At the first International Advertising Association convention in Britain in 1924, the newly formed Women in Advertising and Communications, London (Wacl) ran a session about a dilemma that still resonates today: where are all the women in advertising? One attendee described women as the "power behind the throne", holding key roles but hidden from view.
Ask any advertising professional to pick their heroes and they will likely list oft-repeated male names – John Hegarty, David Abbott, Paul Arden, John Webster etc. In this industry, women have been sidelined in history and sometimes forgotten completely. But women have always been among the greats. Some are already known, but many more who helped shape advertising have been overlooked. It is time to rewrite the history and learn some new names.
As a young American creative, Libby Brockhoff planned to move to London for a short time, but ended up co-founding one of the most influential UK advertising agencies of the past two decades.
At Gold Greenlees Trott in London, Brockhoff met creative director Robert Saville. "From there, things changed forever," she says. "To get confidence and momentum as a creative, you have to have someone who believes in you. Robert did that for me 100%."
When Saville left to start his own agency, he took Brockhoff with him. The pair, along with Stef Calcraft and Mark Waites, became the founders of Mother.
It was Brockhoff who named the shop. Saville had wanted to call it Tom, Dick & Harry, as a spin on the agencies with the founders’ names over the door.
"I wanted a name we could put on any project," Brockhoff says. "The whole idea is based on creation and about inspiring people to make things. Creating a safe haven for ideas to flourish was really important."
Brockhoff helped launch Mother’s founding client, new broadcaster Channel 5, in 1997. She created a campaign for Super Noodles for Batchelors that was so successful the company had to open additional noodle plants. And she was behind one of Mother’s most famous personal projects, "Football hooligans", which saw hooligan figurines sent to the press as a comment on England fan violence at the World Cup.
Brockhoff’s four years at Mother were "the best rollercoaster ride ever", she says. She left in 2000 to return to the US and have children, but now regrets that decision. "When you’re young, it’s easy to think you’ll have opportunities like that again," she adds. "If I’d had more female mentors, I would’ve probably figured out how to navigate that."
Since then, she has started San Francisco’s Odysseus Arms in 2011, which was Ad Age’s Small Agency of the Year in 2014. Most recently, she was a founding member of the US-based Time’s Up Advertising initiative, fighting gender inequality and sexual harassment. "All these young women at my company will never have to go through what I went through, which is awesome because they can just focus on their work and creativity," she says.
After the collapse of her family’s fortune, Florence Sangster left school at 16 and joined her father’s handloom factory. As the youngest employee, she replaced the male manager and supervised the factory floor, showing a talent for leadership.
During this time she also studied bookkeeping, which helped her land a job in advertising after the factory shut down. She started as a secretary in 1915 at the agency WS Crawford, whose owner William Crawford was a proponent of employing women. "Advertising gave me what I most eagerly desired: scope, interest, opportunity and a business life crammed full of stimulating incident," Sangster wrote, in the 1936 book The Road to Success: Twenty Essays on the Choice of a Career for Women.
Sangster rose to become Crawford’s trusted adviser and deputy, known for putting a hand on his arm during meetings and warning him not to go "too fast". In her essay on an advertising career, she named the attributes she believed led to success: empathy, imagination, common sense and optimism.
"Good advertising cannot be produced by way of a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ attitude; to arouse the enthusiasm which prompts desire and action (the action of buying), you must feel it yourself," she advised. "There is no place in advertising for the sour, bitter, contemptuous or defeatist mind."
She was also a firm believer in equal opportunities: "My company employs both [genders], in fair numbers, and to every prospective employee I apply one criterion: can he or she do the job?"
Margaret Havinden (née Sangster)
WS Crawford employed all three Sangster sisters. While the first sister Emily left to marry in Scotland, Margaret joined Florence at the agency in 1918 after studying medicine at Glasgow University and working in the Air Ministry during the First World War.
Margaret was an industry pioneer who, by 1929, had a seat on the agency’s board. From her early days, she led Crawford’s work in fashion, overseeing accounts including Liberty, Harella, Richards Shops and Jaeger, promoting London as a fashion and design hub. She helped rebrand Jaeger when sales were falling, was involved in the redecoration of Oxford Street and co-founded the Fashion Group of Great Britain in 1935, becoming its chairman in 1941.
She married Crawford’s art director Ashley Havinden. Agency accounts report that Havinden oversaw art, Godfrey Saxon Mills the copy and Margaret would be "sitting in judgement" over it all.
Margaret rejected a life of domesticity and believed that women in her industry were "hidden from view". When she retired, advertising executive CD Notley wrote to her: "You are one of the few people who have really left their mark."
Marion Jean Lyon
Marion Jean Lyon, advertisement manager of Punch magazine for 17 years, holds a special place in the history of Fleet Street. Lyon joined Punch in 1910 as chief assistant to advertisement manager Roy Somerville. She replaced him on his death in 1922, becoming the first woman to hold the post at a major publication, and Punch’s first female executive.
Punch’s revenue grew under Lyon. She also helped form Wacl and was its first president in 1923. In her marriage notice (to Punch cartoonist Leonard Raven-Hill), Advertiser’s Weekly called her "one of the best-known and best-liked women in advertising".
For it wasn’t just her skill at the job that distinguished her. Upon her death in 1940, she was described in an obituary as having a "joyful zest for living" and strong loyalty. A colleague wrote: "It is hard to realise that we shall see ‘Marion Jean’ no more. Hard to realise, as we round the corner of Bouverie Street, that we can no longer turn into No. 10 assured of her gentle smile and her instant interest in our affairs. We have lost one of the most lovable people ‘The Street’ ever knew. And truly it is a world – striving, hurrying, fighting – that is in no shape to spare one who radiated such quiet grace; who always made us feel that business, even the competitive business of advertising, could be a gentlemanly thing in the richest sense of that mishandled word."
Mary Wear is an awarded copywriter who authored one of the most recognisable lines of the past two decades. Like many women before her, she started as a secretary, but "bitched about it until they promoted her" to an account role, Wear remembers. She hated it so went back to college to study copywriting, where she met her creative partner Damon Collins.
After a year at FCB, Wear and Collins were poached by Gold Greenlees Trott in 1986. GGT had a reputation as a macho place, but Wear disputes this: "You weren’t judged by anything other than what you produced." And GGT was where she learned to write: "I thought copywriting was about writing lots of stuff, and actually it’s about hardly writing anything."
In 1990, Wear and Collins moved to Saatchi & Saatchi to work under one of their creative heroes, Paul Arden. "He was insane and impossible, and that’s how he kept his creative vision," Wear recalls.
Wear found Saatchis a challenging environment: "It was a machine" and "felt like a boys’ club", she says. In her five years there, she recalls women who got pregnant and "just never came back". "Saatchis was quite old-fashioned. It felt like a woman’s place was in the office – until they had children," Wear says.
Wear and Collins were recruited by another idol, David Abbott, to join Abbott Mead Vickers. "A job is a bit like a family. You can fit into any family, but eventually you’ll find yours," she says. For Wear, that was AMV, where she spent 15 years and came into her own, had her children, and received flexible maternity arrangements ahead of their time, a job to come back to and a four-day working week.
Collins left AMV, but Wear continued with work that defined her style – including the awarded "Messy Flat" for Yellow Pages and "Lucky" for the Department for Transport’s Think! road safety campaign.
Her proudest achievement is writing the line "Make Poverty History" for the campaign of the same name. The phrase became the cornerstone of an effort that captured the world’s attention. "It was just three words yet it had an enormous influence," Wear says.
Sir John Hegarty worked for many years alongside the esteemed creative Barbara Nokes. In 1982, Nokes was one of the eight founding partners of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, and Hegarty’s copywriting partner. Perhaps their most memorable work was Levi’s seminal "Laundrette" ad in 1985.
"Barbara was a pioneer, a writer who rose up through the ranks from secretary to become one of advertising’s most-awarded and sought-after creatives," Hegarty says. "Notably, she made her name not working on ‘female’ accounts – even though she created some groundbreaking work for Dr White’s – but on so-called ‘masculine’ business. Her Volkswagen work gained awards and respect from the industry and, importantly, the clients themselves."
Producer Diane Croll was a trusted collaborator on some of UK advertising’s biggest milestones. She came to adland as a secretary at Gold Greenlees Trott in 1982. Co-founder Dave Trott "was careful who he got on with", Croll recalls, but she impressed her fellow East-Ender with her organisational skills.
After proving more efficient than many freelance producers, Croll was promoted to TV producer and then head of television, orchestrating campaigns such as the Holsten Pils ads in which comedian Griff Rhys Jones interacted with classic film stars.
"Every job the agency ever did came in on time and under budget," Trott wrote of Croll. "Real creativity is taking all the problems away so that people don’t have to think about anything but having great ideas."
Croll joined TBWA in 1997 as executive head of television, working with creative director Trevor Beattie. She helped make ads for the likes of Sony PlayStation, her favourite of which was the much-lauded "Double Life", directed by Frank Budgen.
"You don’t realise it’s a golden age at the time," Croll says. "That’s just how we did things."
Despite working with "big characters" such as Trott and Beattie, Croll says she "never felt sidelined". Besides her talent, she was noted for training young women to be strong-minded producers, like her.
Many people in adland know creative leader Dave Trott, but his wife, Cathy Heng, is a respected art director in her own right.
Heng came from Singapore to England to go to art college. Her first job was at Grey, but her break came when she was hired by legendary creative director Paul Arden, who became her mentor. "He was crazy to work for but, my god, did I learn a lot," Heng says.
She went on to work for David Abbott, at French Gold Abbott and Abbott Mead Vickers, and Robin Wight at WCRS, most notably as an art director on BMW’s famous 1984 "Shaken Not Stirred" campaign.
Photographer Graham Ford once called Heng one of the best art directors he had ever worked with. Her career led her to brand consultancy Big Green Door, where she spent more than 20 years. Throughout, she has been guided by lessons from Arden and Abbott, who taught her that a big idea should rule all.
"Always get to that amazing idea first, then everything else follows. The rest is easy," she says.
JA Reynolds was likely the first female director of an advertising agency. One of the original employees at Samson Clark when it launched in 1896, she became a director in 1912. Reynolds served as founder Clark’s lieutenant for nearly 29 years and upon his death was made managing director and chairman, according to his wishes. Reynolds said she believed women were good at advertising because they were "more original" than men – "often more venturesome too".
Kay Murphy was the first female winner of the Advertising Association’s Mackintosh Medal in 1963. She had a career of many other firsts as a woman: the first to serve on the AA’s executive committee; to be a member and fellow of the Institute of Marketing and Sales Management; to be elected chairman of the British Direct Mail Advertising Association; and to serve as president of the Regent Street Association.
In 1950, she represented Great Britain at the American Direct Mail Conference as the only woman speaker. She was also president of Wacl from 1958-59.
Outside advertising, Murphy worked tirelessly on behalf of refugees during and after World War Two, developing teaching techniques and language lessons for refugees and injured servicemen across Europe.
To nominate another "unsung woman" in advertising, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Special thanks for their research goes to: Alistair Moir at the History of Advertising Trust; Cardiff University’s Dr Philippa Haughton; former Punch archivist Helen Walasek; historian Ruth Artmonsky
See part two of the Unsung Women feature here