The journey to “Advertising Woman of the Year”

McgarryBowen president Laurel Flatt

No doubt, Laurel Flatt earned the “Advertising Woman of the Year” title that the Chicago Advertising Federation bestowed upon her last week.

Since becoming president of Chicago’s McGarryBowen two years ago, she has helped the mid-sized agency get a spot on the Chicago Tribune’s “Best Places to Work” list and receive recognition as Advertising Age’s “Comeback Agency of the Year.”

Flatt credits many people for the success.

Her predecessor, Tim Scott, “did a great job.” Her partner, chief strategy officer Jamie Shuttleworth, helps keep the leadership team strong. The departmental supervisors “run their businesses amazingly well.” And the positive work environment “goes way beyond me.”

“I was tremendously lucky,” she concludes. “I have had wonderful opportunities.”

The modest explanation reveals a fundamental truth that she has learned about women in the industry.

“The capabilities are not a question,” she says. “You have to give people opportunities and encourage them that, yeah, you can do this.”

Flatt remembers the people who gave her a chance all the way back to the job she took fresh out of Michigan University, advertising coordinator for Chicago-based menswear manufacturer Hartmarx.

“My first boss was a wonderful woman by the name of Polly Heavenrich, who I’ll never forget,” she says.

It was the beginning of a career that would lead to some of the best agencies in the business, including Leo Burnett, Fallon, and Energy BBDO.

Although she says that gender never prevented her from moving up — Burnett has been a bastion of female leadership for decades and her list of mentors includes both male and female supervisors — she does “acknowledge that there are some barriers.”

For Flatt, that meant understanding that a woman like her could lead a place like McGarryBowen. She had never really considered the possibility until the agency asked her to take over.

“When I was offered the job as president, I was very happy raising my ten-year-old son and running the Disney and Rustoleoum accounts,” she remembers.

“But Jennifer Zimmerman, our chief strategy officer, and Marty (Martha) Muller, my senior Disney client, gave me some of the best of advice I ever received,” she continues. “Both of them said ‘you can do this, you need to do this, you have to do this.’”

Upon learning about their confidence in her, she “became really excited about the responsibility.”

The full impact of their encouragement became obvious months later. While speaking to a group of account people at a training session, someone asked, “Did you always want to be president of an agency?”

“I should have said yes,” she recalls. “But I answered no.”

The exchange reminds her of an old adage that can never be repeated enough.

“It sounds cliché, but it’s true,” she says. “Women can do whatever they want.”

Flatt will be officially honored during the CAF “Advertising Woman of the Year” reception and luncheon at the Radisson Blu on Tuesday, October 10, 2017. For additional information, click here.