Melinda Geertz: The push for equality in the C-Suite and reflections on a storied career

By Ruby Derrick | 13 March 2024

Though Melinda Geertz is no longer in the thrust of agency life, from a distance, she’s felt an incredible sense of optimism over the last few years.

Geertz, who had an almost four decade career with Leo Burnett, was inducted in the Advertising Hall of Fame last month.

Geertz grew up on a farm in Iowa, a long way from Madison Avenue. She was an exchange student in Germany for a year, before moving to Chicago to study at Northwestern University, where she majored in history.

She had no knowledge of or interest in advertising – beyond knowing every jingle, along with every other American teenager in the 1970s, she says.

“So it was completely accidental that I landed a place in Leo Burnett’s management training program in Chicago,” says Geertz.

“That was a thing back in the 80s. And it was a miracle that I was one of 35 hired that year. We were told there were 6,000 applicants. That just comes down to a lot of luck.”

For Geertz today, this optimism stems from her seeing a lot of strong, intelligent, interesting, dynamic women who are taking on leadership roles in agencies -- or are destined to. 

“And they’re leading differently: they’re shifting the dialogue; they’re bringing their unique perspectives to creative work; and they’re focusing on building a more inclusive culture,” she says.

Women are also enlightening their male colleagues, most of whom also welcome the benefits of equality and cultural transformation, says Geertz.

She loves Gloria Steinem’s words: “Women are always saying, ‘We can do anything that men can do.’ But men should be saying, ‘We can do anything that women can do.’” 

“I reckon a lot of men would agree with this sentiment,” says Geertz. 

It took a long time – way too long, she says, but her impression is that most agencies are actively dealing with the structural and cultural barriers that held women back for decades in this industry. 

“I can’t tell you how happy that makes me, having taken on an agency CEO role at a time when less than 5% of those positions were held by women, parental leave was not even on the radar, flexibility was a dirty word, sexism was embedded in behaviours, and conscious and unconscious biases were rife,” she says.

What Geertz sees is that diversity is no longer an abstract “tick the box” exercise or denigrated as a “politically correct” agenda. 

She feels that pretty much everyone agrees now that diversity is real and meaningful – that it makes businesses better – and there is a shared will to drive cultural change.

But we’re not there yet, says Geertz, and the recent numbers around gender equality disappoint. 

“Only 22% of CEO positions in advertising are held by women, and the gender pay gap overall is in the double digits. How can this be – in 2024?,” she says.

“What it tells us is that there’s still a lot of work to do. We have momentum -- but we have to keep pressing. This is an ongoing journey, and it requires strong, continuous voices that hold organisations to account and take us to the next level of inclusion and equality.”

On how the industry can see more representation of females in C-Suite agency roles, Geertz says that it may sound obvious, but in her experience, we need to give women that bit of extra support and mentoring. 

“It’s not about skills or talent; women are often just more reluctant to put their hand up and declare their readiness for the next big role,” she says.

“Some women have been conditioned to believe that only “superwomen” can take on the big jobs, and we all know that’s a concocted expectation that’s unreal and unhelpful. Women need to hear the voices of people who believe in them. An encouraging, affirming nudge can make all the difference in helping talented women take the leap and feel confident doing so.”

Geertz is aware of the continuous debate about quotas and affirmative action – but she believes that setting clear targets is galvanising and can accelerate transformation. 

There’s truth in the idea that “what gets measured gets done”, she believes. Opponents of targets argue that they need to hire the most talented people, that they want to hire on merit, not gender. 

“I think it’s safe to argue that there are as many talented, qualified women as men – and the pipeline is large and growing. I don’t believe that prioritising gender to drive equality means a compromise in ability. That feels like an outdated excuse,” says Geertz. 

Geertz would also encourage agencies to look around and identify organisations that are nailing it. Learn from them. Understand what they’re doing differently. Adopt some of their practices. It can help fast track progress, she says.

“It’s vital that women support women. Having a voice at the table is a fabulous achievement, but don’t waste your voice. Use it to bring others with you.”

The interesting thing about this business is that it naturally attracts people with diverse interests and backgrounds, says Geertz.

There weren’t many farm kids with history degrees at Leo Burnett in Chicago, but there were so many interesting people with their own stories and perspectives, she says.

“I quickly realised that this was an industry that offered incredible breadth and variety – and one that rewarded curiosity and creativity. I loved that, and it proved to be a great match for me.”

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