Perspectives: Women in Advertising: Suzanne Michaels, EVP of Creative Innovation and Melissa Healy, SVP, Group Creative Director at Leo Burnett

by Jeff Finkle , Adforum

Perspectives: Women in Advertising: Suzanne Michaels, EVP of Creative Innovation and Melissa Healy, SVP, Group Creative Director at Leo Burnett.



AdForum is showcasing the achievements of women in advertising in the month of March through a series of interviews. We would like to thank Suzanne Michaels, EVP of Creative Innovation at Leo Burnett and Melissa Healy, SVP, Group Creative Director at Leo Burnett for taking the time to offer their thoughts and reflect on their career.


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?


Suzanne: People at Leo Burnett give a damn. About the work absolutely, and also about each other. There’s a camaraderie that feels genderless. Organizationally, employee-led networking groups like Parentkind and the Women’s Leadership Network are well-supported and thriving. 

I say this with fresh eyes, joining recently with The Abundancy acquisition. We cultivated a remarkably female-friendly environment there. It was more than policies and benefits (which are crucial); we actually trained and rewarded high-EQ traits like empathy and collaboration. That mindset got purchased with the agency — not just because it’s good for women, but because it’s good for business.


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?


Melissa: I think the biggest change is that people are talking about it, recognizing it, and doing something about it. The theme of this year’s 3% Conference was “What are you going to do about it” and this year’s International Women’s Day event was “Be Bold for Change,” both of which get at the idea of “glass ceiling” from a more personal perspective. It’s very empowering for a woman to own her own trajectory, and be responsible for her power and her influence. So for me, the biggest change is that shift in thinking – I don’t think we need to apologize for or hide from what we are, what we do, and how we do it.

But, let’s be honest, just because we are putting ourselves out there and being vocal doesn’t mean everyone is listening and taking action. Women still only make up 11% of leadership, so there are obviously systematic changes that need to be made so that number continues to go up. Quickly. Let me close the loop and go back to how are you going to be bold for change, and what are you going to do about it?


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

Suzanne:  I’ve had a fantastic career that I’m tremendously proud of and grateful for. But far and away, I feel the most pride when people whom I’ve hired and mentored go on to soar and succeed on their own. I try to help people find their creative voice and own the shit out of it. Sometimes I recognize those voices out in the wild and get giddy.


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?


Melissa: First, I’m a mom of a toddler, so “sane” is not a concept I’m familiar with right now :).  But, let’s all agree we need to stop using the term “work-life balance,” as that creates an unattainable ideal that we think we are working towards – like if we could just be “more” or “better” we’d get there. It’s another way of saying that we can “have it all.” No, that’s a bunch of BS, and only creates more guilt and stress.

I suck at balance. Instead, I work at being present. When I’m with my girls, I’m fully present and with them. Likewise, when I’m with my team or clients, I am with them. Those lines will blur, and I’m ok with that. For instance, right now, I’m answering these questions on a Sunday morning while my kids are watching Mary Poppins. I’m switching back and forth between being present with these questions and singing ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!’ I see my biggest responsibility and gift is to be a nurturer, and as long as I’m doing that, I feel cool with checking the successful box at the end of the day.

I always say, “Advertising is not an individual sport, it’s a team sport” – so I’m pretty lucky to be surrounded by an amazingly talented group of people who support me just as much. In addition, my husband is pretty awesome and a true partner. I can be present because of these people.


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

Suzanne: In college, I spun my barista gig at the hip indie coffee shop into a store manager job at a second location that was struggling to make money. I was a 22-year-old English major suddenly in charge of a $1 million P&L, which meant everything from setting staffing plans and managing vendors to establishing a profit-sharing program. It was a crash course in business — and it worked.

Soon we had an empowered team and positive momentum. We experimented with the menu. We held events. We started a live music program and even convinced Jeff Buckley to play. Business boomed.

That experience taught me first-hand that when people are truly empowered to act like owners — when they’re given the trust and freedom to follow their instincts and act on them — pretty awesome things can happen.


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


Melissa: I can’t single just one person out – there have been way too many positive influences in my life and career. I started with a wonderful foundation in my mother, who’s an amazing role-model for successful working motherhood. In addition, I grew up with two strong grandmothers, a great grandmother, four aunts, and a cadre of cousins that influenced me greatly early on. Then I had some challenging teachers and professors who guided and shaped what was then best described as chaotic day-dreaming and helped me channel that into this career.

My very first real boss, a principal in a small design shop, took me under his wing and really taught me the business of being a creative. I credit him for showing me how to be a partner to my clients which is a cornerstone of a successful client-agency relationship.

Lastly, I’ve been lucky that there have been several women with a point of view who have come in and out of my work life and have been my allies and mentors. It took me longer then I’d like to admit to realize that I alone could not shape my career. I like to say that “Support is the single greatest gift you can give,” but the other side of that coin is recognizing that you need to be open to taking that support, too.


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?


Suzanne: The best way I think I can inspire the next generation of women is to show up and just do it, every single day. Young women — and young men! — need to see that leadership comes in many forms, that kindness wins, and that parenthood and career success are not in conflict.

The advice I’d give: Say yes. To lots of things. To unknowns, to scary things, to wrong things. Very little in life is permanent, and almost nothing in advertising is. When opportunities come your way, trust yourself enough to try.


Melissa: The advice I’d give: Know your worth. Be open and vulnerable and willing to take everything in. All of that becomes experiences that you can draw on for the rest of your career.