Empowering Female Agency Leaders in the Marketing Industry

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Cori Kohlmeier never thought it would be difficult to secure a financial loan to take her marketing agency to the next stage of growth. 

When she started Advantage Marketing ten years ago, she found herself knocking on door after door, trying to secure a loan or access funds she thought would be readily available as a female entrepreneur. 

Cori Kohlmeier, Advantage Marketing headshot

Image: Cori Kohlmeier, President of Advantage Marketing

The perception is that as a minority and as a female, there's just money bags out on the street. A ‘just pull it off the tree’ kind of thing. 

That was not my experience. 

I received no after no after no. Even though I had a client portfolio with multimillion-dollar accounts and clients that had been in the business, in their industries for a very long time, I still received ‘no.’” 

Cori Kohlmeier, President & Founder, Advantage Marketing

This scenario might hit close to home if you're a woman at the top in a sector where men traditionally dominate.

Despite a proven track record, female marketing agency leaders are often still met with raised eyebrows, skeptical glances, or worse—dismissal. 

As International Women's Day on March 8th reminds us, it's a timely moment to spotlight these challenges and the larger goal for equality. The barriers that women face prove that there is a deeper, more ingrained bias that often slows or halts business progress. 

We're bringing to light the journeys of six female marketing agency leaders, detailing the challenges they've faced in the historically male-dominated marketing field. We'll also reveal how they successfully navigate these obstacles and the ways they’re working toward shifting the balance.

Let’s get started. 

Unique Challenges Female Agency Owners Face

With women holding 60% of jobs in the marketing industry, one would assume that there would be fewer hurdles to overcome. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. 

Let’s take a look at the most common challenges faced by female agency leaders today:

Networking Barriers

Networking is important in any industry of the business world, but the setup of traditional networking events is often alienating and exclusionary to female agency owners. Speaking panels are overwhelmingly male dominated (leading to the term “manels”), and out-of-office events still tend towards historically male-focused interests. 

Further, given that women perform an average of 50% more of the household duties than men, chances are after-work drinks and late-night foosball tournaments will clash with childcare-related tasks. 

The result? Missed opportunities for collaboration, knowledge exchange, client acquisition, agency growth–the list goes on. 

As we mentioned earlier, Cori Kohlmeier was having a difficult time getting her agency to the growth she wanted without financial help. Always keen to work with those within her network, that’s exactly where she looked for guidance. 

It wasn't until I reached out to my business advisor with the KSBDC, who fortunately had a network of people who happened to be women who were in the lending field, and it wasn't just a walk in the park. 

I still had to explain what I was trying to do, my vision, and my goal. It wasn't until then that they understood where I was going and what I was trying to do, and then I was able to secure those funds. 

Cori Kohlmeier, President, Advantage Marketing 

Competition vs. Collaboration

While Cori discovered the benefits of tapping into her network of female colleagues, other agency owners have struggled to find the same support.

Victoria “Vix” Reitano, Fractional CMO of Agency 6B, has experienced an unspoken expectation that there can only be one female leader who rises to the top. This often results in competition overshadowing collaboration.

Vix Reitano - Agency 6B

Image: Victoria "Vix" Reitano, Fractional CMO of Agency 6B

In her opinion, it would be ideal if a woman took it as a responsibility to uplift other female business owners whenever the opportunity arises.

One thing that I find most frustrating about being a female in a traditionally male-dominated industry is that other females don't often recommend women. 

While I believe that you should always recommend the right person for the job, I think that women have a responsibility to go a little bit outside of the box to try to find other females to recommend and highlight as much as we possibly can. Just pull up an extra seat at the table when you have a space and a voice. Help other women find their space in the same place.

Victoria “Vix” Reitano, Fractional CMO, Agency 6B

Jessica Tappana, Owner of Simplified SEO Consulting, shares her perspective on the competitive nature of the marketing industry and how she deals with it.

Jessica Tappana Owner Simplified SEO Consulting Headshot

Image: Jessica Tappana, Owner, Simplified SEO Consulting.

One of the things that really frustrates me is the distinct competitiveness that comes in traditionally male-dominated fields and this tendency of people to almost feel like they have to put others down in order to get ahead and criticize others. And that's just something I don't personally tolerate. 

Jessica Tappana, Owner, Simplified SEO Consulting

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Tokenism vs. Skilled Candidates 

Tokenism is the practice of making only minimal effort at inclusivity simply to avoid criticism. It leads to a superficial representation that fails to address or leverage the full potential of diversity. 

Female employees and leaders, especially those from diverse backgrounds or ethnicities, often face the challenge of being seen as mere figures to meet diversity quotas rather than valued for their unique perspectives and skills. This environment hinders professional growth and perpetuates a cycle of inequality within the industry.

Karen Schenk, Owner & CEO of Iconium Media has faced this challenge by prioritizing pragmatic considerations while evaluating candidates to ensure the right decisions are made.

Karen Schenk, Owner & CEO, Iconium Media

Image: Karen Schenk, Owner & CEO of Iconium Media.

In this industry, I'm striving to embrace diversity, but often find that it can be challenging for the best applicant to represent diversity. It's key that we hire the best person for the role. 

Karen Schenk, Owner & CEO, Iconium Media

Imposter Syndrome 

Imposter syndrome is when an otherwise accomplished person doubts their accomplishments and fears being exposed as a "fraud.” It often stems from deep-rooted insecurities rather than from challenges posed by the outside world, impacting the ability to make decisions and lead effectively. 

Imposter syndrome can impact any marketing agency owner, but it particularly affects women (an alarming 75% of female executives, to be exact) who face additional pressures and expectations in the industry.

The inner dialogue that Jessica Tappana experiences is whether or not she embodies the persona of a leader.

My background is not in leadership. My degree is not in leadership. I had a ton of Imposter Syndrome trying to lead this group and trying to figure out, ‘Who am I as a leader? What does that look like? Can I even be a leader?’

Jessica Tappana, Owner, Simplified SEO Consulting

Motherhood and Societal Expectations

Another unique set of challenges for female agency leaders involves motherhood and societal expectations. 

Jessica Tappana highlights the additional hurdles of juggling the demands of leadership with the responsibilities of parenthood. 

One of the biggest challenges that I've faced as a female business owner is that people expect me to be at home. They expect my husband to be the breadwinner. So it's really hard when I'm the one that needs to be here working. 

I often find myself needing to balance several aspects of my life. I’m the primary one that my kid’s teachers want to contact about issues at school, the one that people expect to be a doctor's appointment, and on top of that, also being the primary support for all of the employees that I have and all that entails. 

The truth is, as a mother, I want to be the one who's intimately involved in everything that my children do. But I also need to do a good job at work. So finding that balance and then feeling like I have to justify anything that I do have to miss at home is really difficult. I don't think that's something that male business owners have to do. 

If a man asks their wife to take time off to take care of a sick kid, they don't necessarily have to justify that. People kind of expect that the woman is taking off. Whereas as a female business owner, if I need my husband to take off and care for a sick kid, I do usually feel the need to justify it, or somebody might make a comment about it. So that's definitely a struggle. 

Jessica Tappana, Owner, Simplified SEO Consulting

Benefits Female Agency Owners Bring to the Table

Though women face many distinct gender-related challenges on the journey to scaling a marketing agency, they also bring many undeniable advantages. 

Let’s take a look at the top 4 benefits female agency leaders uniquely bring to the table: 

1. Diverse Perspectives

Women bring different viewpoints to problem-solving and creative processes, enriching the quality of work. Diverse perspectives highlight the importance of female business owners recommending each other for mutual growth. 

Women also make up a significant percentage of the consumer base–a whopping 70-80% of all consumer purchasing. A female-led agency may have a better understanding of female-centric markets.

Yanira M. Castro, CEO, Humanity Communications Collective explains why is so important to hire a “mix of people” at your marketing agency.

Yanira M. Castro, CEO, Humanity Communications Collective

Image: Yanira M. Castro, CEO, Humanity Communications Collective.

It’s not only about finding the right people but ensuring we have the right mix of people. We then support their individual needs while staying focused on the company as a whole. When building a company, you don't want to hire all the same types of people. Just like in a recipe, you need different ingredients to make a dish shine.

Yanira M. Castro, CEO, Humanity Communications Collective

2. Multitasking Abilities 

Women are skilled in juggling multiple responsibilities. As we mentioned earlier, given that women perform the lion’s share of the household labor, nary a moment goes by when female agency leaders aren’t carrying the burden of several responsibilities at once.

Multitasking helps manage multiple projects, teams, and client communications simultaneously, ensuring no aspect of the business is neglected. 

As business owners, women have this ability to multitask. That's amazing. Women, since the beginning of time, have had to multitask, and we're used to doing ten things at once. 

When it comes to owning a business, it's not uncommon that I have five screens up at once, and I'm sending a text message to somebody. That ability to multitask that I use in my everyday life has been really valuable in achieving the success I have in my business. 

Jessica Tappana, Owner, Simplified SEO Consulting

3. Empowering Employees

When employees feel empowered, an environment of trust is built that encourages open communication. This approach also provides opportunities for professional growth and development for employees–all aspects that contribute to a sustainable business.

Having a female leadership team has really enabled us to build a culture where people feel cared for. That is really valuable for building a team that will work hard for our business, and for our clients. It helps our team get through hard days when maybe our clients aren't always super appreciative, or they have a rough day. 

Our employees know that they can come to us as a leadership team and that we truly care. It's not just something we're saying, but that we actually have a leadership team that will be there to support them.

Jessica Tappana, Owner, Simplified SEO Consulting

What it all comes down to for Cori Kohlmeier, is what type of leader you want to be at your marketing agency. 

You have to want to be a leader, and you have to educate yourself on the type of leader that you want to be. 

Do you want to be a dictator? Do you want to lead by example? I personally try to focus on leading by example. When I first started the agency, there was a time when I was working on billing and invoicing for clients. I was working on a co-op. I was working on social media campaigns, constant contact campaigns, the media buying itself, sending out orders, and sending out traffic. 

There hasn't been anything within the agency side that I haven't done or touched or worked on. There was even a time when I would clean the floors and the bathrooms in anticipation of people coming into the office because we didn't have the money to pay for someone to come in and clean for us. 

I don't ask anyone to do that, but those are things I'm willing to do. I think when your team sees that you're willing to put in that effort, to learn something or to teach somebody something, or take the time to share your knowledge with them, it really helps with that buy-in. That this is a good team, she believes in me, and I want to be the strongest person I can within the business and help the business. 

Cori Kohlmeier, President, Advantage Marketing 

4. Empathy in Leadership

Empathy leads to a more positive workplace culture and effective communication with clients and employees. The benefits are endless, from better employee morale to productivity. 

When Vix Reitano thought about the strengths she brings as a woman, she said it was her “favorite question.” She immediately mentioned empathy as her greatest strength. 

I have always considered the human behind the brand, whether that is the founder, the team, my team, myself, or even the consumer. I look at it from a human angle, and I think that that is something that women bring to the table. Not to say that men are not empathetic or can't pump up their EQ, but women come from a place of genuine desire to understand and empathize, and that is our superpower.

Victoria “Vix” Reitano, Fractional CMO, Agency 6B

Kim Walker, Co-owner of Shop Marketing Pros, also brings her caring, nurturing qualities into her leadership style. 

Kim Walker, Co-Owner, Shop Marketing Pros

Image: Kim Walker, Co-owner of Shop Marketing Pros.

As a female agency owner, I believe that while we were all created equal, we all bring our own set of strengths, skills, and experiences. 

Women tend to be more emotional, and I don't mean that in a negative way. We're born and designed with what I believe to be a higher level of emotional intelligence, empathy, and compassion. It's like a mothering instinct baked right into us. In my agency, I bring all of that into how I care for my team and our clients, from hiring to mentoring to retaining our team and even firing.

Kim Walker, Co-owner, Shop Marketing Pros

Solutions and Strategies for Inclusive Agencies in 2024

So, how do business owners learn to lean into what makes us different and become more inclusive going forward? 

It’s important to share personal experiences and perspectives. But we can’t stop there. We also need practical solutions and strategies to implement a more diverse and inclusive culture within a marketing team.

Here are a few strategies to help you get started: 

Mentoring and Sponsorship

Finding a mentor offers invaluable advice and opens doors that help scale a marketing agency. 

Kim Walker has had many positive experiences with this approach. She had the opportunity to work with business mentors, has been a part of marketing groups, and also started a Facebook marketing group with 1.2K members to help clients. 

Kim explains the impact of surrounding yourself with people who contribute to personal and professional development:

I choose to surround myself with those who make me better, encourage, inspire, and elevate. 

Kim Walker, Co-owner, Shop Marketing Pros

Whether you’re starting or joining a group, reaching out to a mentor is another great way to gain business perspective.

Vallene Kailiburn, Chief People Officer of OTM, has relied on a mentor during times when she felt isolated in her leadership challenges.

Vallene Kailiburn, Chief People Officer of OTM

Image: Vallene Kailiburn, Chief People Officer of OTM

Having a mentor has been a transformative experience for me. I firmly believe that having a mentor, especially someone with decades of experience beyond my own, is essential for gaining diverse perspectives in one's career. This guidance has been instrumental in shaping my professional journey. 

My mentorship has not only made me a better professional but also a more effective coach to others. Being a business owner can be isolating, like being on an island. During challenging times, having a mentor who understands the intricacies of such a role is immensely comforting.

Vallene Kailburn, Chief People Officer, OTM

Building a Supportive Culture

Building a company culture that supports diversity and inclusion starts with cultivating an environment where every employee feels valued and understood. 

It involves creating opportunities for all employees to share their experiences and contribute their unique perspectives. This only enhances the agency’s collective knowledge and creativity. 

It all starts with leaders. They set an example, actively listen, and provide the resources necessary for everyone to thrive and achieve their potential.

Cori Kohlmeier emphasizes the importance of mentoring and support within the workplace and how it’s left a lasting impact on her: 

I like to try to bestow some of my failures and some of my successes onto others. Male, female, whichever people in our office–I really want them to learn, and understand how to grow and be the best version of themselves. When I see that in someone and I know that they don't see it, I like to tell them, ‘Hey, you know, you're pretty amazing, right? You know what you're talking about, and you're totally capable, so just do it.’

I think that's important, to have leaders that do that. I was lucky. I had some people like that early on in my career, and I still am meeting those people.

Cori Kohlmeier, President, Advantage Marketing 

Connecting With Community 

Connecting with community is huge for marketing agency growth. It helps agency owners become more inclusive and aware of different perspectives, including those of females or minorities, that results in more inspiration. Not to mention, it helps everyone feel heard, valued, and seen. 

Networking with like-minded business people regularly in a mastermind group has been extremely helpful for Jessica Tappana. 

Every single week, I meet with a group with a mastermind group, that is four business owners. Two of us are female, and two are male. We all own two businesses that are serving the therapist industry. That community has been instrumental in my success and in helping me see things from multiple angles and problem solve when things come up. 

It also helps me remember that I'm not so alone in business ownership. I think it's really important that regardless of our gender or experience or what our niche is–that we are able to get and hear diverse opinions and diverse viewpoints on various things when it comes to doing business. 

Having that mastermind community is one of the most valuable things that I put in place for myself as a business owner.

Jessica Tappana, Owner, Simplified SEO Consulting 

Cori Kohlmeier has also seen the benefits of nurturing her relationships with everyone–whether they’re from the past or someone she’s just met. 

My business partner, Amy, and I purchased an agency seven years ago. I still talk to the lady that we purchased the agency from on a weekly basis. 

Sometimes it's just about the kids and dogs, and sometimes it's about business and work. She provides a little bit of guidance for me that's really important.

Business owners should nurture relationships, no matter how you get them, no matter who they are, and take care of them in the long run. It will benefit you on a personal and on a business level.

Cori Kolhmeier, President, Advantage Marketing 

Summary and Key Takeaways

Women are not optional in this industry; they're needed. The challenges they face, steep as they may be, are all opportunities to be turned into drivers for change. 

As we’ve heard from the examples of these 6 agency owners, women bring many benefits to the table. But one thing’s for certain, it’s not our differences that make us stand out. As Cori Kohlmeier says, it’s the work we put in that makes us successful, no matter what our gender is:

The thing that probably frustrates me the most are the questions about how I’m a female within a male-oriented industry. 

I don't see myself as, ‘Woe is me. I'm this little female trying to deal with all these men.’

I see it as I'm an entrepreneur. I am trying to scale my business. I'm trying to secure the right type of clients. I'm trying to keep all the balls juggled in the air at the same time, and I'm trying to do it at the very top of my game. I expect excellence. I expect to be the best, and that's what I expect from my people. 

I don't feel like I haven't been successful or haven't had enough success because I'm a female. I feel like you've got to earn it, you've got to put in the work, you've got to put in the time. And that's what I've done, and that's what I'll continue to do. Male or female. Doesn't really matter to me. I'm here to work, and I'm here to be the best.

Cori Kohlmeier, President, Advantage Marketing 

These women are building the groundwork for a more balanced and inclusive industry. Share this post with the leaders who inspire you the most!  

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Written by

Richelle Peace

Richelle Peace is a joyful writer with a degree in Journalism. She loves writing web content, blogs, and social media posts. Whatever the topic, she’s fascinated by learning and sharing.

Read more posts by Richelle Peace ›

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