One Agency's Quest To Transcend Its #MeToo Moment

For years, the Martin Agency, part of Interpublic Group, was a thriving agency. It was known for its iconic work for GEICO, Virginia Tourism and other clients. It also had a reputation as a collegial place where employees were treated like family.

Then a little over a year ago, the agency ran smack into its #MeToo moment as multiple allegations of sex harassment were leveled against its longtime Chief Creative Officer Joe Alexander (who denied wrongdoing). Alexander was dismissed and both the CEO (Matt Williams) and the president were soon gone. 

Morale took a hit as staffers came to understand the gravity of the allegations, which apparently went unaddressed for many years by the agency's top management.

Interpublic brought in Kristen Cavallo as the new CEO and the first female CEO at the agency.



She’s spent the last year taking steps to make the agency’s culture more diverse and gender-balanced, determined the shop not be defined by its #MeToo encounter. The bigger issue, she stresses, is that change should be “about progress,” and not just tagging bad behavior.

Changes at the agency, she believes, have provided an energizing morale boost. Staffing levels are about the same, but output has increased. Revenues are up double-digits, no doubt helped by wins like Buffalo Wings and UPS.

Cavallo joined from MullenLowe Group, where she had been U.S. Chief Strategy and Growth Officer. She also had the advantage of having worked at Martin Agency during an earlier tour and likely had a better sense of how to improve things at the agency without jettisoning elements that were working.

One of her first moves was to promote Karen Costello to CCO, the first female to hold the position at the agency.

She created a new department called Talent & Culture and appointed Carmina Drummond to run it as chief culture officer. She’s also made moves to broaden the agency’s culture beyond gender, for example by appointing Danny Robinson to the post of chief client officer. He’s the first African American on the agency’s executive committee.

Cavallo notes those key leadership moves all drew on talent that was already in-house. While the industry often laments the lack of a talent pipeline, she doesn’t buy it. “Many times a pipeline becomes an excuse for why we don’t make changes, and it’s a flawed excuse,” she says.

Changing a culture doesn’t happen overnight or after a single meeting with the troops, Cavallo says. It develops “in a thousand small acts that occur every day” over time.

And she’s also helped advance the culture at Martin by closing the pay gap for men and women. She brought in a specialist to do a pay analysis. In some case,s men as well as women, were being underpaid for the work they were doing. Those shortfalls were rectified. (Pay cuts weren’t part of the solution.)

The agency also instituted a paternity leave policy so women and men are both given time off.

The leadership team (vice presidents and up) is now balanced with an equal split between men and women. The agency’s executive committee is more balanced with four of nine members now being women.

As for the impact on creative work, she points to the agency’s Land O’Lakes SHE-I-O campaign which features a modern twist (and rewrite) on one of the most memorable songs about farming with females at the forefront. It celebrates inclusion and champions women and helped the agency recognize the valuable role of women in farming.

As for clients, not one left as a result of the scandal. Several offered useful advice, Cavallo says, including those who advised to “not waste a good crisis” but rather use it to “lean forward into change.”

Cavallo is acutely aware that gender played a role in her being handed the reins at Martin Agency. Failure is not an option, she insists. If she fails, it would be perceived as a setback for women in the industry. And she’s determined to help pave the way for future candidates to get the job when crisis isn’t part of the equation.


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