Celebrated since the early 1900s, International Women’s Day commemorates not only the fight for gender equality but the women who pioneered that fight. Women who used their influence, energies and voices to make life better for others. Women who took risks not only for their own gain but because they knew the status quo was unacceptable.
Though it’s clear we have a long way to go (potentially 100 years), recognizing the progress made by those who came before us can help take the edge off. It encourages us to press on no matter how overwhelming the road ahead can seem. Especially in an industry like advertising. Where it often seems like we’re a step or two even further behind—both in how women who work within advertising are treated and in how advertising portrays the women it represents.
The women we’re highlighting today made strides for women on both sides of the campaign.
Mathilde C. Weil
In the mid to late 1800s, ad agencies were in their infancy. During this time J. Walter Thompson opened its doors and many credit it with being the very first ad agency. The reality is, modern agencies may have a woman to thank for their origin story. Mathilde C. Weil opened the M.C. Weil agency before JWT had launched its first campaign.
Unfortunately, there is little information available about Weil. Unsurprisingly, plenty has been written of James Walter Thompson while Weil’s story is relegated to a line or two in every article with any mention of her. A pretty clear indication of what she was likely up against as a woman in business in the 19th Century.
Helen Lansdowne Resor
Though JWT’s story overshadowed one woman in advertising, they are credited with giving another her stage. They hired Helen Lansdowne Resor as a copywriter in 1908. The 22-year-old had already blazed trails as a copywriter for Proctor & Gamble’s in-house agency before joining JWT where she worked her way up to overseeing the agency’s creative strategy.
She’s credited with inventing native advertising, employing artists to create ad artwork and ushering endorsements into a new era, even using feminist icons in her ads. For better or worse, Resor even introduced the idea that sex sells in her iconic ad for facial soap. She also used her position to give other women a leg up at JWT, mentoring young female creatives and launching a women’s editorial department where they could comfortably exchange ideas.
Phyllis Kenner Robinson
Dubbed the first lady of the creative revolution, she joined Doyle Dane Bernbach as the nation’s first female copy chief. A move that proved undeniably profitable for the agency when Volkswagen hand selected DDB to launch the Beetle. A choice based on a campaign Robinson had done for Ohrbach’s department store. No agency search necessary.
Prior to this, women copywriters, rare as they were, were typically relegated to food and fashion campaigns. Even Robinson was overlooked time and again before taking the position at DDB. But that clearly didn’t stop her. By the time she had her first child, she had earned enough clout at the agency demand a flexible work schedule. Unheard of in 1962, but so important for future mothers seeking balance between their careers and families.
Another JWT alum, Caroline Jones was the first black female creative director at the agency. She had started there as a secretary before taking on the copywriter position that would put her on the creative leadership path. She moved her way through other major agencies, including BBDO before launching a series of agencies that specialized in minority advertising, including Caroline Jones Advertising, Zebra Associates and Mingo-Jones.
Her agencies represented brands like American Express, Miller High Life, McDonalds and KFC. For the latter, she developed one of the brand’s most notable campaigns with the We Do Chicken Right slogan. Outside the agency world, she shared her wisdom, hosting radio the radio shows Focus on the Black Woman and In the Black: Keys to Success.
A Cuban immigrant with no formal education, Zubizarreta took a job as a secretary at McCann Marschalk. She began to notice that most brands were either ignoring the Hispanic community or putting them into stereotypical boxes. In 1976, she opened Zubi Advertising in an effort to help brands reach Spanish-speaking immigrants, educating clients on how they could relate to the community beyond simply relying on Hispanic media channels.
Her ability to connect with these communities brought her a great deal of success. The tipping point her agency’s success was winning a major contract with Ford. American Airlines, JC Morgan Chase and SC Johnson soon followed. By 2011, the agency reached billings of $19 million per year. In 1982, she used her understanding of immigrant communities to co-found Facts About Cuban Exiles (FACE) an organization that shares the stories of Cuban immigrants to “promote, foster and improve the goodwill reputation and image of those persons of Cuban origin.”
There are many more women who walked alongside and followed in the footsteps of these pioneers. And to them we owe a great deal, but, as we all know, the battle for equality in advertising and beyond continues on. On International Women’s Day, let’s remember not only what they achieved but also what they did to bring others along with them as they carved out a place for themselves.