IBM's Michelle Peluso and the ARF's Scott McDonald on Diversity

By Charlene Weisler WomenAdvancing Archives

On September 19 the ARF hosted its "Great Mind Awards" and honored Michelle Peluso, Chief Marketing Officer of IBM.  Peluso's award should not be a surprise to those who are familiar with her many achievements in marketing.  

Peluso (pictured at top) is a believer in challenging the advertising business to step up diversity and female representation, explaining that encouraging diversity, especially in the CMO ranks, will lead to more vitality in the industry moving forward.  But there are challenges that need to be addressed.  "There seems to be very high and terrific representation (of women) in their early career but there's a clear drop off in representation as you get to mid-career and operational levels and there needs to be something done about this to increase representation," she declared.

Scott McDonald, CEO of ARF, finds "the work/life profile of the entire population is far more heterogeneous than in the past," but noted that "marketers and advertisers need diverse perspectives to come to terms with these invigorating complexities and to create innovative ways of communicating with their markets."

I recently sat down with Peluso and McDonald (pictured below) to discuss these concerns and others.

Charlene Weisler:  What is impact of the dearth of women in C-Suite management?

Michelle Peluso:  Plain and simple, it's a huge missed opportunity in terms of what we know and studies tell us to be true -- the tremendous benefit that diversity brings to problem solving, innovation and understanding consumer behavior.  So if there's an absence of female representation in the C-Suite, that's doing a disservice to the company and to society.

Weisler:  Scott, why, more than ever, is innovative thinking from a range of different people required in the ad industry?

Scott McDonald:  The population is getting more diverse across all dimensions.  Longer life expectancy means that we have more generations alive at one time than ever before and research indicates that generations vary more on many behaviors and attitudes than in the past.  A "minority majority" is expected soon in many of our largest states.  Women continue to enter the workforce and move into sectors that previously had been male-dominated.  Delayed marriages and recombinant families mean that we now sort ourselves into a range of different lifestyles across our long life courses.

Weisler:  How can more women be prepared, nurtured and helped to advance up the corporate ladder?

Peluso:  Unlike 20 years ago, with the exception of some areas of IT, you see equal participation of women in business, but then you see things start to drop off around mid-career women.  We need to make sure these women have the flexibility, the sponsorship and mentoring, and the opportunities to propel forward.  We need to make sure there’s thoughtfulness put in place and that we are shepherding their success.

Weisler:  Scott, why is highlighting the contributions of someone like Michelle critical for encouraging diversity in the CMO ranks?

McDonald:  It used to be that CMOs oversaw ad budgets and came up with ideas for marketing campaigns.  Increasingly, they now manage complex CRM databases and data management platforms, envision and execute events, forge partnerships and leverage new technologies.  Many of these newer data-intensive functions have historically been skewed toward males -- so it was a signal moment when IBM, a large tech company, named Michelle to be its first corporate-wide CMO.  Her background spans the space from classical liberal arts (philosophy, politics, economics) to consumer-centric digital marketing (Gilt Group, Citi) to technology development (Technology Crossover Ventures).  Her appointment should serve as an example to companies trying to fill equally difficult and demanding CMO positions.

Weisler:  Michelle, how has your career path contributed to your corporate ascent?

Peluso:  I think being willing to take risks and traverse industries -- to go from small companies to large companies -- and not letting myself remain in a comfort zone, has really informed my career.  My network of thought partners have all shaped how I think about the world and have brought me a diversity of learning that I could not have experienced otherwise.

Weisler:  Scott, how is the advancement of women important to the vitality of the industry moving forward?

McDonald:  The days are long past when a couple of white guys could get together and come up with the best marketing ideas to bring to this wonderfully diverse American marketplace.  Let’s take a recent example from politics.  Was it a good idea for Senate Republicans to appoint 13 white men to write their party's version of the health care reform bill this summer?  Might that draft have been improved by a bit more diversity?  To me, the question answers itself. 

Weisler:  Michelle, who were some of your mentors, and how did they help you?

Peluso:  I've found that mentors are everywhere.  If you have that mindset, people all around you are doing things you can learn from.  Sandy Moose, whotook me under her wing when I was at BCG, and Citigroup's Manuel Medina Mora both taught me a lot.

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