As the experiential industry continues to take off in new and ever-evolving directions, so do the roles and opportunities for women on the agency side of the business. In this, our inaugural Women in Events agency roundtable, we assemble 11 of the industry’s leading agency executives to find out what it takes to be successful on the highly creative and highly competitive side of the industry. What follows are some of the candid insights collected from our summer luncheon event, co-produced with leading staffing partner The Hype Agency (thehypeagency.com).
Marta Cyhan | MAC Presents
Cassie Hughes | Grow Marketing
Deb Lemon | On Board Experiential
Melinda Lindland | Jack Morton Worldwide
Lindsay Maloney | Source
Erin Mills | The Michael Alan Group
Elena Nicolaidis | Sparks
Patti Vellek | Lead Dog Marketing Group
Kelly Weinberg | RPMC U.S.
Dayna Gilchrist | Cofounder, The Hype Agency
Kate Bright | Cofounder, The Hype Agency
EVENT MARKETER: What are some of the unique challenges and opportunities for women in the event industry?
LINDSAY MALONEY: I do think there are some differences between being a woman and a man in the event world, but I think it’s definitely becoming more of an even keel. I think the challenge is related to families and multitasking. On a day-to-day basis, there’s not a lot of discrepancy between men and women or salary. I have seen an evolution. At least from my experience, women are just as respected, and the key to it is multitasking and organization, which, let’s face it, we tend to be a little bit better at.
KELLY WEINBERG: I think one of the challenges is that there are a lot of women, in business in general, that think they need to act like a man to get somewhere in the industry and try to make choices that maybe they think men would make. I think one of the things that I’d like to see us all do as a group is to let people know that you don’t need to do that. You just need to be yourself and follow your beliefs and follow your heart, follow your instincts, and do what you think is right. I think bringing your feminine qualities to the events industry is something that we’re changing every day.
Another thing that’s challenging is I don’t think there are enough of us in business and in leadership roles to be able to have other women to do deals with and have as mentors in the industry. You get to a point in your career where maybe you are now the mentor and have mentees, and I’d like to have a mentor that’s a woman. I find that’s hard in the circles that I work in on a day-to-day basis.
MELINDA LINDLAND: One of the things I think is interesting about the event field in general is that it attracts a lot of women based on the assumptions people make about the industry as a whole, and in some cases that attracts really talented women, and in other cases, it doesn’t. We’re not in the investment banking industry. We’re not in medicine. We’re not in some of these other categories that really pull the best and the brightest. So it can be a thinner crowd of people that are incredibly talented and driven and really want to be in the business and leadership side of the industry.
But at the end of the day, is there a difference between what we can accomplish versus a man? No, we can generate revenue just as readily as a man can. There just may be fewer of us that are hard wired to do that, that we’re drawn to this industry for the competitive nature of it and the sales nature of it. I think it’s an interesting ecosystem of which we are a part.
ERIN MILLS: Day in and day out, I don’t feel as though I’m oppressed in this line of work. However, it is startling to me when I travel for business and I pony up to the bar to have a cocktail before my flight that I notice that I’m in the company of predominantly men. Even though that might not be industry specific, that is generally when I tend to notice that I am in the minority. And for me, I am challenged by the volume of methodologies out there. So are you going to Lean In? Are you going to Thrive like Arianna Huffington? I feel like there’s a lot of pressure to decide what type of event professional or professional woman you are going to be. Inherently, the event industry can be challenging for a woman just because we’re trying really hard to manage multiple deliverables. But in general, I don’t feel that there’s a glass ceiling, per se, for women in this industry.
ELIZABETH SELTZER: I do see a shift in the industry, and I do agree with what Kelly was saying in terms of mentorship. I think surrounding yourself with strong leaders and mentors—and I’m fortunate to have a strong leader in our company and to be in a leadership role to help mentor other people—helps across multiple disciplines because the experiential industry is teeming. It’s not so much about hanging up pop-up banners or throwing birthday parties. It is a real conversation being held with real marketing mix deliverables against it. So to also understand the entire marketing mix and having mentors from different divisions is very helpful.
CASSIE HUGHES: I’ve spent most of my career in San Francisco and have felt lucky that I’ve never really felt that glass ceiling. I was on the client side for 10 or 15 years before we started Grow, and I never felt as though being a woman got in my way, and I never was in a situation at the companies I worked with where I felt like that was going to hold me back. Maybe if I looked at the top five percent of the corporation 15, 20 years ago, yes, but that wasn’t really my trajectory.
HUGHES: Our philosophy has been to not feel like we had to act like a man or that we had to be a certain way, but I will say that I think our inherent challenges are remembering to take full credibility for everything we deliver. If we’re asked to do five things, we’ll own the four things we can do, and we will show a lack of confidence around the one that maybe isn’t that perfect match. I think that’s where there’s still a lot of room for growth in being able to just kind of claim the whole package and not say what you haven’t gotten to yet. This is a bad generalization, but I think you hear all the time that if men are applying for a job and they have two of the five criteria, they still think they’re a perfect match for the job.
ELENA NICOLAIDIS: I spent two years in the Middle East in Qatar, and I went there with my male counterpart to set up the office there. We had equal roles, but everyone turned to him as the leader, and in the end, he got the managing director role because he was a male. Walking in with clients, they would just think I was his secretary. So that just made me very conscious of how I conduct myself, how I can still act like a woman but have some qualities that might relate better to men and get them to see me a little bit differently.
I’m glad I had that experience because I learned to be more assertive. I learned to negotiate better, to be a voice in the room when there’s 20 men and I’m the only woman. It was an incredible experience for me, and here, I’m finding that things are so much easier, and in our industry especially, there is so much support and so much mentorship with women. I really value that and hope that I can now do that with some of the employees that we’re bringing on to the team now.
PATTI VELLEK: I think it’s all about the confidence that we portray, and like Elena said, it’s what you bring to the table, how you speak, and how you engage with the people that you’re working with. I think that that brings a level of respect and the rest of it seems to fall into place.
MARTA CYHAN: I transitioned from the brand side over to the agency side, and one of the things that is apparent in this space is experiential has become a more strategic pillar in the marketplace than it ever was before. I remember 10 years ago when it was very tactical and very executional and not strategic, and I think that has changed because I think this is the space where women really come to life. On the client side, you’re dealing with a lot of female marketers.
DEB LEMON: I think we need more women creatives. Creative has been very traditionally male-oriented about the vision, about selling the idea. I think women are very, very creative, but we don’t allow ourselves to be in that lead role. So my account people insist that our account team, which is mostly female, be in the room for the creative meetings because they understand the client the best.
EM: What are some confidence boosters you use to get ready for the big meeting or the important pitch?
NICOLAIDIS: I do think body language is a big thing. Just the way that you sit, the way that you stand, the eye contact that you make around the table and making sure that you are looking at the men and the women. That’s been a big thing for me, especially with my experience in the Middle East.
WEINBERG: I always remember that when I go to meetings or do presentations. I think, “I’m just going to go in there and do the best that I absolutely can,” and at the end of the day, I may not get it right. I may not have the outcome that I want, but I walk away feeling so confident and feeling good about what I just did because I know I gave it my best and gave it my all.
MILLS: There have been times I’ve found myself in a pickle or nervous about a presentation I’m going to make and I’ll take 30 seconds to sit and think, “I’ll figure this out. I’ll figure this out. I’ll figure this out,” and as soon as I allow myself to think for 30 seconds, I always find not just one solution, but usually two or three creative ways to solve for it. I think sometimes we as women react in a panic because we don’t want somebody to see that we don’t know the answer or aren’t doing our best, but I think taking that time-out helps.
SELTZER: It’s not about being the loudest in the room. It’s about being the smartest and taking that time and really knowing your audience and knowing the material inside and out, and I think we all know that. I think sometimes we go into these rooms and question ourselves, but if you’re confident in the work that you’re doing, that’s your own confidence booster.
DAYNA GILCHRIST: I think it’s about what women can bring to the table that’s different. It’s not about having the louder voice, but instead listening to our clients, not trying to sell them immediately on something that they’re not even there to hear, but being able to really step back. I think we’re thoughtful. We are considerate. We take into consideration the long-lasting relationship or the partnership that will develop from that rather than immediately clouding out what they’re saying, thinking about the numbers and then throwing them an idea that had nothing to do with where they were. We’re great at creating that relationship.
MALONEY: Part of the reason I gained confidence is I had great mentors, who when I went into the room, afterwards said, “You did a great job,” or, “That’s a great point.” Women tend to be more complimentary of other people in the room, whether it’s during the meeting or after the meeting. I think it’s important for all of us to acknowledge when other women do great.
CYHAN: You need to argue and fight for your work. You need to be able to debate about it in a work setting. If you can defend and talk about your work in a setting where it’s within your own house, if you will, then you’re going to be able to do that with the client. Those uncomfortable conversations need to happen because you’re only going to get to better work through having them.
MILLS: I think it’s important to fail. I think it’s important to bomb. I think that so much traditional management, especially men’s management, has been bred in fear. I think you have to eliminate the fear and instead cultivate a respect for the process, versus fear and the “CYA” mission. If you’re covering your ass, you can’t see the forest for the trees because you’re so focused on not doing something wrong that you’re not doing something right in the process. So I think that the only way to build confidence is to have things fall to shit sometimes. Not to sound cliché, but it’s those moments that often beget the best work. That’s when the creativity really comes into play, and that’s where I think women have an advantage.
LINDLAND: We index way higher than our male counterparts in sincerity, authenticity and thoughtfulness, but with that, I once got told by a CEO of one of the companies I worked for, not currently, that I was being considered for a leadership role, but he wasn’t sure if he could give it to somebody so “sensitive.” It wasn’t like, “You’re a female.” It was, “Because you’re so sensitive.” What I learned is that I needed to be part of an almost educational play for my male counterparts to help them understand how powerful sensitivity is, especially in my role as a business developer. I can just tell by somebody’s stance whether they’re in the mood to buy or not. My sensitivity works in my best interest because I can read the room so much more quickly than somebody who is more thick-skinned.
VELLEK: I think we have to change the conversation because I’ve heard this so many times: Men are passionate, and women are emotional. We need to change the conversation to say, “I’m passionate and emotional.” It’s the language that we choose to use in certain situations.
LINDLAND: There’s a line in a new Rihanna “Four Five Seconds” song, that says, “All of my kindness is taken for weakness.” I think being kind and being nice is why I am in the place I am today, and it is not a weakness. It is actually a benefit that I bring to my organization and everybody I work with, and I think that we all have to embrace that.
WEINBERG: It makes you more invested, too. If you actually have a sensitivity and a kindness and care for the people you work with and everyone around you, you become more invested, and it makes you want to be more successful for those people on top of what you’re working for.
LEMON: That’s the conversation that’s been coming up so much between so many prominent women right now, and whether they’re comedians or they’re politicians or they’re executives in a marketing organization, it’s that “bossy” can mean something else from a woman. That it’s okay if we use our sensitivity or if we use our softer side.
MALONEY: I think there’s a fine balance between confidence and ego, and I think one of the benefits of being a woman is having that sensitivity and knowing when you’re crossing that line. It’s amazing how I’ve seen people in the industry say, “I want to sit down with the CEO.” From a new business standpoint, the CEO is not the one choosing the [agency]. So being a woman, we’re sensitive enough to say, “You know what? I don’t have to meet with the CEO. I’ll meet with the director. Let’s have a conversation, build a relationship.” I mean, it’s finding that balance, and I think the woman’s intuition is knowing how to walk in and read the room and say, “I don’t need to talk to the head honcho. Let’s cultivate a relationship with the real decision makers.”
CYHAN: Maybe this is a little bit of jadedness from corporate life, but I’ve also experienced and witnessed, unfortunately, women being harder on women than they are on their male peers or subordinates. Whether it’s team development or leadership development, I think that’s one of the things that was so apparent was that men will use shorthand, but they will always help each other out. They’ll go broker a deal over a beer, and all of a sudden things are happening, and I think women sometimes are overthinking, “Oh, do you think she’s trying to undermine me?” There’s almost like this cat fight mentality. I think that still exists, and I do think that’s something that we, as women, have to be committed to changing.
LEMON: I also think there’s a big difference between sponsoring and mentoring. The mentor is who you go to for advice, and the sponsor is somebody that’s going to help you in the organization that talks well about you when you’re not there. So they kind of help guide you through your years. A sponsor is somebody who’s going to say, “This person kicked ass for me and did this for me at all costs, and I want to make sure they get to the next space.” So finding somebody like that that’s going to help you with your career is tremendous.
LINDLAND: We’re recruiting a more diverse population of women, which I think is awesome. One of my counterparts is an outstandingly talented Head of Strategy female. We couldn’t be more opposite, and I love being in a meeting with her because she just stimulates me in a whole new way. That’s been really rewarding as we diversify so, too, does our population of women leaders.
MILLS: I’m finding a lot of interest among the women in our organization in digital and even applicants coming out of college, females who have studied digital as part of their discipline. That’s really encouraging to see because I think that a lot of our digital counterparts were traditionally male.
NICOLAIDIS: I’ve been finding that the women who are doing the best job are making sure that we work as an integrated agency. So they’re really good at bringing all the people to the table, making sure people are communicating, making sure we’re working as a team. So that’s been great to see.
CYHAN: Brands want their events amplified so that they ultimately reach more and more people, and that’s actually the sweet spot in what we do. I think there’s a greater need than ever before for great writers and people who are storytellers because people want to understand the brand story or the event story. That that is actually an ongoing opportunity. I don’t think we’re getting enough people who are great writers coming out of college.
JENNA BRIGHAM: Social media has made everything a lot more personal. No longer are we just thinking about going to an event and having that experience and walking away. You have that experience, and then it goes on Facebook or Twitter, and then where does it extend beyond that? It’s become more of a process rather than just that one moment where maybe they have a picture that they take with them, and they put it on the refrigerator. So that creates even more jobs.
HUGHES: Traditionally, experiential was that add-on piece, right? And then it became part of the mix. What we’re so excited to see is that we’re having more and more large clients come to us, and they want a campaign that’s rooted in experiential that has all the pieces to it, and it’s interesting because we’ve really shied away from being all things to all people. We have kind of our center of the wheel where we focus, but we’ll pull in partners to do the other pieces, and the idea that the experiential agency can actually lead the campaign versus an ad agency is probably our biggest area of growth right now. So I think it bodes well for more jobs and women. But again, with us driving strategy and all those things. It’s getting a different place at the table and in the industry.
SELTZER: From a new hire perspective, we’re not looking for people with just executional chops that can plan events or lead events. That’s part of it. But I want you to be a copywriter. I want you to sit at the table and be able to concept big, blue sky thinking and lead that campaign, and I do think that’s happening more and more where experiential is leading a lot of the strategy conversations and the campaign ideas, which you didn’t see 10 years ago.
MILLS: More and more brands are recognizing the female consumer as the one driving purchases in their house, and so we, as female marketers, more than ever, are positioned to really understand the target demo. We’re seeing briefs that are far more specialized, that are far more targeted. Where they want us to draw upon mommy bloggers and other niche influencers, and a lot of those have been female. So I think, for the first time ever, women are having a bit of a competitive edge just because we can relate to a consumer plight.
LEMON: You have to find people that are self-starters and very entrepreneurial that can figure this shit out on their own because if you want me to tell you how to do your job, you’re in the wrong place. And I think that’s the best thing about our industry—your event has never been done before. You are creating something from scratch, out of the blue sky and making it happen, and it’s so tangible. A lot of jobs aren’t like that, and that’s what got me when I started doing it 20-some years ago, and I think that’s the sell for our people in our industry that want to be more thoughtful, more entrepreneurial, more self-starters. If you want a job that’s going to be checking in and checking out, this is the wrong place.
VELLEK: The industry that we’re in has so many avenues of what you can bring to make a successful event, but it’s also about recognizing where your sweet spot is and not being afraid to step up and say, maybe you started in one direction, but you’re learning as you go through that that’s not the direction that you think you should be in. I think having that ability to speak up and say, “That’s where I belong,” and using your mentors, of course, to get you there is a really important part of making it into a career as opposed to a job.
LEMON: And also it’s a business need. We’re creating these amazing experiences for consumers, but there’s also this business side, as a woman, that we need to understand—where the money comes from and how much it costs to create an event for our clients.
MALONEY: Go in, not just once a year during review time, but throughout the year and say, “What am I succeeding at? What can I improve on? What areas do you see growth in me?” Because you have to ask for it.
WEINBERG: Welcome and encourage change. When you’re younger, you think you have to do the same thing, the same way because it works, and that’s the right way to do it. When I look back now, I wish I had been more open to changing things because now, change is rewarded in our organization and changing it up and being a louder voice and doing something different breeds success in our industry.
MALONEY: Don’t be afraid of making a mistake and owning your mistakes because you learn from them. When you’re starting out and you try so hard to be perfect all the time, you’re not taking those risks. You’re not embracing change. So try not being so afraid of falling down because one way you build confidence is when things are starting to take a downturn, and coming up with those creative solutions.
WEINBERG: This is very “after school special” of me to say, but this is your life. This is what you want it to be, and I think it took me a couple years into my career to really realize that I can shape my position within the company. I have the power to connect with the right people, to do the right things, and to figure out where I want to be within that company to get there. At the end of the day, we can do that, and I think, when I first started, I was very timid, and I was very passive, and it did take a couple years for me to truly understand that it’s not my boss who’s going to tell me where I’m going to go. It’s me, at the end of the day.
HUGHES: And just going off of that, I would tell people to be authentic and be who they are and not try and fit within a certain mold or a job description. When I have my one-on-ones with the people that I’m managing, I say, this is your certain strength so let’s play on that strength. We don’t have to tick off every single box on your job description. If you’re really interested in this, let’s create a role that feeds that.
BRIGHAM: We used to have an Executive Creative Director who used the word “ness” as in “kindness,” “greatness.” He said figure out your “ness” and really amplify it, and that would be my advice to my younger self. If I figured out that connecting with people and driving business is actually a gift, then I would’ve really jumped on it with everything that I had. I’ve always kind of done it, but it took me way too long to get to the point where I was like, “I love this.” I didn’t claim my “ness” early enough.
LEMON: I used to think that you had to be like a male in business. So I’d be really strict at work, and then we’d go out after work, and my team would say, “Oh my God, Deb, it’s like you’re a whole other person.” I was fun Debbie. I realized you don’t have to be somebody different at work than you are in your personal life. That fun personality and uniqueness about yourself, you have to let it show through and not try to be like somebody that you’re not because it’s not going to work for you.