Chivalrous Versus Chauvinist: JWT Alanta's Mary Margaret Connell

Have we broken through the glass ceiling, truly?

Mary Margaret Connell
Executive Director Growth and Development, Atlanta JWT Atlanta

How would you describe the overall culture at your agency and would you say that there is a separate female culture?      

We have a very open, tolerant and accepting culture – which can only come about and be sustained if it starts at the top. Our CEO has been intent on having our agency closely reflect the community, so he not only welcomes, but insists on, diversity of culture, ethnicity, thought, everything. For the advertising industry where creativity is essentially our reason for being, there’s not a more crippling thing to have than a homogenous, look-alike, think-alike staff. The more diverse the people are, the richer the ideas will be. (And honestly, the more fun the agency is.)

As a woman at JWT, I really don’t see a “separate” female culture. And I’m glad about that. In an industry trying hard to escape the male-dominated history, we’ve advanced by leaps and bounds. But there’s absolutely still ground to cover. Our clients are demanding equal representation for women in their organizations, so as an agency, we’re paying a lot of attention to that and are more tuned in to what we need to do. From my perspective, I’m not sure continuing to push for separate female pockets is really advancing our mission. I feel like I fit into the agency culture, my opinions are respected, and while women in the agency aren’t necessarily “leaning in” as much as men, we’re definitely getting there, and our agency culture is promoting that.


In your opinion, what do you see as being the biggest change in the advertising industry since women have begun to break the “glass ceiling”?     

I guess my initial response is “Have we?” Have we broken through the glass ceiling, truly? We may have started raising the roof but we’re nowhere near the cathedral ceilings yet. The advertising industry has always been disproportionately female, which seemingly makes it a great career path for women, but can be misinterpreted when it comes to evaluating women’s advancements in the workplace. I remember carrying around in my purse for years a handwritten org chart. I had drawn a line between what was considered low-to-mid level employees and what was always acknowledged as senior staff – group directors and above. As staffing changes were made, I would get out the paper and update the squares. There was always great movement for women within that lower half. But the top half stayed predominantly male, year over year over year.  I remember at one point there were 17 blocks/employees in the upper half and 14 of them were men. It took a very long time for that ratio to change. Way too long. I also once worked at a company where, when I asked the CEO to please strive to identify female candidates for a very senior role he was filling, he unabashedly replied “I tried that once and it didn’t work.” I believe those types of examples have certainly diminished, but still exist. I will always want the most qualified and best-suited person to fill a role. But the lens through which we determine that criteria is evolving, which is a positive change in the industry.


What are some of the challenges that women still face in the industry?

I think women are challenged with having the sincere desire to eagerly earn their place in their company and within leadership, while acknowledging that the issue of gender equality is in the forefront of the corporate conscience and becoming a deep legal mandate.  I truly believe the vast majority of women don’t want to get a promotion solely, or even primarily, because corporate headquarters is trying to “make the numbers.” We want, and expect, our progress and promotion to be genuine, not a gesture. And I think there are real challenges for men in the industry too – the lines are so blurred these days between what is chivalrous versus chauvinist. I kind of feel bad for the guys, I really do. What may seem like a double standard is more of a fine line, from what I can see. I don’t mind a young gentleman in the office complimenting me on a new jacket I’m wearing, or holding the door open for me. I don’t find that offensive or old-fashioned in the least. But I get that a 21 year-old woman might very well feel uncomfortable by an older guy complimenting what she’s wearing. Similarly, there’s a real challenge for a lot of women to find the line – we want to be tough and “hang” with the men while retaining the dignity of being a woman. I know I do, and I don’t apologize for wanting that balance.


What steps do you take to ensure you achieve a healthy work-life balance?   

I’m no spring chicken, so I pay attention to the issue of work-life balance a lot more these days. Having one kid go off to college last year, and another in his senior year of high school, I’m acutely aware of the reality that life is short, and I wish I had been better at the balance when my kids were younger. I rarely talk about work once I cross the homestead threshold, and I’m diligent about having dinner together as a family, even if it’s at 8pm. (Side note: I’m so troubled by the severe increase in youth depression and suicide rate over the past few years. I honestly believe all us working folks need to work smarter on getting the balance back, which is not only good for our health and souls, but imperative for our kids’.) I make time for exercise, and I really try to turn off the work think whenever possible. I want to shirk responsibility on this one, so I’m going to blame the iPhone. Technology has totally interfered with my ability to maintain the ideal balance….other countries do a much better job of switching off and shutting down than we Americans….they will live longer, I’m convinced, because of it!


What professional achievement are you most proud of?

Well, I’m sure the “right” answer here is that I’m most proud of having survived law school and the practice of criminal law for 4 years. But the truth is, I’m probably more proud of having gotten out of that profession. In terms of my advertising career, there’s nothing I’m more proud of than feeling like I’ve made a difference and helped a younger ad professional with their career, their work-life balance, or anything that’s standing in the way of them getting where they want to go. We women need to do a hell of a lot better helping other women succeed – we need to stop feeling threatened; there’s enough room for all of us! I’m also extremely proud of the relationships I’ve cultivated and sustained with many of my former clients. They are some of the smartest and funniest men and women I know, and while it would have been easy to have lost touch when we stopped working together, I’m so thankful we continue our friendships and enrich each other’s lives.


Tell us about a mentor that helped guide you in your career. What made them so special?                   

I had a male mentor earlier in my advertising career who taught me two invaluable lessons when I was a mid-level account manager. The first was to not sweat the small stuff, pick your battles, keep some perspective. When he would see me start to get spun up over a minor matter, he was masterful at quickly defusing the situation by talking me off the ledge, but without belittling me with “You’re being too emotional” or other such insults.  He just had a great way of redirecting my negative energy. The second lesson I learned from him was that, as a leader, it’s really our job to adapt to our team’s varying personalities and styles; not their jobs to adapt to ours. He understood every individual who worked for him, and was continually adapting his own behavior and way of working to their particular communication or personal style.


How do you as a successful woman plan to inspire the next generation of women?

Continuing to mentor younger folks is definitely part of my plan. Mentoring the next generation of women is something that I think is critical, and we all (women and men) need to do more of it. As organizations continue to flatten and condense, younger folks in the workplace don’t have as many leaders to look up to and learn from, and they need guidance beyond the boss. As my mentor taught me, I give homework to those I’m mentoring – ask them to reflect and put down on paper what it is they want out of their work, their home and their life. It is so easy to get into auto pilot and lose sight of what you could be doing if you focused more on your goals, your aspirations, your creativity. Something a great HR director told me years ago that I continually emphasize with anyone I mentor is to make sure they’re thinking of their strengths as not only what they’re good at it, but what they love to do. So many people pursue and get caught up in doing what they’re good at, but they’re not chasing any dream that they have; just excelling at a skill.