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To celebrate International Women’s Day, we take a look at some of advertising’s most impressive and successful women, whose ideas and skills had such serious cut-through they deserve to be highlighted for the difference their contribution to the industry made.


Where it all began

What better place to start than the beginning? That means casting back to the late 19th century – 1867 to be precise – when US-German immigrant MATHILDE C. WEIL began her career in advertising. Those early days were the start of something truly significant in the ad world, leading as they did to Weil establishing her very own company in New York – the M.C. Weil Agency – in 1880 (some 40 years before American women even got the vote, don’t forget, and just two decades after the Civil War). While James Walter Thompson is often credited with opening the first ever ad agency, the fact is that Weil got there years before him. Perhaps it’s time to rewrite that little bit of history?


A splash of sauce

We can’t venture any further without doffing our hats to the woman who discovered the motto by which advertising has abided ever since – sex sells. HELEN LANSDOWNE RESOR broke new ground when she worked out that a little titillation goes a long way to getting inside people’s heads – man or woman. Her ‘A skin you love to touch’ ad for Woodbury’s facial soap in 1917 caused more than a ripple of scandal with its nod to sensuality. It’s also thought to be the pioneer of editorial-style advertising, with its feature article looks and long(er)-form copy. The minx.


Real haircut-through

This list certainly wouldn’t be complete without SHIRLEY POLYKOFF, the genius behind the groundbreaking Clairol hair dye campaign, ‘Does she… or doesn’t she?’ in the late 1950s. The significance of this tagline (and its subheading, ‘Hair color so natural only her hairdresser knows for sure’) cannot be overstated. The suggestion that a woman could dye her hair (seen as terribly vulgar and unladylike at the time) and get away with it because no one would be able to tell that she had, sent a shockwave through salons everywhere – and women rushing to the shops.


A beaming light

Stepping deftly into the modern era – and definitely standing on her own two feet, with no mention of her highly successful creative husband (Dave Trott) necessary – is the hugely talented Singapore-born British art director CATHY HENG. Described by renowned photographer Graham Ford as one of the best art directors he’d ever worked with, it’s fair to say Heng is an ‘ideas [wo]man’. Among her enormous collection of accolades is reaching Campaign’s Top 100 Hall of Fame for her utterly brilliant ‘Shaken. Not stirred’ work for BMW. Campaign reports that for Heng, focusing on the idea itself is imperative. “Always get to that amazing idea first, then everything else follows. The rest is easy.”


Making history

Perhaps one of the most recognisable (and arguably the most meaningful) slogans in the world came from the brain of another Brit – copywriter MARY WEAR. ‘Make Poverty History’ was a creative collaboration between Wear and her creative director who, on seeing her list of potential lines to meet Richard Curtis’s rather dramatic brief, simply crossed one word out: Let’s Make Poverty History. The succinct phrase packed the necessary punch, and the subsequent, highly ambitious campaign to persuade rich nations to work a hell of a lot harder to eradicate poverty attracted eyeballs worldwide. Wear’s portfolio is filled with many other successes, but this one’s quite the career highlight.


An Aussie hero

A list like this wouldn’t be complete without an Australian contribution, and who better to wave that flag than JANE CARO? Now known mostly for her work as a highly successful public speaker, broadcaster and Sydney Morning Herald columnist, Caro’s career began as an ad copywriter. Her brilliant work subverting the stereotypes so entrenched in washing powder commercials (a young man, of all things, washed out lipstick stains in the Drive detergent ads she co-wrote with Jane Evans at JWT!) led to a slew of prestigious international awards – and catapulted her onto the national stage. The rest, of course, is history.

Angela Young

© Six Black Pens 2024