Female agency leaders are breaking through the glass ceiling

The world's second-largest PR firm is following an increasing trend in appointing a woman to its most senior executive position - ethnic diversity must now be a priority.

Gail Heimann is the latest woman to assume the top executive role at a major PR firm.
Gail Heimann is the latest woman to assume the top executive role at a major PR firm.

The elevation this week of Gail Heimann to CEO at Weber Shandwick is another step on the road toward true gender equality at the leadership level of major PR agencies.

For decades it has been an egregious anomaly that an industry populated 70% by women was led predominantly by men. But Heimann's promotion, AnnaMaria DeSalva's hiring as global CEO at Hill+Knowlton Strategies and Diana Littman's appointment as U.S. CEO at MSL, reporting directly to Publicis CEO Arthur Sadoun, are three more examples from this year of the transformation at the top of the big PR firms.

Looking at the first PRWeek Agency Business Report I oversaw at PRWeek, in 2010, the dominance of men in the leadership of top 10 firms is shocking: Mark Penn at Burson-Marsteller, Richard Edelman, Dave Senay at Fleishman-Hillard, Fred Cook at GolinHarris, Paul Taaffe at Hill & Knowlton, Ray Kotcher at Ketchum, Olivier Fleurot at MS&LGroup, Chris Graves at Ogilvy PR, Gary Stockman at Porter Novelli, and Harris Diamond at Weber Shandwick.

Margery Kraus at APCO Worldwide, Donna Imperato at Cohn & Wolfe and Melissa Waggener Zorkin at Waggener Edstrom were the principal female leaders at large agencies back then.

Compare that to July 2019 and it is undeniable that progress is being made: Donna Imperato at BCW, Edelman, John Saunders at FleishmanHillard, a trio of men at Golin, DeSalva at H+K, Barri Rafferty at Ketchum, Littman at MSL, Michele Anderson leads what’s left of the U.S. PR function at Ogilvy, Brad MacAfee at Porter Novelli, and, now, Heimann at Weber Shandwick.

Meanwhile, Kraus and Waggener Zorkin are both still going strong atop their respective agencies. And Karen van Bergen leads Omnicom PR Group at the holding company level.

In the mid-sized sector, women leaders have always blazed a trail and continue to do so, from Jennifer Prosek and Marina Maher at their eponymous firms to Kathy Bloomgarden at Ruder Finn to Lynn Casey at Padilla to Dale Bornstein at M Booth to Wendy Lund at GCI Health to Helena Maus at Archetype to Julie Batliner at Carmichael Lynch Relate to Grace Leong at Hunter PR to Heidi Hovland at DeVries Global, not forgetting PRWeek’s Agency of the Year Zeno and its indomitable leader Barby Siegel.

And before I hear the tired old refrain that PRWeek concentrates too much on large agencies – which isn’t true anyhow by the way – please consider that this year’s Agency Business Report shows 86% of U.S. agency revenues in 2018 were accounted for by the top 50 firms (47% by the top 10) and 85% of staffers (53% by the top 10).

Globally, the top 50 firms make up 77% of revenues and 72% of staff, the top 10 comprise 46% and 43% respectively. Given this scale, it is undeniable that the large firms and their leaderships are a credible bellwether for and reflection of the overall industry.

So while there is certainly no room for complacency it seems a tipping point has been reached in terms of gender diversity, at least in the agency sector, and one can only hope this will lead to an improvement in the gender salary disparity that still persists in the industry, flexible working conditions, and progress on discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Now we come to the elephant in the room, and the thing that really hasn’t changed in the top echelons of PR firms in the past decade: ethnic diversity.

As the demography of the United States in terms of race and ethnicity continues to evolve and the country becomes more diverse by the day, marketers and communicators must also reflect this new population if brands and corporations are to construct authentic narratives – and that applies equally to the PR firms that support these storytelling and reputational efforts.

By the way, the same responsibility also extends to the world’s most significant and credible trade media brand that covers the PR sector, i.e. PRWeek.

My greatest hope is that, when I observe the industry from afar in another nine years’ time, the leadership of the top PR firms will have advanced in terms of ethnic diversity as well as gender – as will have PRWeek.

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