Nancy Hill, the departing president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, delivered a tearful farewell address at the group's 2017 Transformation conference in Los Angeles on Monday, assuring the agency community that it is not defined by the "alleged bad behavior we read about in the headlines."
"We are better than that," she said to applause. "You are better than that."
Which is not to say Hill doubted the behavior exists.
"I know that sexual harassment happens," she said. "I know that racism and sexism both exist. I know that there are probably some bad actors out there that maybe aren't as forthright with their clients as we'd like them to be."
But the agency world has much to be proud of, including "talent that creates work that moves brands, moves markets and moves perceptions," and "work that influences culture, shapes the conversations and changes lives," she said.
Hill, who was elected president in 2008, has overseen a tumultuous era in the agency business that's included the Great Recession, existential challenges to the agency business model, a number of high-profile sexual harassment scandals, the erosion of trust between agencies and brands, and accusations of dirty dealing among media agencies.
But rather than taking the tough love approach, as she did at least year's conference, Hill used her opening remarks on Monday to reminisce about her journey in the industry and encourage its members to focus on the progress they've made.
"Thirty-five years ago, when I started as a traffic coordinate at W.B. Doner in Baltimore, I would have never, ever imagined myself up on this stage in front of all of you," Hill began, pausing midway to joke about the tears she was already shedding.
"The odds on when this was going to happen were not this early," she said.
Though the 4A's faced intimidating challenges when she took the job in 2008—"We were already behind in technology, we were already behind in media and, we were clearly behind in taking a leadership role in the growing discussion on diversity and gender equality"–the organization and its members have come a long way in addressing them, said Hill.
"We have taken a front-and-center position on diversity and gender equality," she said. "We have built a media practice that benefits all of our members and has allowed us to take a stance on issues as wide ranging as trust and transparency, measurement standards, privacy, fraud and ad blocking. As well as SAG/AFTRA negotiations & patent trolling. And, we have become digitally centered with a mobile-first approach on every new product we develop."
Marla Kaplowitz, CEO of MEC North America, will assume the presidency when Hill steps down in June.
Before taking the position in 2008, Hill served as CEO of Lowe New York and EVP and managing director for BBDO New York after working at Doner, TBWA/Chiat/Day and Goldberg Moser O'Neill, which became Hill Holiday in 2001.
Hill plans to consult and spend more time in Ecuador, where she volunteers and teaches, after she steps down in June.
"Thank you for letting me represent you for just a little while," Hill said on Monday. "It's been an honor and a privilege. Thank you."
Kaplowitz is slated to take the stage at Transformation later on Monday, when she will share her vision for the future of the 4A's in an interview with Bill Koenigsberg, Chairman of the 4A's Board of Directors and President, CEO and Founder of Horizon Media.