Making the magic happen with my art director Karen and our director Ramaa Mosley (the photobomber)

From Boys Club to Girls Team: Cheering for How Far We’ve Come

My creative partner Karen Pfaff Manganillo and I both launched our advertising careers at a notorious boys club, both hired by a hotshot CD who has since, only quite recently, been vilified for his toxic culture and penchant for broism at another major agency.

I still remember the day I got the call from my headhunter.

“I have an opening at Ad Age’s Agency of the Year, but you don’t want to work there, it’s a total boys club.”

I was dying to do amazing work, so she had me at Agency of the Year. And as the youngest child in a family with three older brothers, I was used to being the only girl in the room. Trying to climb the copywriter ladder, I considered it an honor to be “let into their club,” even if it just meant having a chair in the corner. I didn’t know…

I didn’t know I’d have work ten times harder to get the same recognition as the boys.

I didn’t know I could complain to HR when I was brought to meetings to “chick up the room.”

I didn’t know that not staying late to play Xbox or visit strip clubs meant being overlooked for the best assignments, and that having babies meant being relegated to the “mom accounts.”

I didn’t know unconscious gender bias was an actual thing, and that if you didn’t see her you couldn’t be her.

I didn’t know a revolution was brewing in ad agencies across the country and that the Mad Men culture that made me so uncomfortable would soon be turned on its head thanks to warriors like The 3% Movement, Diet Madison Ave and Times Up Advertising.

I just knew that I was tired of the sideways glances when I left the office after an 8-hour day to go home to my family.

And so I went freelance, choosing a work-life balance over trying to fit into a club that didn’t know how to welcome my membership.

Some time later, after 6 years devoting blood, sweat and tears to a place where crying had to be hidden in the bathroom, Karen made the same tough choice.

I wrote a novel, Copygirl, inspired by my Madison Ave experiences, and in between raising kids and holding down homes, Karen and I continued to partner on projects. Occasionally, we wondered aloud what would have happened to our careers if we’d stayed in the ad game. You know, the Sliding Doors question. What if we’d chosen Door #2?

Last fall, we had the opportunity to find out.

We got a call from the very agency where we first met, to freelance on one of those amazing assignments we once would have killed for. The very agency where my ECD once told me he’d never hire a female creative director now had a female as its president. And far from its roots harboring bad boys, the agency had evolved to spawn an entire department devoted to promoting girl brands.

It gets better.

Karen and I wrote, pitched and sold our work to a leading women’s brand, then we got to go and make it. Our group CD was a woman. Our producer was a woman. Our director was a woman. Her line producer was a woman. The head of the film company and the editor were women. And the lead client, you guessed it, also a woman!

Our all-girl dream team

The mutual respect. The collaboration. The ability to not only acknowledge we had children but take phone calls from them without apologizing. Some of us (gasp!) even had a gray hair or two.

I’d never experienced anything like it. Simply because, not long ago, there weren’t enough of us in the room, let alone running it.

My advertising experience had done a glorious 180 from Boys Club to Girls Team.

Like the iconic Virginia Slim ads said in the early days of female empowerment, We’ve come a long way, baby.

It seems only fitting that the campaign we created celebrates women cheering each other on and being stronger together. For Karen and I, this wasn’t just an ad slogan. It’s something we were finding to be a human truth. Our work had become a mirror for what’s happening in the real world. And the ad world. Talk about #IfYouCanSeeHerYouCanBeHer.

The icing on the girly pink cupcake? These films, from a company renowned for supporting strong women, feature players from the US Women’s National Soccer Team, the winningest team in sports history. I had to pinch myself so many times I have scars.

Don’t get me wrong — many of my favorite colleagues are men. I do not discount their value for a second. But as we celebrate International Women’s Day, I can’t help but marvel at how great it is to be a woman in advertising in the year 2019.

Right now, Peggy Olsen is taking a drag of her Virginia Slim and cheering from her corner office.

Watch the first film in our campaign
Successful women build each other up and celebrate their success

Michelle Sassa is co-author of the novel Copygirl, hailed by Publisher Weekly as “A high-octane, electric look at Madison Avenue craziness from a pair who’ve been there and done that.”