AWNY: power women in advertising.

Inspiration from the Stages Summit.

AWNY (Advertising Women of New York) was founded in 1912 to empower women to achieve personal and professional fulfillment. To coincide with their expansion to Chicago, AWNY is planning a rename and rebrand for early fall 2016. It’s a smart move given that the number of “ad women” in Chicago is estimated at 13,000 — about half of the total number of people in the industry. Four of us from Simple Truth attended AWNY’s inaugural Stages Summit  in Chicago last week.

Women of Simple Truth at AWNY
Simple Truth at the Stages Summit: Rhonda Kokot, Mande Mischler, Susan Bennett and Sharon Heil (not pictured).

It was an all-day, sold-out event featuring more than 20 highly accomplished female ad execs (from New York and Chicago) who shared their stories about confronting challenges and seizing opportunities. The program I was handed at the door promised “an inspiring, educational and transformative experience.” I was not disappointed. In fact, listening to them, and thinking back to the convention speeches I had heard the night before, I wondered what took our country so long to be presented with a viable woman candidate for president.


I’m a compulsive note-taker, so I have four solid pages of words from these incredibly smart, level-headed women who so generously shared their secrets to success. I was inspired, educated and transformed. Here’s how:

How I was inspired.

“Innovation without execution is nothing. We need audacious doing.”

— Dana Anderson, SVP and CMO of Mondelez

Dana Anderson began by poking fun at AWNY’s process for quality control of the summit, suggesting that in our efforts to be super achieving, role-model-worthy women, we take ourselves just a tad too seriously at times. Her burst of humor amped up the energy of the summit as she told us about Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to ride over Niagara Falls in a barrel. In 1901, Taylor, who was 63, was in charge of every aspect of her stunt, from engineering the oak barrel to finding the people willing to push it down the falls. She didn’t do it for fun or fame. She did it because she needed money. Her idea was that after completing this daring act, which she survived with just one cut to her head, people across the country would pay to hear her speak about it.

Annie_TaylorA little context here for those who need it. Before there was radio, TV or the Internet, attending a public speaking event by someone outside your community was great entertainment. Legends such as Mark Twain were quite successful at it. But in spite of all of Taylor’s ingenuity, hard work and persistence, her plan never panned out. She died basically unknown, at age 83. A full 10 years later, here comes a man named Bobby Leach. He repeats the stunt but ends up hospitalized for six months. Yet he got a three-year speaking contract/vaudeville act out of it.

The moral of the story would seem to be, why bother? But here’s what Anderson seemed to be telling us: It’s not always the outcome that’s the thing. It’s the doing of it. Of being your audacious, badass self.

How I was educated.

“We are too good not to be better.”

— Sarah Personette, VP/Director of Global Business Marketing for Facebook

Sarah Personette pointed out the pressure of people working to meet business demands in a world where consumer dynamics have changed faster than ever, due at least in part to that little device we all carry in our hands and look at 46 times a day. She grew up in a family focused on service and remembers a line from a speech her father gave to a group of Rotary International members: “You are too good not to be better.”

She then gave us five solid guideposts to help us be better:

  1. Start by starting. Even if you fail, there’s value in what you’ve done.
  2. Be a master of your education. Know what you need to know and learn it.
  3. Be kind to all. Make people believe they can be their best.
  4. Choose a job not based on title but on what you can learn in that position.
  5. Find your voice and share it. Your perspective matters.

How I was transformed.

“Don’t settle for what you THINK you’re supposed to do.”

— Pam El, CMO of the NBA

There’s an old Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times. Who is not frightened and confused by our times? By the challenges we are reminded of daily in our news feeds, from joblessness, racism and misogyny to the epidemic of violence committed by individuals and groups? Sure, things were rough in the Middle Ages, but surely humanity has advanced along with all our learning and technology. Haven’t we?

So there we were, a group of about 150 women, mostly white, presumably all middle- or upper-middle class, who spent nearly six hours absorbing messages such as embrace change, promote diversity, stay relevant and find balance. Then up comes Gretchen Wilson’s “Here for the Party” and out comes Pam El, short and mighty, dancing across the floor and pulling attendees out of their seats to swing with her. Those not dancing were on their feet, clapping their hands and moving to the music. “You never knew black people liked country music, did you?”

AWNY’s careful event planning paid off. El was the perfect finale. Laughter and love filled the room. “What is passion?” she asked once she caught her breath. It’s the fire that burns inside of you. If you ignore it, it will hurt you, she warned us. DO NOT SETTLE for what you think you’re supposed to do. “We are here to change the world.”

And we ain’t leaving till they throw us out.

AWNY President & CEO Lynn Branigan
AWNY President and CEO Lynn Branigan