Lessons for the industry from advertising’s first female copywriter

Ezinne Okoro, global chief inclusion and diversity officer, Wunderman Thompson
Ezinne Okoro, global chief inclusion and diversity officer, Wunderman Thompson

A passionate feminist with unconventional and radical views for her time, Helen Lansdowne Resormentored and promoted a generation of women to positions of power and prominence in advertising.

In 1908, Helen Lansdowne Resor became Wunderman Thompson’s (and the industry’s) first female copywriter. She went on to become one of the most consequential people — of any gender — in the early days of advertising. While her name is not necessarily well known today, she was a dominant force at the time.

To honor her, Wunderman Thompson has created the Helen Lansdowne Resor (HLR) Scholarship, which provides female and non-binary college students with the support they need to successfully join the industry. 

Lansdowne Resor is the perfect icon for this scholarship. A passionate feminist with unconventional and even radical views for her time, she mentored and promoted a generation of women to positions of power and prominence in the advertising industry. 

Her approach proved wildly successful for the agency. But still, the industry as a whole did not adopt her ideas. So, how can we rethink her legacy and what can we take away from it today?

Be the first; someone has to. 

Lansdowne Resor wasn’t just the first female copywriter: she was a flat out badass at advertising. Among other innovations, she was the first to use celebrity endorsements, the first to introduce sex appeal to advertising and the first to deploy the “editorial” style, in which ads appeared like other articles in a magazine. Under her guidance, the industry’s creative product, which had been largely functional before, became beautiful and emotionally impactful. 

Empower the unempowered. 

Lansdowne firmly believed that advertising should speak to female consumers with a female voice. At Wunderman Thompson, she created the famed Women’s Editorial Department, in which women were encouraged to speak up and take on positions of power and importance. By giving a voice to a marginalized group, she created a massively profitable arm for the business.

Invest in talent and support them early. 

Helen knew you couldn’t do it alone. She recruited women right out of college and gave them the space they needed to develop their talents. Among the many women she mentored were Aminta Casseres, Peggy King, Nancy Stephenson and Ruth Waldo. 

Expose talent to the industry. 

During Helen’s tenure, the agency thrived because it was much more open to different kinds of talent than its competitors. It became known as a shop where ambitious women could build lucrative careers. This made it a magnet for those who were seeking out a non-traditional lifestyle (for the times). 

Set inclusion as a core business value. 

Today, 73% of people say it’s good when brands support marginalized communities, while 60% say brands that do not deliver on inclusion will become irrelevant. Lansdowne Resor strongly felt that it was necessary to understand the perspectives of the  people buying the products. Likewise, brands need to recognize the experiences of marginalized communities and speak directly to and about them.

Take part in cultural conversations. 

Lansdowne Resor’s activism outside of the agency was as impactful as it was inside. An ardent suffragist, she marched with her employees in a parade celebrating the passage of the 19th Amendment. During the Great Depression, she served as president of the Travelers Aid Society, which provided food and shelter to homeless women and their families. Less well known is that she was a discerning supporter of the arts. She was a driving force behind the creation of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and donated many famous paintings to it, including Salvatore Dali’s iconic The Persistence of Memory.

While Lansdowne Resor was widely respected in her time, the industry did not embrace her innovative methods and inclusive approach. Even the outstanding financial performance of the Women’s Editorial Department didn’t have the impact it should have. 

But agencies today have a big opportunity to learn from her lessons and replicate her example by hiring and promoting inclusively. There’s no secret to her success other than that she realized that talent could come from anywhere — and when you give it a voice, magic can happen.

Ezinne Okoro is global chief inclusion and diversity officer at Wunderman Thompson.

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