The Women of Iris

Has there been authentic change in the ad industry? AdForum talks to Iris Worldwide's North American team to find out about gender equality inside one of the US's most progressive agencies.

Iris North America
Full Service
New York, United States
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Erin Creaney
Managing Director, Chicago Iris

Jill Smith
CMO, North America Iris

Dipti Bramhandkar
Executive Planning Director, North America Iris

Elizabeth Hall
Managing Director Iris Atlanta

With the proliferation of women’s advocacy groups ranging from the ANA’s SeeHer to Campaign magazine’s Female Frontier Awards in the UK, the movement is growing within the marketing industry. But has there been meaningful change across ad agency networks? 

AdForum discovered that Iris Worldwide is in fact making waves in this arena. The agency has four women in executive leadership roles in North America. We asked Dipti Bramhandkar (Executive Planning Director, North America), Erin Creaney (Managing Director Chicago), Elizabeth Hall (Managing Director Atlanta) and Jill Smith (Chief Marketing Officer, North America) for their views on authentic equality. 

How would you describe the overall culture at Iris? 

Jill Smith: Iris is a progressive business in terms of our product and ethos but has been slow to incorporate gender equality across the business from board seats to equal pay. That said, in North America there is an overwhelming majority of women in leadership roles and at a global level, we recently hired a chief transformation officer.

Dipti Bramhandkar: We have a passionate, human culture that is relatively ego free. Iris is in some ways a ‘boys’ club’ but also has given many women the opportunity to take on leadership roles.

Elizabeth Hall: What attracted me to Iris is you have this group of talented, experienced marketers, who somehow lack the pompous ego found at so many agencies. We have a group of dynamic people who are committed to progressive work that moves the needle – and what makes that actually come to life is a culture of curiosity.

Erin Creaney: There is a culture of entrepreneurship, and many of the people driving that momentum are women. I think to a degree we are rewriting the rules in conjunction with our male counterparts and making the company a better place to work and work with. 

In your opinion, what do you see as the biggest change in the advertising industry since women have begun to break the “glass ceiling”? 

Jill Smith: Not really a huge change to be honest – the biggest challenge is being taken seriously and being invited to have a seat at the table. If there was a notable change, it would be that women have become serious about helping other women – mentoring, creating communities for career growth and advancement. 

Dipti Bramhandkar: We are seeing completely different types of cultures and communities being formed within companies, leading to different ways of making decisions and more engagement of diverse voices. 

Elizabeth Hall: In this industry, it’s no longer rare for a C-level or management executive to be a woman, which is always very inspiring for me. It seems normal now – so maybe that’s the change – and a change for the good!

Erin Creaney: Perspective. Empathy and authenticity are landing better than ever. 

What are some of the challenges that women still face in the industry?

Jill Smith: Not having other women acting as advocates for one another – as noted before, this is changing and there is a momentum and a movement, but we need to hire women, recommend other women, advocate for other women. 

Dipti Bramhandkar: Women are still the minority in executive teams and face more challenges in moving through the ranks even if we are making progress on this front. Overall, women have fewer sponsors, especially at the beginning of their careers. We have mentors, but sponsors are the ones who will advocate for us and help us take the next steps.

Elizabeth Hall: In any industry, women can face challenges around working with small-minded people who may belittle or even harass. In our culture, this is simply not acceptable. We also ensure women are paid equally to men – which is sadly still in issue for some in this industry.

Erin Creaney: Representation in the room, to quote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – “Women belong in all in places where decisions are being made.” We’ve got more work to do to to rearchitect what it means to be a woman leader. We are sisters, mothers, daughters, and business is still only just beginning to see the opportunity and value in those things. I’m confident we’ll continue to surprise. 

What professional achievement are you most proud of?

Jill Smith: Taking risks. Everything I’ve done professionally or personally has been driven by a desire to be pushed out of my comfort zone. I started a boutique creative agency in NYC with no clients (not advised, but the hustle in me was born), I moved to China to grow Iris China’s offering, I was dared to do an Ironman! I’m most proud of being fearless and I know it continues to guide me. 

Dipti Bramhandkar: I ran and grew my strategy practice, DB Quill, purely through word of mouth for 4 successful years of continuous engagement with companies.  

Elizabeth Hall: Last year was my first full year as Managing Director of the Atlanta office. I am so incredibly proud of the work we’ve done to strengthen client relationships (having 100% client retention) and also have attracted new AOR relationships with exciting brands.

Erin Creaney: Being a change agent in organizations and seeing the vision come to life. 

Tell us about a mentor that helped guide you in your career. What made them so special?

Jill Smith: Dr. Shoshanah B.D. Goldberg-Miller was a professor of mine at The New School while doing my graduate degree. She was incredibly generous with her time, helped me think through career paths and opportunities and ultimately helped me land my first job out of school. Her advice often still echoes in my head when I’m trying to make a decision. 

Dipti Bramhandkar: Early in my career, I had a strong woman who helped guide and nurture my career. She gave me responsibility that went far beyond my title, created a space for me to make mistakes and learn from them, and invited me into every room from the beginning.  

Elizabeth Hall: When I think of mentors, I think of at least 10 people. I normally identify an aspect of a manager, client or colleague that I aspire to embody. It may be someone’s passion, their strategic eye, or even their grace under fire.

I remember once seeing a fast food chain employee sweeping and singing, and that action – seeing someone enjoy their work and brighten those around them – was just as impactful to me as some of the C-level execs and power players I’ve met over the years. I love learning from everyone around me regardless of rank and taking on skills & approaches where they make sense. 

Erin Creaney: I had (and have) a mentor that has been pivotal in the advertising space. She has been a guide, a check and balance and a reminder of just how far women have come. She is also a great motivation to keep moving the progress forward around women and leadership. 

How do you as a successful woman plan to inspire the next generation of women?

Jill Smith: By showing up for them, by being a loud voice and advocate, providing uncensored insight/advise and ultimately helping them navigate the challenging landscape that is womanhood. But also, being generous with my time – we are all really busy, but we need to sit, listen and support our next generation of powerhouse female leaders. 

Dipti Bramhandkar: I try to live my principles and set an example for others that way. I identify early career women and help guide them, so they reach the next level of their development.

Elizabeth Hall: There are three main ways:

1. I tell women to ask for what you want. Even if I can’t deliver, the practice of asking is important.
2. I promote a culture of curiosity so that no one feels as though they can’t ask questions.
3. I tell everyone to take their vacation and make their personal time. Sometimes people confuse being a hard worker with never having time for yourself. It’s a one-way road to burnout. 

Erin Creaney: I think women need to think of women – and particularly in the area of digital and tech which is driven predominately by men. Empowered women empower women. I wholeheartedly agree with that, and I believe the next generation will take it to the next level.  


AdForum would like to thank the women of Iris for their contribution. We are inspired! Thanks also to Carly Owen for wrangling these busy women for this interview.