NEW YORK: Renee Wilson's promotion to president of North America at MSLGroup is a positive step for an industry whose senior leadership is still largely dominated by men, agency executives say.
While Wilson is not the first woman to take on a top leadership position in PR, the paucity of female agency leaders has often raised a flag within the industry. Many executives have called for increased efforts to mentor and prepare women for high-level roles.
“We're moving in the right direction, but we're not there yet,” said Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman. “I have a huge stake in this because I have three daughters who are going to succeed me.”
In her new role overseeing MSL's operations in the US and Canada, Wilson will replace Jim Tsokanos, who will leave MSL after a short transition period.
Her appointment comes as MSL and parent Publicis Groupe face a $100 million class action lawsuit alleging that the agency and holding company paid female professionals less; did not promote women at the same rate as male counterparts; and conducted discriminatory demotions, terminations, and reassignments for female staffers during the firm's 2009 reorganization. Court documents filed in the suit describe senior male executives at the firm, including Tsokanos and Washington MD Neil Dhillon, behaving in a derogatory manner towards female employees.
“The appointment of a strong, client-centric woman is the best thing that could've happened for MSL,” said Marian Salzman, CEO for North America at Euro RSCG Worldwide PR. “I hope they go back to work and that these accusations become a thing of the past. It would be best for the industry that this problem be solved.”
Overall, the PR industry is 65% to 70% female. Yet with a few exceptions, the number of women among the industry's most senior managers remains small.
“If you look at the statistics of how many big firms have women in top leadership roles, we still have a ways to go,” said Margery Kraus, CEO of APCO Worldwide.
However, equally important to the discussion of diversifying the industry's leadership is promoting women based on merit, not just their gender, Edelman added.
“I don't think [women] want to get roles just because they're women,” he said.
Wilson, currently the chief client officer at MSL, is the global lead on the agency's Procter & Gamble account and has also worked with clients General Motors, Bayer, Kellogg, and Tiffany. She previously served as MD of the agency's flagship New York office and joined its global board in January.
“[Wilson] truly is a practitioner, and not simply a hands-off executive,” said Dave Senay, president and global CEO of Fleishman-Hillard. “She's a working mother and will be a great role model as well.”
Neither Tsokanos nor Wilson returned calls seeking comment for this story.
To pave the way for more women like Wilson to take on top leadership roles, agencies should focus on mentoring women early in their careers, Senay and others said.
“People who rise to the CEO post in major organizations are groomed over time. If there is a deficit [of female leaders], it's a reflection of a lack of investment in years past,” Senay said.
Earlier this month, Ketchum promoted Barri Rafferty to CEO of North America, a new role at the Omnicom Group agency. In July, Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, which has women in a number of top roles including CEO, named Jenny Moede president of its North America region.
Kraus, one of the few female CEOs of a global PR firm, said there is “more acceptance” now of preparing women for the top jobs within the industry.
“Every time this happens, it's good for all women in the profession because it shows that there's an opportunity to really advance,” she said.