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Shirley Leung

Top of Boston’s ad world a male bastion no longer

Mullen Boston president Kristen Cavallo shattered the usual path to power.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

If “Mad Men” were set in Boston in 2014, Peggy Olson, not Don Draper, would be the boss.

With the promotion of Kristen Cavallo to president of Mullen Boston last month, women now run the four biggest advertising firms in town. It caps a whirlwind 12 months of female dominance during which Barbara Goose became the local head of DigitasLBi, Karen Kaplan the chief executive and chairman of Hill Holliday, and Pam Hamlin, the global president of Arnold Worldwide.

Together they oversee thousands of employees, hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, and the marketing of household brands from Dunkin’ Donuts to JetBlue to Progressive Insurance.


Even Draper and the boys would clink their martini glasses to that.

It’s important to point out that none of these women — or the men who put them there — believe they’re in the corner office because it suddenly became trendy to have chicks in charge. These women, just like the guys before them, made it on talent, hard work, and a proven ability to make a lot of money for their employers.

“I tell women to try not to think about being a woman, just think about doing the best job they can,” said Goose, 44, sitting in her 17th-floor corner office overlooking downtown Boston.

Goose said she has made sure she’s included in the boys club too.

“Other than following men into the men’s room, I try to be part of every conversation possible,” she said.

But women historically have been treated differently in the workplace — especially in the male-dominated advertising world. The changes that make it possible for them to win top jobs came about only recently. It wasn’t that long ago when working women were made to feel like female characters on “Mad Men,” the AMC television series about a 1960s-era New York advertising agency that begins its final season April 13.


When Goose worked at a consulting firm two decades ago, the employee handbook included a dress code for women — no loud colors and skirts couldn’t go more than three inches above the knee.

Kaplan, 54, who worked her way up from receptionist to managing close to 1,000 employees at Hill Holliday today, often talks about how women of her generation didn’t put photos of their kids on their desks. They feared it would make them seem less devoted to the job.

“That would be the excuse that would take you out of the running for something,” she said.

How long ago was that? The early ’90s, though it might as well been the 1890s.

Then along came Cavallo at Mullen to shatter the notion of any traditional path to power — man or woman. Four years ago, Cavallo was a senior vice president at The Martin Agency in Richmond, and Mullen wanted to make her its chief strategy officer. She turned down the offer because it would have meant uprooting her family. She wanted her son, a freshman at the time, to finish high school in the same one where he started. Her reasoning was simple: “I’ve got one shot to raise a good child. There will be other jobs.”

Three months later, Mullen made it onto Fast Company magazine’s 2011 list of “Most Innovative” companies. But Mullen CEO Alex Leikikh wasn’t feeling worthy of the honor, given how the firm handled Cavallo. He called her back to say the job was still hers — just come up with a schedule that would keep her corporate responsibilities from overwhelming family obligations.


“Surely, we have to find a way to make this work in a modern way,” recalled Leikikh.

So Cavallo asked for what she wanted: to work three days in Boston, two days from home in Richmond.

Done and done.

Three years later, keeping the same schedule, Cavallo was promoted to president of its flagship Boston office after increasing Mullen’s business 60 percent and the number of employees by 45 percent to 450.

Every company in Boston — no, make that in America — please take note.

She still has one more year of shuttling back and forth between Massachusetts and Virginia. Her son, Matt, will graduate from high school next year.

“It didn’t occur to me that the rules can be rewritten,” said Cavallo, 45, sitting on a white leather couch in her Boston office. “Now I will always try to rewrite the rules.”

The rise of women in Boston’s advertising world comes as a generation of agency founders and giants retire — many of whom served as mentors to the current crop of female bosses.

Fran Kelly, former CEO of Arnold, first met Pam Hamlin in 1987 when he was at another shop and looking for someone to help manage the Digital Equipment Corp. account. Hamlin was the only woman among the candidates and the one with the least technology experience. But she was the one. Kelly said he quickly saw her potential, but he also needed to step up. “It has not always been easy to manage someone like Pam,” he said. “It is work to mentor someone.”


But it was worth it. “Pam is the best account manager I have worked with,” said Kelly, who kept hiring her away to whatever agency he landed at over the years.

Hamlin, who has been at Arnold going on 16 years, was named head of the Boston office in 2006 and global president — overseeing 12 offices — in December. Her secret? “I’ve stayed with it, and I really, really care,” said Hamlin, 49.

Jack Connors, a real life “Mad Men” type who helped start Hill Holliday in 1968, handpicked Kaplan three decades ago after rejecting 40 applicants to be his receptionist. It’s a job she took seriously after he explained she would “now be the face and voice of Hill Holliday.”

More than perhaps she would ever realize. Kaplan, the long-reigning queen of local advertising, has since worked in nearly every department at the agency, rising through the ranks of account management.

So what about the next generation of female leaders? They’ve got us covered. At Hill Holliday, half the executive team members are women; so are nearly half of the vice presidents. At DigitasLBi nationally, half of the managing directors are women and 30 percent at the senior vice president level or higher are women. At Arnold, nearly a quarter of the women hold leadership positions in the United States, and at Mullen, more than half a dozen women are senior vice presidents and 25 are vice presidents.


Yet there is one area in which women are poorly represented in advertising — the creative side. Yes, the people who come up with the ads. Nationally, only 3 percent of creative directors are female. Women control the purse strings in the household, but many feel misunderstood by marketers.

The era of “ad women” may be upon us, but more can be done — like making beer ads that treat women with respect.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @leung.