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The Women of My History

Advertising is commonly called a “boy’s club.” I don’t doubt that was true at one time, but it has never been part of my “lived experience.”

Since its beginning in 1991, my career as an agency creative, a writer, has been fundamentally shaped by women. I’ve never known anything different.

Before Women’s History Month is over, I want to acknowledge some of them. Without them, I can say with confidence I would not be the writer I am today. In fact, I might not even be a writer at all.

Coralee Young – My college Copywriting professor. She gave me 51% and a note in the margin that said, “Competent. But will never make a career out of it.” At the time, she added fuel to the fire inside me that was burning to prove a lot of people wrong. I like to think she wrote the note for that purpose. Truth told, I was kinda sandbagging it in her class. But it wasn’t on purpose. I didn't really even believe in myself yet.

Marcy Ruby and Shelly Ambrose - I was able to get a college internship in the studio at J. Walter Thompson. I was working late one night and Marcy found me in the studio. She and her Art Director, Shelly, invited me to a color session on a Kraft Philadelphia Cream Cheese commercial, the concept for which involved a woman in a bird costume. But the nature of the costume was next level. Like a Cirque de Soleil costume. Beautiful long feathers. Artful. Elegant. Otherworldly. And for me, on a whole other creative level than I had imagined. They asked me what I wanted for lunch and gave me a book of menus. I grew up in a modest home. I could count the number of times my family had been to a restaurant on my hands. I felt guilty for ordering soup. But it was the first time I’d ever seen the scale of professional infrastructure dedicated to giving reverence to the creative process. Their attention to detail. Their intricate conversations. The nuances of lighting and color they were discussing. I had never heard such an intellectual conversation about creating something before. I was hooked. Later in my career I hurt them by accepting a job at JWT, then accepting a different job at Arnold right after JWT made press releases. I don’t regret my career decision. But I regret hurting them. It still bothers me that I did.

Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk – Without question one of the biggest influences in my career is the creative team of Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk. After finishing college, I got an internship at Ogilvy & Mather. Janet and Nancy were very senior in that creative department and their energy ran the place. Everybody respected them. And they respected everybody. They gave me a lot of time, a lot of advice, a lot of compassion, and a lot of opportunity. They reassured me when I needed it. They praised me when I earned it. They made everybody feel like they could be great. There was no ego with them. I sometimes jokingly say they taught me nothing about advertising, meaning that after working with them I was not really prepared for the aggressive, sweatshop style, sometimes backstabbing culture normal at many other agencies. But the truth is, they taught me everything about the way advertising should be. To this day, they are my conscience in this industry. They still check in on me. I still check in on them. And I never want to let them down. I loved it at Ogilvy. A massive agency with a family atmosphere. Janet and Nancy made it that way. To this day I would trust Janet and Nancy with my life.

Fransi Weinstein – After a 3-month unpaid internship that turned into an 8-month unpaid internship, Janet, and Nancy, who didn’t think it was fair that I wasn’t being paid, introduced me to Fransi Weinstein. Fransi was the Executive Creative Director of Ogilvy Direct and she was looking to hire a writer. At least that’s what they conspired to have me believe anyway. Whether she really was looking for a writer, she was doing Janet and Nancy a solid, or she took pity on me, or all three, Fransi gave me my first job in advertising. I was going to be paid to write. My salary was $16,800 per year. I felt like I was dreaming. I had no idea how I was going to spend it all. Fransi made me a writer. But more than that, Fransi made me into a writer. She taught me absolutely everything about how to write to elicit a predicted response. She taught me to use words with discipline. To use words with power. And to write the way people read. Even if the punctuation is “wrong.” She is amazing. I loved studying under her. That’s what it felt like to me. It felt like studying. Studying language. Studying human nature. Learning magic tricks that words can perform. To this day she is the best copy editor I have ever met. She could take War and Peace, turn it into a 10-page brochure, and you would feel like you’re missing nothing. I wrote a lot of letters in her department. I loved having my writing approved by her. Because it was hard to do. Five, six, seven rounds of changes. Throwing things out. Moving entire ideas to other sections of the piece. Putting the whole thing aside and starting over from a new approach. Then finally to hear her excitedly say, “Book the studio!” I’ve never told her, but every single day something I type has Fransi in it. I see her all the time.

Amy Morrison – Amy was another young writer at Ogilvy Direct. While the guys tended to keep to themselves, Amy and I spent all day together. She had her office and I had mine, but we were in my office most of the time. I had somehow managed to finagle a loveseat into my office. We used it as a conceptual work center, a bed for no judgement naps, and therapist’s couch. She made the hard days easier and the easy days more fun. We compared notes. Bounced each other’s writing off each other. And it all seemed egoless and natural. We helped each other to not quit.

Monique Kelley – After a couple of years with Fransi, I transferred back to Janet and Nancy’s department. Paid this time. And I got my first formal creative partner, Monique Kelly. Monique was a quiet, demure Art Director. And hard to impress. She was the first person to show me that headlines can “sometimes sound different in layout.” A phrase I still use to this day. If she liked an idea, she would say so. But if she didn’t like an idea, she wouldn’t say anything. She wouldn’t say anything against it. She just wouldn’t say anything at all. This is a technique I still use every time I am concepting with anyone. It is non-offensive, unemotional, and very effective.

Deborah Prenger – Deborah was an Art Director at Roche McCauley and Partners before it became Roche Lowe. The crazy part is, her writing made one of the biggest impacts on me of all. I remember one day going to her desk to bounce some headlines off her. She looked at my lines and she said, “There are some nice thoughts here.” Then she showed me 3 or 4 lines she was thinking about. They were all better than mine. And not just by a little bit. Orders of magnitude better. I read them and said to myself, “Oh wow. We’re allowed to write like this?” It was a whole new level of creativity in writing I hadn’t really considered. Her lines married abstract ideas with product-centric ones. They weren’t just good lines about the product. They were good lines about ideas that related to the product. And it changed the way I wrote headlines forever. After that when writing headlines, I started looking for the connections to the products that weren’t naturally there. The strange, unexpected, delightful connections that spoke to an idea larger than the products themselves. Art Director or not, Deborah is one of the best writers I’ve ever worked with.

Beck Hickey - By this time it was 1996 and I moved to Boston to work on Volkswagen where I was partnered with Beck Hickey, an artist in an Art Director’s body. She taught me to push at the world. That if you shut up you get passed up. She fought for our first TV assignment. She fought for ideas. She hated when good ideas died. And she made me hate it too. She had more passion for the work than anyone I know and was never afraid to show it. When landing in a new country and a new town full of new faces, it was nice to have someone like Beck in your corner showing you what you can get away with. One of my favorite VW campaigns is still that first one I did with her. Simple, honest, and timeless. So hard to do.

Since then, I have worked with other talented women writers, Dafna Garber, Lorelei Bandrovschi, and Susan Credle to name a few.

Although my Art Director partner here at Arcana is male, our producer, Jessica Darke has been with us since the beginning. Employee #1 eleven years ago now. Over a decade of keeping us honest. With our entire team of top executives and most of our clients being female, I don’t feel like we’re contributing to anything like a boy’s club.

It’s a good thing too, because otherwise I would be getting a call from Janet and Nancy. And that would not go well.


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