Perspectives: Women in Advertising 2018, Karen Mawhinney

"We still have a lot of work to do to give more women a leadership voice in this industry"

Karen Mawhinney
Managing Director EP+Co

Perspectives: Women in Advertising 2018

Tell us about who you are and what your job title is?
My name is Karen Mawhinney, a Managing Director at EP+Co. I lead account management for half of our client portfolio including brands like Denny’s, Lowe’s Home Improvement, The UPS Store, Lenovo and 20th Century Fox.
Was there a job you had at one point, outside of advertising, that prepared you most for success later in life?
Actually, I haven’t really had a job outside of advertising…I have known this is what I wanted to do since I was in elementary school. I mean, come on, who didn’t want to be Angela Bower the powerful female ad-exec with a male housekeeper from eighties sitcom Who’s The Boss?! So, I majored in advertising at the University of Georgia, interned my way through school and jumped straight into the business after college. My first job at BBDO Atlanta did quickly teach me two things that led to my success. First to be curious about everything and ask a lot of questions. A good account person must have a passion for learning our business, the client’s business and the world around us to help inform the work we do, as well as ask a lot of questions to understand the problem we are working to solve. Second you must thrive in the chaos. Our world is a lot of really high highs and some really low, lows. You have to love the ride!
What do you see as being the biggest change in the advertising industry since women have begun to break the “glass ceiling”?
This is a tough question. While I am inspired by initiatives like Madonna Badger’s #WomenNotObjects petition, that nine of the largest agencies in New York are run by women and by brands that work to make a meaningful change, we still have a lot of work to do to give more women a leadership voice in this industry. It’s not enough to just put women in leadership positions. It is critical to change the way you listen, the way you act and the way you interact to truly empower women to influence the agency business and the way women are reflected in culture. This requires a real understanding of the unconscious bias at play in each of us every day and being open to some uncomfortable conversations for the leaders across the industry that are setting the tone and driving the business decisions today.
From Like A Girl to Fearless Girl, a raft of advertising campaigns have set out to empower women. How do you feel about these campaigns? Can they change attitudes within the industry?
I love seeing brands take a stand on women’s issues. As creators of so much of the content we consume, brands have an important and visible platform to make change. But it is critical to engage in women’s empowerment in a way that is authentic to their brand story, like the brands behind Like a Girl and Fearless Girl. When they identify a real insight or problem for women that they can address through credible and relevant actions, brands can have a powerful impact on cultural attitudes. And the great news is that when done right, this is great for their business too.
How have the recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements played out in the advertising sector? Are they making a significant impact?
I am so proud to work for an organization led by a CEO (Karen Kaplan, Hill Holliday) who was one of the initial signers of the #TimesUP/Advertising Letter of Solidarity, just published this month. This is such a significant and important statement for the industry because it commits to action and accountability for those actions. I respect the acknowledgement that old power dynamics can no longer work and that all of us in leadership must accept the responsibility to change those dynamics.

Whether it is an industry-wide statement like this for #TimesUp or the water cooler talk around #MeToo, conversations are changing when a diversity of voices are heard, and when these voices are reflected in the work we do for our clients, business wins and society wins, just like the brand examples noted above. Diversity is not a NICE have; it’s a MUST have.
Initiatives such as Free The Bid are trying to create more opportunities for women in advertising. But what could be done at a more grass roots level to attract women in the first place?
I don’t see attracting women as the challenge; it is retaining them and developing them into leadership roles that is the real challenge. At entry to midlevel roles, we see a balanced mix of male and female, but something happens along the way and we lose them at the senior level. To retain these women, we must do two things. First provide them a vision of leadership that they can identify with and want to grow into. Second help them to better balance their work life and personal life. At EP+Co we offer a range of benefits to support working families and help all of our employee’s balance work and life. For example, we introduced a partnership with Milk Stork, a milk-shipping service for nursing mothers who are frequent business travelers. We also partnered with to provide more accessible and affordable child care, senior care, pet care or even house cleaning to our employees. These are just two small examples of ways agencies can help women feel more supported in the daily struggle!
Can you reflect on a mentor that helped guide you in your career and tell us what made them special?
I haven’t had one specific mentor, but I have had several important relationships with senior leaders that have helped me navigate my career. Whether it was a business issue or a career challenge I was tackling, these men and women were all approachable, good listeners who gave me honest opinions and constructive feedback. The most important thing that any of them did for me was act as an advocate and sponsor. This has proven critical to helping me advance in my career. But even more important than sponsorship is learning to ask for it yourself – the promotion, the raise. Don’t wait for it to come to you; go get it.
How do you as a successful woman plan to inspire the next generation of women? In a few words, what advice do you have for women entering the advertising industry?
One of the most exciting things I am doing today is sponsoring a Women’s Leadership initiative within EP+Co. With our headquarters in Greenville, SC (a small market), there are not a lot of resources for the women who work here. I wanted to take the first step to change that, so on International Women’s Day, we launched a program designed to give women and men a forum to better understand the impact of gender differences in the workplace and foster open communication about how we can all contribute to a more inclusive environment. Over a third of the agency attended our first event! That inspires me, and I hope by championing this effort I can inspire the women around me. My advice to women entering the industry? Be heard. Be Strong. Persist. Be Fearless.

Karen Mawhinney
Managing Director EP+Co