Perspectives: Women in Advertising 2018, Mary O'Keefe

"There’s been a shift from women in power being outliers, to women in power becoming a real collective force."

Mary O'Keefe
Creative Director BBDO Atlanta

Perspectives: Women in Advertising 2018

Tell us about who you are and what your job title is?
I’m one of those weirdos who chose their career before the age of 12. It started with the vague idea of wanting to “do art” for work, and after a field trip to an agency I realized advertising would let me do that. So through the years I found my way to the Creative Circus, then to New York agencies, and now I’ve moved back to Atlanta (my hometown), taking a job as Creative Director at BBDO ATL. I also added the title Mom; my husband Austin and I welcomed our son Arlo back in September. He’s probably my most successful project to date, and definitely the cutest.
Was there a job you had at one point, outside of advertising, that prepared you most for success later in life?
Working the front desk at the Y.M.C.A, I was in charge of the phones, member check-in, and refilling the coffee. But I did other things to keep it interesting: painting the windows for whichever season or holiday was near, designing event t-shirts, and networking with the members, one of whom ended up hiring me to do some illustrations. Working there taught me never to take a job at face value, but to always look for the ways I could add value and feel more fulfilled.
What do you see as being the biggest change in the advertising industry since women have begun to break the “glass ceiling”?
There’s been a shift from women in power being outliers, to women in power becoming a real collective force. Before, we had this vague sense that there were women “out there” who had “made it.” But now, more organizations are taking concrete action and having purposeful conversations around helping women to succeed. I think that’s partly due to those women at the top outlining that progress must be a priority.

As for the problems that persist, the things I most want our industry to work on are 1) catching & eradicating our own unconscious biases, and 2) championing more realistic paid family leave plans for all parents. Those two improvements could unlock a whole new level of productivity and success for all of us – not just women.
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?
Work that rings true and starts meaningful conversations is so important, especially in today’s climate of corporate activism. It’s an exciting time to be a creative, because we can help brands find a purpose bigger than themselves, with the chance of impacting real change.
How have the recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements played out in the advertising sector? Are they making a significant impact?
I think they’ve led to more open conversations among coworkers. On more than one occasion recently, men I work with have stopped to wonder whether something they said was okay, and they felt comfortable enough to ask the women in the room what we thought. That’s definitely progress. I’m also excited about the Times Up Advertising initiative that recently launched, and for BBDO ATL to host their Atlanta event on 5/14. So there’s definitely momentum building.

It also seems that some ad execs are being reprimanded or ousted due to bad behavior. But we can’t be sure, because it’s largely happening behind closed doors. That is not good enough, and it’s something the industry needs to do better on.
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?
As creatives we have to brief the change we want to see in the world. That means creatives have to proactively request to see reels from women, and all departments need to bake inclusivity into our work – starting with the insights and brief, all the way through til it’s a wrap. The more we can do that, the more women will look at our industry as a field they’d like to contribute their talents to.
Can you reflect on a mentor that helped guide you in your career and tell us what made them special?
Can’t say enough about Sylvia Gaffney. With her tough love and encyclopedic design knowledge, she singlehandedly educated a massive number of the creatives out there today. She once taught me a trick to maintain grace under fire: squeeze your toes together. It redirects your restless energy, and nobody will be the wiser (as long as you’re not wearing flip flops). On rough days I still hear her voice in my head telling me, “Squeeze those toes, girl!”
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?
Making time for women who are just starting out is a priority for me; I consider it part of my job. As my career evolves I’ll always look for the best avenues where I can do that. Advice I have: know your worth and say what you want. You’d be surpised what doors open when you do.
Mary O'Keefe
Creative Director BBDO Atlanta