Perspectives: Women In Advertising: Michelle Headley, SVP of Operations, Alma.
By Jeff Finkle.
AdForum: How would you describe the current overall culture at your agency? How would you describe the culture among your female colleagues and what are the differences?
Michelle: Throughout most of my career, I’ve worked at Alma, a multicultural agency where diversity and inclusion is part of its 23-year DNA. The agency’s culture reflects the multicultural marketplace we serve, with staff hailing from 28 different nationalities along with its essential commitment to an integrated and culturally balanced team. Alma has given me many opportunities to grow over the years, always empowering women inside the agency.
The most apparent difference between male and female colleagues, as in every industry, is the still prevalent (if changing) attitude about family and children. Many women still undertake the larger share of the responsibility of raising children, and struggle between their dual roles at work and at home. We try to help, beyond the legally required accommodations, by being flexible with work arrangements, extra family days, etc.
AdForum: What do you see as being the biggest change in the advertising industry since women have begun to break the “glass ceiling” into Sr. Executive level positions? What are some of the challenges that still exist for women in reaching the upper echelon of management?
Michelle: Thanks to Mad Men, it's no secret that the advertising industry in the past was male-dominated and lacking in diversity. It’s a highly driven, competitive and intense business, with lots of egos involved.
Today, the industry workforce has an almost equally divided male/female ratio. However, women at the senior executive level continue to represent a significantly lower percentage. I believe that’s changing every day, but social norms are still adapting to women in the senior executive positions. For instance, I’ve heard women, including myself, described as being “aggressive,” although I’ve never heard a man characterized that way. When senior level men behave in the same manner or even worse, they are described as passionate, ambitious, or having strong convictions.
We need to continue to support gender equality and explore steps to tackle the issue head on, constructively and optimistically.
AdForum: What do you consider the biggest personal achievement in your career that still fills you with the most pride?
Michelle: I started my career with a summer job at a small Miami advertising agency. Almost 30 years later, my dedication, commitment, and leadership have contributed to that agency, which has evolved into Alma, the fourth largest multicultural advertising agency in the U.S. and one of the most innovative and awarded. I’m proud to have built many of the key departments from the ground up, including: Integrated Production, Talent Management, PR/Communications, and Project Management. Today, I’m a partner at Alma as well as its SVP of Operations, where I manage the day-to-day business, including leading the submission process that has resulted in being on Ad Age’s A-list six times since 2010.
AdForum: How do you find the best work-life balance to help you stay productive and creative at work and to help you live a happy, sane life outside of the office?
Michelle: As an advertising professional, it’s difficult to find a perfect balance because our industry moves so quickly, but it can be done. Especially in today’s world, where technology allows you to work remotely. Some people may see that as a negative, but in my 20s we didn’t have that option, and most nights I worked late into the evening inside an office building. The ability to be connected remotely is an incredible productive tool that helps me find the right work-life balance.
I also have found my own balance by finding things that I’m passionate about outside of work, dedicating time to those things. It’s just as important to be able to disconnect and recharge the batteries.
AdForum: Was there a job you had at one point, outside of advertising, that prepared you most for success later in life?
Michelle: Yes, when I got fired from my first job as a cashier.
My best friend and I were 16 when we got summer jobs as cashiers at a neighborhood pharmacy. I think I was a good cashier, but when we didn’t have customers, I would read a magazine. My friend would restock the isles, sweep the floors, unpack supplies, etc. One day, our boss told me that things were slow for the business and he had to let me go. I immediately assumed that included my friend and asked how she took the news. He said that they were keeping her, and when I asked why, he said because she did a lot more than just being a cashier.
Getting fired for doing just my job was a huge lesson that set me up for success in my career. I learned that companies go through ups and downs and that it’s important to always be as creative and productive as possible beyond your job description.
AdForum: Can you reflect on a mentor that helped guide you in your career and tell us what made them special?
Michelle: In my early career, I was considered too cold and aggressive –and I was– because I emulated the male behavioral style I thought was necessary to be successful. Lucky for me, there was one female leader at the agency who provided me with a different model. She was feminine yet strong, widely respected for her expertise as well as her personality, and I never heard her raise her voice to get her point across.
AdForum: How do you as a successful woman in your industry plan to inspire the next generation of women? In a few words, what advice do you have for women entering the advertising industry?
Michelle: By supporting strong, ambitious women and making sure that their voices are included and represented, giving them equal opportunities to succeed.
Advertising is not for the faint of heart. You need to have thick skin and be prepared to have your ideas constantly challenged, since it’s a collaborative business where conflict is at the root of making ideas better. If you do have the talent and passion for it, it’s an amazing career!