In honor of International Women’s Day (and all of March designated as Women’s History Month), we’re looking at the early days of advertising, when agencies were a Boys’ Club and women were either secretaries or mail clerks…or were they?
Our research uncovered an interesting fact: one of the first ad agencies dating back to the late nineteenth century was started and run by a woman, and many agencies historically hired women as copywriters, believing their inherent ability to communicate made them obvious choices to sell products. So while women working in advertising wasn’t unheard of, they were definitely underrepresented and pigeonholed into specific jobs.
Take Mathilde C. Weil, who in 1880 started the M.C. Weil Agency in New York City. Only 10 years after emigrating from Germany, circumstances necessitated her career: she was a young widow needing an income and picked up writing freelance articles for newspapers and magazines to make ends meet. Weil soon realized selling ads was more lucrative and began acting as a broker between brands and publications before the term media director was invented. Until her death in 1903, Weil and her partners Mary Compton and Meta Volkman successfully ran M.C. Weil from the New York Times Building, with most of the agency’s billings coming from her proprietary medicine accounts.
By the early 1900s female copywriters were plentiful although their male bosses relegated them into writing for clients such as food, household supplies, and health and beauty products because…they were used only by other women. Determined to make do with the opportunities allotted to them, many women still managed to blaze a trail.
Helen Lansdowne is credited with being the first to use sex appeal in advertising in 1910 when she conceived the idea of an ad for Woodbury Facial Soap with the tagline, “A Skin You Love to Touch.” Her idea was so successful it led to a 1,000 percent increase in product sales in eight years. Lansdowne married her colleague, Stanley Resor, and the two successfully ran the behemoth J. Walter Thompson agency with Landsdowne in charge of JWT’s all-female Women’s Editorial Department, which was the first shop to use customer and celebrity testimonials in advertising. By 1918 the department was responsible for half of the agency’s billings.
Post-WWII and beyond, women were finally working on ads for brands other than mayonnaise, floor wax, and lipstick. “Trust the Midas Touch,” Alka Seltzer’s “Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz” and Avis’ “We Try Harder” campaigns were all created by women, showing both the industry’s and clients’ (relative) diversity and acceptance of women at the helm.
Jane Maas, who is said to be the inspiration for the Peggy Olson character on TV’s “Mad Men,” began her career in 1964 as a junior copywriter; 12 years later she was an SVP and Creative Director; five years after that she became the first woman to run an NYC-based agency she didn’t originate. Credited with saving New York City, she led the “I (heart) NY” campaign aimed at increasing tourism. And did it ever…it’s still a staple on souvenir T-shirts and coffee mugs. She was also a prolific author, co-penning the iconic “How to Advertise,” a tome that’s been translated into 17 languages and David Olgivy said was “worth its weight in gold.” Maas was still consulting and giving speaking engagements well into her 80s; she passed away last November at the age of 86.
Today women are well represented in different agency positions that were previously dominated by men; in fact, women now account for over half of agency positions, but national research shows that only 11 percent of agency Creative Directors are women. Locally, we know of two (including our very own Rachel Spence!), but consider this: according to the 3 Percent Movement, there are only three market categories where men dominate purchases. So why aren’t women better represented within creative leadership when they possess such substantial buying power? It’s a question that should have been answered decades ago, but as women pioneers repeatedly shatter glass ceilings, it’s up to all of us to ensure these conversations lead to more changes.