women’s magazines. 

Soon thereafter, she joined the Women’s Trade Union League and became a staunch advocate for the formation of labor unions among female workers. After working in advertising for 20 years she went on to travel the world while continuing to write and publish her own work. Her autobiography “Through many windows” was published in 1926 and details her experience as one of the first women to break through in the world of advertising.

The golden era of advertising

The year is 1951 in the United States of America and women cannot open a bank account independently, buy or sell property, and have little to no control over their finances. This is the year that 23-year-old Mary Wells Lawrence began her long career in advertising as a copywriter. By 1969 she was the highest-paid executive in advertising. It is hard to mention women in advertising without acknowledging the profound effect Lawrence had on the industry as a whole. While working for Jack Tinker and Partners, Lawrence worked on a highly successful campaign for Braniff International Airlines dubbed “The End of the Plain Plane.”

In 1966, after being denied a promotion that was promised to her, Lawrence founded the advertising agency that she would spend the rest of her career building, Wells Rich Greene. While serving as the company president, Lawrence worked with a number of prestigious clients including Trans World Airlines, Proctor & Gamble, IBM, Cadbury, and Pan American Airlines. It wouldn’t take long before WRG went public and Lawrence became the first female CEO of a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. 

Another woman in advertising that was no stranger to setting records is Shirley Polykoff. She is well-known for creating one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history. She initially started her career as a copywriter for a clothing store, but later began working for Foote, Cone & Belding. In 1955, she was assigned the Clairol account and was responsible for launching a campaign that was not only highly successful but was so far-reaching that it changed social and cultural norms for an entire generation and beyond.

A catchy slogan “Does she…or doesn’t she?” was the catalyst for skyrocketing sales of hair dye with annual sales going from $25 million to $200 million. Her work on this campaign would ultimately prove to be her big break and she later rose to the position of Executive Vice President and Creative Director. In 1973 she left FCB and became president of her own agency Shirley Polykoff Advertising, Inc. By 1980 she was the first living woman to be elected to the American Advertising Hall of Fame.

In the early 1960s, Caroline R. Jones shattered racial and gender barriers and began her long and tenured career in advertising right out of university. Initially starting as a secretary and trainee copywriter, she would later work her way up to the position of creative director at J. Walter Thompson. Jones later founded Caroline Jones Advertising, Zebra Associates, and Mingo-Jones. These were among the first advertising agencies to be set up by a woman of color. Throughout her career, she worked with a number of high-profile clients including American Express, McDonald’s, Campbell Soup, and the U.S. Postal Service. 

Despite her monumental success and impact on the world of advertising, she was not inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame – likely due to the racial inequality of the time. Despite this, her legacy lives on to this day and she has undeniably paved the way for many women to follow in her footsteps and defy the odds.

Trailblazers of the modern age

Advertising has thankfully become more diverse in the modern age. We are beginning to see more women hold positions of power and influence at large agencies and holding companies. Susan Credle is one such example. Credle began her career as a fill-in receptionist at BBDO but quickly progressed from a Junior Copywriter to becoming the company’s creative director. She is well known for spearheading the creation of the globally recognized M&M characters, the award-winning Allstate Mayhem, and many more. 

She currently serves as the Chief Creative Officer at FCB global and continues to be one of the most influential figures in advertising today. Her success and creativity have been recognized globally and she has been named on Advertising Age’s “100 most influential women” and Business Insider’s “Most Creative Women in Advertising.”

Speaking of influential and creative, Jolene Delisle is the founder and Head of Creative at the New York City-based The Working Assembly, a 50+ person design and creative agency that counts heavy-hitting brands like Rent the Runway, Zola, and Spotify as clients. 

While working as a freelance consultant for women and marginalized founders, Delisle saw first-hand how branding and design could help elevate and grow fledgling businesses that typically have less access to funding and resources. From there, the TWA Labs wing of the company was born to incubate companies with BIPOC and female leadership.  Every quarter, one project is chosen and guided through a process of strategic planning, ideation, and execution. 

Delisle’s values-led approach to business has resulted in the still-growing Working Assembly and a focus on women and underrepresented founders.

The future is now

At Ogury, we’re proud to invest in supporting current and future trailblazers in advertising. If you’re looking for a culture that supports diversity and inclusion, check out our careers page here.