Marina Maher on being a ‘girl business owner’ and building a powerful legacy

Women were a rarity in the boardroom in the early 1980s. The MMC founder looks back on the progress that’s been made.

Maher founded MMC in 1983.

NEW YORK: When Marina Maher founded MMC on July 3, 1983, she set out to build an agency focused on marketing to women because she disliked how brands were speaking to them. 

She was also very sensitive to the fact that, at the time, there weren’t many opportunities for women.

“We started one of the first internship programs in the industry, and I hired only women,” said Maher. “I don’t know if it was against the law or if I would have cared at that juncture. The whole idea was to get women in business and ahead.”

At first, running her own agency wasn’t exactly a cakewalk for Maher. Men referred to her as a “girl business owner,” and they were not accustomed to women in positions of authority, let alone female entrepreneurs.

“I remember being the only woman in the room or at a big conference,” said Maher. “The glass ceilings were very real. Nobody called it that, of course, but you got to a certain point in your career and that was it, you stopped. There weren't opportunities to go forward.” 

After four decades leading the firm, Maher is stepping down this week as its CEO. Yet she’s planning to stay busy: Maher will lead Omnicom PR Group’s new Institute for Women’s Leadership, which will work to develop female talent across the holding company’s agencies, such as FleishmanHillard, Ketchum and Porter Novelli. She will also serve as MMC’s non-executive chair as Olga Fleming steps into the roles of CEO of the firm and healthcare specialist shop RXMosaic. 

Over the decades, MMC has pushed boundaries with campaigns that tackled historically taboo topics such as vaginal health with U by Kotex and menopause with Johnson & Johnson. MMC also made waves by extending makeup to men with CoverGirl’s CoverBoy campaign and Head & Shoulders shampoo for women, challenging societal norms and setting new standards for inclusivity.

“We are a highly creative shop, and we’ve had a lot of firsts in the industry,” said Maher. “We had a lot of firsts in women’s products — above the waist and below the waist.” 

Maher is particularly proud of the way her firm launched the WonderBra in the 1990s. 

“We launched it with a fashion show, and we never showed the product,” she said. “That is a big no-no in the world of consumer marketing. We sent twins down the runway fully clothed and one twin had on the WonderBra and the other didn't. Women understood right away this is how this product works.”

MMC’s marketing approach was very different from the norm at the time, said Maher.

“The [models] didn't need to wear five-inch heels and push-up bras and all the stuff Victoria's Secret did,” said Maher. “I don't mean to put them down, it just isn't the way you need to market something to women. There are other ways to do it.” 

Looking ahead, Maher said she wants to continue helping women. 

“How lucky am I to get to do what I love? Not everybody does,” she said.

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