The Rise of the She-M.O.

PINK Magazine
The Rise of the “She-M.O.”
By Tiffany Meyers

In a business of predominantly male pilots, mechanics and engineers, Joanne Smith has had to shout over more than the din of aircraft engines in the course of her marketing career. The vice president of marketing for Delta Air Lines recalls a meeting at another airline a short decade ago, when she tried to convince a roomful of men not to cut hot towel service on flights as a way to save money. When she added that, in fact, the hot towels should be scented, her former CEO tossed a quarter across the table and quipped, “Call someone who cares.”

Contemporary boardrooms are hardly free of chest-puffing antics like these, but Smith believes such an incident probably wouldn’t happen today. “Not so much because it’s rude behavior,” she says, “but because I think women [marketers] have forced the point that consumers do care about these kinds of things.”

At Delta, Smith often finds herself reminding colleagues that the concepts of “safe, clean and on time” are merely the price of entry. “In a male-dominated industry, I find that I sometimes have to be a very loud voice that says, ‘If operations is all we focus on, we’re going to lose an opportunity to engage customers in a brand connection beyond those things.'”

Such sensibilities among women in marketing are earning more respect in corporate America – and giving women execs a boost up the career ladder. A quick scan across the business vista shows that in marketing, women are thriving in the most senior roles – making the CMO into the “She-M.O.,” as it were.

That squares with what male and female marketers surveyed by Copernicus and Brandweek magazine say they’ve noticed. Fully 80 percent of survey participants say they’ve seen women achieving more success in marketing than in the past. And 81 percent of the women marketers surveyed aspire to the highest levels of their company, compared to just 68 percent of the men in their field.

“It is remarkable how many senior leaders in marketing are women now,” says Elaine Boltz, CMO and EVP of corporate strategy at Ann Taylor. “When I started my career years ago, women were in marketing. But most of us were in the low levels, and as you looked up the ladder, it was mostly men. Today, so many of my senior peers are women.”

Case in point: This April, Katie Bayne assumed leadership over one of the world’s premier brands when Coca-Cola North America named her CMO. “Luckily, I am not the first at Coca-Cola to hold this role, and I am sure I won’t be the last,” says Bayne.

One reason for the rise of women marketers? Historically and today, women have filled the pipeline for senior- level positions in marketing more than in other areas of business. The natural result is a faster rise to the top in marketing, a field that continues to attract women in large numbers. Twenty-eight percent of women MBA graduates surveyed in 2006 said they in tended to enter marketing or sales, compared to just 16 percent of male respondents, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council.

Such statistics tell part of the story. But for a more nuanced examination, it helps to turn to the women who have catapulted to the top – women like Barbara Goodstein, executive vice president and head of marketing and product development for AXA Equitable.

“I personally think the reason women are most success ful in marketing is that men are allowing them to take over marketing,” she says. “Men realize there’s a reality in the workplace that they have to make room for women in senior levels, and marketing is a territory that they’re willing to give up.”

MetLife CMO Beth M. Hirschhorn contributes another important distinction. Through the course of her career, including nearly 15 years at JPMorgan Chase, her marketing teams have typically been half to two-thirds female. “What I think may be the case is not so much that more companies are putting women in CMO positions, but that the marketing function itself has been elevated, with companies creating more high-level marketing positions than in the past. So the face of marketing is now more visible, and that face is often the face of a woman.”

That new face portends a revolution in marketing communications, where messaging is still often skewed toward male priorities, despite all we know about the female consumer’s purchasing power. As women shoot up the ranks, that should change. (See “Wooing the Women” on page 40.) But at least one major caveat radiates from that fore cast: Though some ascribe to it, the idea that women are better at marketing to women is, to many, a perilous one.

As practitioners are quick to note, women marketers are just as capable of being blind to their consumers’ needs as anyone, while men are just as capable of addressing those needs. In fact, a typical female CMO, armed with her MBA and six-figure salary, might be more similar to her male colleague across the hall in her preferences and lifestyle than to the stay-at-home mom who buys her company’s dish soap.

That may or may not be true in the world of dish soap and detergent, Boltz says, but Ann Taylor consumers balance family lives with busy careers just as she and her marketing team do. That parallel gives Boltz a passion for communicating with her consumers in a meaningful way. “There’s the premise that women who reach the top have to be hardened and embattled,” she says. “But I don’t see that. I see successful women who haven’t lost sight of the fact that they’re women. And they’re not any less universally understanding of what all women face.”

Juli Ann Reynolds, president and CEO of Boston-based management consulting firm Tom Peters Co., casts off the caveats. “If you step away from all the fancy marketing talk,” she says, “marketing is really just a way of extending ourselves to the community at large, and I think women do that naturally.”

Of course, female CMOs are not above reproach or bad behavior. Wal-Mart recently fired CMO Julie Roehm for allegedly using company funds to conduct an illicit affair with a subordinate, accepting gifts from an advertising agency competing for Wal-Mart’s $580 million bud g et and pursuing a job with yet another bidder. Roehm denies the charges and filed a lawsuit against Wal-Mart for breach of contract.

Both male and female marketers in a Copernicus /Brand – week study attribute women’s success in marketing to several factors: 54 percent of respondents say that women tend to be better listeners than men; 48 percent say that women are generally more collaborative than men; and 45 per cent concur that women have a better understanding of the importance of creating emotional connections to brands.

For Cheryl Barre, CMO of Arby’s Restaurant Group, the sharp listening skills cited in the study seem less a “female thing” than a prerequisite for success as a minority group in business. Barre says, “The most important thing for marketers to learn is that you yourself are not in that target market. You have to understand how your consumer is thinking, even though it may be very different from the way you think.”

Mary Dillon, executive vice president and global CMO for McDonald’s, would agree. “It all comes down to starting with deep consumer in sight,” she says. “Who are we trying to reach? What does our brand mean to them on a function al and emotional level? How can we touch them in the most relevant way, and how can we use all of the tools in the marketing mix to do so?”

And the most important part of the practice, according to Dillon: “Go through that process often, because customer needs and the competitive environment change all the time.”

If a unified theme were to emerge from conversations with these diverse women at the top, it would be their collective commitment to debunking stereotypes. In Hirschhorn’s previous post, she directed an advertising agency away from imagery that propagated gender-related stereotypes on more than one occasion. When the all-male creative team presented an ad that showed a mother taking her child shopping, for instance, she had the team reverse the parent’s gender to better reflect a world in which women often serve as the primary breadwinner.

“When I had to ask a third time, you can imagine how agi tated I was,” she says. “But each time I said, ‘OK, that’s great. Now re place the woman with a man.'” Today, Hirschhorn says far too many marketers approach women as if they are a niche market, even though in many pro duct categories women are the market. “Especially where I’m sitting,” she says, referring to MetLife. “Women are the pri mary decision-makers and buyers of the services that can protect their famili es.”

When businesses fully recognize the poten tial for female-resonant marketing as a competitive edge, the “option” to reach women will become the imperative it ought to be, she adds.

From stud sensors to SnugRider strollers, Kathy Will iams, CMO of Graco Child ren’s Products, knows both sides of the coin. In her former role as vice president of marketing at Black & Decker, she once faced an industrywide idea that winning wom en’s hearts was as simple as painting power tools pink. “The thing I tried to drive was, ‘Don’t assume,'” Williams says. “‘Is that what women want?

Let’s go back to the consumer and hear what she really values about our products.'” Graco Children’s Products may sit a world apart, but Will iams finds that the old mantra still works: Don’t assume. Because when it comes to moms, generalizations abound. “I never liked any stereotypes,” Williams says, “And the key to breaking them down is to drive open-mindedness and creativity so that you’re not held hostage to stereotypes.”

In the 1997 romantic comedy Picture Perfect, Jennifer Aniston plays an ad executive striving to succeed in a boy’s club setting. In one scene, Aniston’s client, an executive from a mustard company, shares his vision for an ad: It would feature a beautiful model – and maybe she’s not naked but she’s definitely not wearing much, he explains – standing in front of a giant bowl of mustard.

Above her, a heading would read: “Spread This.” Surrounded by her bosses, Aniston eventually finds words to both mask and express her true feelings: “When I hear that,” she says, “I actually have a physical reaction.”

It’s not a very good movie, says Bridget Brennan, founder of Chicago-based marketing consultancy Female Factor Corp., but the scene is a telling example of the challenges women in marketing face. With a background both in the corporate sector and on the agency side, Brennan has not only observed gender dynamics play out in corporate Am erica, but she’s also helped women clients sell ideas to male-dominated internal audiences that still run on the testosterone-fueled language of sports, sex and war.

Although she sees women making headway, particularly as leadership roles give them a wider platform, Brennan sees plenty of room for growth. And growth begets growing pains. Goodstein recalls one such twinge during the mid-1990s, when she presented her self as a candidate for the CMO position at a bank she worked for at the time. Having reviewed her qualifications, the CEO rang her up.

She had delivered excellent results and created entirely new marketing programs for the bank, he told her. But he had decided to hire his golfing buddy, a good guy who’d been in the transaction clearing business and, with Goodstein’s help, would no doubt pick up marketing quickly.

“I was being pushed aside because I didn’t have that pre-existing, male-bonding golf relationship,” she says. “At the same time, he was minimizing the discipline of marketing by telling me anyone could pick it up.”

Deborah Wahl Meyer, vice president of marketing for Lexus, Toyota’s luxury division, grew up professionally in the male-dominated automotive industry. If she uses a more effusive style of communicating to make a point, she’s noticed, it can sometimes fall on deaf ears. “When a guy makes the same point in a cut-and-dried way, with perfect data points to support it, he’s heard over me,” she says.

But Meyer believes communication barriers like these will dissolve as companies respond to pressure to embrace diversity – and not just gender diversity, where differences in style are perhaps most distinct. “It’s an exciting time in marketing,” she says, “because the way people talk to each other is changing. It’s almost like learning new languages.”

“Women can have an impact on more than just the goods and services that are sold,” says Delta’s Smith. “We have an opportunity to elevate our messages to be more respectful of our families, our community, our environment. We can alter people’s perceptions about humanity, inspiring a more caring, more open and more global way of thinking.”

Smith concedes that her statement might strike some as grand. But then, a discipline that reveres big ideas above all else should have room, in time, for one more.

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