Ad agency’s first female CEO: ‘Men are not the enemy … The point is equality’

Kristen Cavallo | Photo by CNS
By  | 

RICHMOND, Va. (CNS) — “We need boobs in the room.”

“Maybe if you had taken your husband’s last name, you wouldn’t be divorced.”

“Maybe if you slept with the client, we’d win.”

Those are some of the comments that advertising expert Kristen Cavallo has heard throughout her career.

She is the first female CEO of The Martin Agency, the Richmond-based advertising firm that created the Geico gecko and has partnered with iconic brands like Oreo and Discover Card. This is Cavallo’s second stint at Martin: She worked there from 1998 to 2011, rising to senior vice president of planning and development.

After a sexual harassment scandal at the agency, Cavallo was brought back as chief executive officer, and she has been taking issues head-on like eliminating the gender wage gap and increasing diversity hires.

Cavallo shared her insights on being a female leader in the wake of the #MeToo movement during a presentation Monday at Virginia Commonwealth University. The event was sponsored by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture.

“I am a reluctant CEO,” Cavallo confessed. “I never aspired to be a CEO. I never wanted to be a CEO.”

She said she had initially believed she wasn’t afraid of failing but simply didn’t want to be tied down. “I was scared I was going to be locked in. I’ve always valued freedom more than power.”

When she got the call for the CEO position at The Martin Agency, the job wasn’t on her radar. At the time, Cavallo was president of MullenLowe Group in Boston.

However, the call forced Cavallo to ask herself a tough question about her reluctance to take the job: Did she really not want it -- or was she just not confident enough?

According to recent studies, this is a problem that many women contend with. Research about the “confidence gap,” also called imposter syndrome, suggests that women are less self-assured than men in the business world.

“To succeed, confidence matters as much as competence,” Cavallo said.

According to a Hewlett Packard internal report, men are more likely to apply for a job if they meet only 60 percent of the requirements while women apply only if they meet 100 percent. This study implies that men are less likely than women to let their doubts stop them from applying.

Currently, among Fortune 500 companies, only 24 CEOs -- about 5 percent -- are women. That has dropped from an all-time high of 32 female CEOs in 2017.

Cavallo said there is no single reason why female leadership is scarce.

“We really need to study and understand what is happening,” Cavallo said. “Is it a pendulum swinging? Are people thinking since it’s already happening that they’re not fighting it? Are people actively fighting against it? The answer is all of the above.”

According to Elle magazine, 52 percent of women who make a higher income than their spouse believe “I should make less.” And when introducing the nuance of race, things become even more complicated.

On average, white women make 23 percent less than white men. But African-American women make 39 percent less than white men -- and Hispanic women 47 percent less than white men.

Cavallo does not shy away from addressing diversity. During her past 15 months at the Martin Agency, she said she has worked hard to increase diversity, hiring and promoting people such as Danny Robinson, the firm’s new chief client officer. Robinson, who has won numerous advertising awards, is the first African American to join the agency’s top leadership team.

But Cavallo acknowledges the advertising industry still has a long way to go.

The #MeToo movement, which went viral in October 2017, centers around the prevention of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Celebrities such as Rose McGowan and Jennifer Lawrence have stepped forward with their own accounts of the harassment they’ve faced in their careers.

When Cavallo was named CEO of The Martin Agency in December 2017, the firm was dealing with an accusation of sexual harassment by its former chief creative officer, who subsequently left the agency.

At the forum at VCU, Cavallo said she originally believed that she never faced sexual harassment in the workplace, because at the time, she didn’t feel victimized.

“Maybe there was a sense that this stuff was normal or expected,” Cavallo said.

Now in her own work environment, people can utter the safeword “ouch” if they feel someone has taken humor too far. The goal is that no one should feel uncomfortable, she said.

The Martin Agency has a female CEO but also a female chief creative officer and chief financial officer. But to Cavallo, it’s not about putting women in as many powerful positions as possible; it’s about equality.

“Men are not the enemy, because the point is equality -- not reverse domination,” she said. “All that is going to do is reverse the problems.”