The view from women CEOs

They may have all had different entrees in and trajectories through the business, but for more than two decades, each of the following five women has significantly impacted the industry.

They may have all had different entrees in and trajectories through the business, but for more than two decades, each of the following five women has significantly impacted the industry. They've nurtured the careers of legions of talent and have helped pave the way for women in top leadership roles. And they all agree that merit, regardless of gender, race, or age, is the true key to success.

“Opportunities for advancement have always been available to women -- at agencies and in companies,” says Lynn Casey, chair and CEO Padilla Speer Beardsley (PSB).Conditions are even more favorable now, and the reason is pragmatic. The business world is too competitive to allow advancement decisions to be based on anything less than merit.”

Melissa Waggener Zorkin, CEO, president, and founder of Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, believes women contribute a lot to the industry regardless of title.

“I just look at merit,” says Zorkin. “Our firm is meritocracy. Most of clients we deal with are meritocracies. Gender isn't what it's about -- talent is what it's about. I look at leadership as not a title, but as a quality.”

Margery Kraus, founder and CEO of APCO Worldwide believes women have always been able to create and seize opportunity. Prior to founding APCO in 1984, she helped found the Close Up Foundation, the nonprofit educational organization, and served as one of its leaders for 14 years.

“I never thought about PR as a discipline -- it was something I did to help people spread the word,” she says. “I had proven myself at Close Up, not because I was a woman but because I saw an opportunity and knew how to make it successful. There was never discrimination. Though in the some parts of the business world and Capitol Hill it was harder for a woman, I used that to my advantage. No one forgot you when you were the only women in the room, but you had to be confident and competent.”

It's clear that agency leaders are disproportionately male (only four of the top 20 independent agencies in PRWeek's annual rankings of independent firms have female CEOs), despite the industry overall being predominately female (67% of respondents in PRWeek's 2010 salary survey were female). Casey believes the disparity is mainly a function of legacy.

“It's just getting a legacy model comfortable with something new,” she says. “The more women in a particular field, the more opportunity for talent to rise and the less risky it becomes for a male CEOs to turn the reins over to a female CEO. It's difficult to force, but it will happen.”

Liz Kaplow, president and CEO of Kaplow, notes that the predominantly male CEO dynamic exists in many other industries, including the beauty industry. She feels fortunate to have spent her entire career working with female leaders, including Madeline deVries, who she worked with for 10 years prior to founding Kaplow. 

“I had women mentors, and I never knew it any other way,” she says. “I always felt opportunity was open in terms of what I could achieve. I was provided a lot of support, opportunity, and the belief that I could [advance], even at a very junior stage. I work hard to impart that experience to [my employees]. If you do great work, it will drive you to the next level.”

Margaret Booth, president of M Booth Associates, thinks that overall there are more opportunities for women today.

Many holding companies are run by men,” Booth notes. “It's also male dominated at the CEO level of the PR arms. It's unbalanced, but it has expanded since I got in the business. There are a lot of younger women running very successful regional shops. It's getting better for women everywhere. Our senior team is evenly balanced…and the men don't make more money than the women.”

Kraus notes that there is much more acceptance of and support for working families today. “There's not less stress, but there's more support,” she says.

Kaplow points out that it's often difficult for women to propel their careers and maintain work/life balance. “We have to work harder as industry to look for ways to nurture top talent women,” she says.

Though getting her agency off the ground was challenging, Kaplow was sustained by a strong belief in her own strength and a lot of support from family, friends, and colleagues.

“It's important to look for very supportive partners, husbands, boyfriends,” Kaplow says. “Friends and people from the industry, especially women, were incredibly helpful in the new business process. We started in lifestyle, fashion, and beauty in mid 1990s and then we expanded into consumer tech, retail, and emerging tech.”

Booth started as an assistant in Ruder Finn's radio and TV department. She always looked for opportunities and volunteered, making sure “the big bosses” knew she could add value. Bill Ruder became (and still is) a mentor. When he decided to start an agency focused on not-for-profit, he let Booth run it. Conflicts of interest drove the agencies to separate, and Finn literally gave her the upstart, which had two clients and $10,000 in the bank. Out of this spinoff grew M Booth Associates (acquired by Next Fifteen in August 2009).

“I was so naïve it didn't occur to me that I might fail,” Booth says. “I had no idea what I was getting into. You have to have serious determination.”

Booth advises women to ask for what they want and grab opportunities. “Don't try to get ahead because you are a woman,” she adds. “Get ahead because you're good at what you do.”

Zorkin founded Waggener Edstrom in 1983 when she was in her twenties. She studied communications and spent some time with tech marketing pioneer Regis McKenna. She was (and still is) fascinated with innovation – in science, technology, products, and ideas – and she wanted to tell those stories.

“I [started] the agency on the traditional model of writing a business plan and getting VC funding, along with my father's funding,” Zorkin explains. “We were…very connected with startup community activity, which propelled us into the innovation.” 

Co-founder Pam Edstrom joined seven months after launch. Zorkin says they took themselves very seriously as a startup and did whatever was necessary, including not taking paychecks at first. To help establish Silicon Valley connections and raise their visibility, they used to page themselves at the San Francisco and San Jose airports.

“It's been a team effort, and we're very egalitarian,” Zorkin says. “You can never let up really.”  

Casey studied journalism before into PR at Burlington Northern. She earned an MBA, and in the early 1980s joined women-owned agency Brum & Anderson, which was sold to Padilla in 1987. In 2001 she was named the third CEO of PSB, which turns 50 next year.

“It was…expected that a male CEO would succeed a male CEO, so my new role did upset the natural order,” Casey explains. “My senior leader peers were all deep specialists. I was, am, and probably always will be, a generalist. Generalists often are tapped as CEO material, provided they have financial acumen. [Without an MBA], it would be an uphill battle. We all need to learn the language of business. An MBA is one way – it's certainly not the only way.”

Kraus first practiced PR as a young teenager, promoting her father's semi-pro football team the Franklin Miners. At 14, her 21-year-old uncle was diagnosed with cancer, and she stayed by his side every day until he died six months later. The experience shaped her approach to life.

“I made up my mind…to use every day to do something I would never have any regrets about looking back,” she explains. “It's about not wasting time. I never cared about [milestones]. I cared about the relevancy of things that were important to me and the people I was working with. I never had time to figure out how to rise to the top. It never crossed my mind. I just always liked challenges.”

At Close Up Kraus worked with then fledgling C-Span to broadcast educational programs, which impressed partners at law firm Arnold & Porter. APCO began as an affiliate of the firm, consulting on non-legal projects. Kraus was advised against the move, mainly, she says, because people thought it unwise to leave a good job to enter such uncharted territory.

“When APCO started, it was just me and this notion in the law firm,” Kraus says. “Sometimes you have to take chances, and that's part of what's required by leadership. If I'd been very worried about my career path I might not have done it. It was a journey, and the journey was different at each step. APCO's success is the function of finding good people, exerting leadership and direction, and taking advantages of changes and opportunities in the market. It's not been about fattening this cow and selling it. It's been about building something of intrinsic value that makes a difference, serves our clients, and lets our talent flourish.” 

Each of these women leaders believes external yardsticks cannot exclusively measure success, and they encourage young people to follow their personal passion. Kraus notes that those who are passionate about what they do are naturally more likely to get ahead. Zorkin echoes the sentiment, stressing the importance of being inspired and learning from mentors as well as peers.

“There's more than one way to have successful career – it's not just about being a CEO,” Casey adds. “There are many, many brass rings.” 

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