Perspectives: Women in Advertising: Sarah Aitken, CMO, iris Worldwide

In honor of International Women’s Day, AdForum is showcasing the achievements of women in advertising in the month of March through a series of interviews.

by Katherine Bopp , Adforum
Sarah Aitken
Chief Marketing Officer, Americas iris worldwide

Perspectives: Women in Advertising: Sarah Aitken, CMO, iris Worldwide 


In honor of International Women’s Day, AdForum is showcasing the achievements of women in advertising in the month of March through a series of interviews. We would like to thank Sarah Aitken, Chief Marketing Officer at iris Worldwide for taking the time to offer her thoughts and reflect on her career. 


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? 

Sarah: If iris culture were in a word cloud the big words would be: entrepreneurial, spirited, fun, collaborative, human, real, egoless, and respectful. This applies to all people at iris, regardless of gender. Among the many female leaders within iris there’s definitely a culture of support for each other and a respect for equality by respecting that personnel choices should be made based on who is best for the job, regardless of gender. 


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? 

Sarah: My opportunities to grow and evolve within a business that was founded by 4 men and 1 woman have never felt restrained to me. In the U.S., where I am based, the majority of our senior executive leadership team is made up by women. However, I do believe there are challenges that women still face in the workplace and not all of them are caused by men. Women tend to be less confident and more modest in how they position themselves. As female leaders, it’s up to us to encourage those that are coming up in the ranks to change that behavior and carry themselves as tall as their smarts and experiences suggest they should be. 


AdForum: What do you consider the biggest personal achievement in your career that still fills you with the most pride? 

Sarah: Being given the reigns to run the iris New York agency at the age of 30 was an incredible achievement at a young age. The second was with that agency and their loved ones in a bar when our first ever Super Bowl spot aired for Jeep (…that subsequently went on to win the Super Clio for the best ad of the big game in 2016). 


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? 

Sarah: I made a new year’s resolution about 5 years ago that I’ve stuck to ever since – to never cancel a personal engagement for work reasons. That doesn't mean not pulling the all-nighter when a pitch is running hot but it does mean making plans with friends and family when I know I should be able to get out of the office on time and sticking to those plans. I’m also a big stickler for vacation means vacation – my team gets a right wrist slap if I catch them working on their time off! I find when I take a real break and truly switch off I come back filled with loads of valuable fresh creative energy. 


AdForum: Was there a job you had at one point, outside of advertising, that prepared you most for success later in life? 

Sarah: At 16 I had a job during high school at Marks & Spencer, a department store in the UK. Instead of getting the typical high schooler job of manning the checkouts or stocking the shelves, somehow I ended up working the back office as an assistant to the managers. I was responsible for collecting and counting the cash at the end of each day and it taught me how to take on an immense amount of responsibility at a young age and showed me the back-end running of a big retailer – I have been known to reference that experience more than once with retail clients! 


AdForum: Can you reflect on a mentor that helped guide you in your career and tell us what made them special? 

Sarah: Stewart Shanley, one of the founders of iris, has been keeping a watchful eye over me for my entire career here at iris. He knew I could do things I didn't believe I could. We fight and argue all the time but no matter what comes out of those squabbles he always gives me a different lens to look through that opens my mind to new thinking. That’s a good mentor in my book – someone that makes you see perspectives you’d never be able to see on your own. 


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? 

Sarah: The best thing successful women can do for other women in this industry is to be successful - and confident about it! We need to make it normal for women to present themselves as confidently as men. It’s tough to do as somehow we’re conditioned not to do that, but it’s critically important. The advice I would have for women starting out is to find a mentor that pushes you. It doesn't matter if it’s a male or a female, they just need to believe in you and remind you to believe in yourself. 

Tell us your perspective as a woman in advertising 


Sarah Aitken
Chief Marketing Officer, Americas iris worldwide