Ansira Chief Daina Middleton On Being A Female CEO: 'It’s Not About A Paycheck, But Being In A Position To Make Change'

This is the latest installment in "PII," a series featuring the talent that makes the wheels turn in our data-driven advertising world. 

Daina Middleton rose to the top at a time when there weren’t many female leaders in marketing.

Before her current role as CEO of CRM agency Ansira, Middleton spent 16 years working across marketing disciplines at Hewlett-Packard. She then went on to head social, data and analytics at digital agency Moxie before becoming CEO at Publicis’ Performics. She also briefly ran B2B marketing at Twitter and was a CEO coach at San Francisco-based PE firm Gryphon Investors.

Middleton is the author of two books, “Marketing in the Participation Age” and “Grace Meets Grit.” The latter explores being a female leader in the marketing and advertising industry.

It hasn’t always been easy, and lessons in resilience were tantamount to her success.

“It’s upon you to become astute at recognizing the most subtle signals and following up, and to not allow others’ opinions, or an adverse environment, [to] stop you,” she said.

She spoke with AdExchanger.

AdExchanger: How did you get interested in marketing?

DAINA MIDDLETON: I started in journalism, working at USA Today in 1985. I saw how as a journalist you could have a cynical view of the world, and I didn’t want to be that person.

I moved into PR, working for US West Communications, which became Qwest. Through that I became acquainted with executives at HP. I went in on the PR side, but wore a number of caps, from branding to advertising to sales and promotion. They reorganized about every two years, so I got to try something different. It was pivotal to my ability to grow and succeed.

Why did you leave? 

It was a big leap for me. Having been somewhere for 16 years, I almost felt like a traitor to leave. But I had some ideas I felt like testing elsewhere.

When I moved to Moxie, I found myself helping drive the strategy of the company. I was there 18 months when Publicis acquired Performics, and they tapped me on the shoulder for the CEO role. I jumped at the opportunity. I loved that more than any other role I’ve ever had in my career.

What about it did you love?

The complexity. You’re managing a million different things and looking at how they interconnect. That’s what I love about my job today. I’m doing stuff on the engineering and product side, on the client and delivery side, and I’m also thinking about culture.

Did you always want to be a CEO?

Growing up I didn’t have those aspirations. But when Performics [needed a new CEO], my boss [at Moxie] said, “Well, it’s too bad you don’t want to be a CEO." It kind of ticked me off that he said “too bad.” I was like, “Are you asking me if I’m interested? Because I absolutely am.”

I wonder what would’ve happened if he hadn’t ticked me off.

What was it like being a female CEO at a media agency? Were there many others at Publicis at the time?

We had Laura Desmond at Starcom and some [women at] smaller or regional organizations, but just a handful.

Like it or not, people are accustomed to male leadership. That causes bias. I saw a woman CEO get fired because her boss didn’t think she knew how to make decisions. She was just a more inclusive decision-maker. I thought, “There’s a whole area that we’re not talking about that we need to be talking about.”

How did you power through that bias?

#MeToo has helped women share the ways they’ve powered through situations throughout their lives. The first time a 75-year-old man kissed me on the mouth I was 16 years old in a work environment. I had compartmentalized that and put it in a box, because that’s what we had to do. With #MeToo, women are finally saying, “I shouldn’t have to put those things in a box, because they should never have happened.”

That’s one of the things I loved about my role: I could create a different environment and start a dialogue.

Have things gotten better for women in this industry? 

Not necessarily. But we’re having the right conversation, we’re sticking together and putting our feet down. There’s bright hope that it’s going to be better. We’re not silently walking away anymore.

How was your time at Twitter? 

Twitter taught me that as you grow as a company, you need to put operational efficiencies in place to help you scale. Twitter hasn’t done that, and I think it really has inhibited growth. Marketing is spread out across the organization and not consolidated under the CMO.

I was told that I would have authority to drive alignment, when in fact I didn’t. I could see what needed to be done but I didn’t have the power to fix those things, and that was very frustrating. It was clear they wanted cheerleaders. They didn’t want people to point out opportunities to make things better.

What advice would you give to young women looking for a leadership career in marketing? 

Have the confidence to believe in what you bring to the table. When I was younger, I had great gut instincts, but didn’t always have confidence. I always had some excuse why I wasn’t qualified or ready for an opportunity. Don’t just take the things that are comfortable. Take things that scare you and enable you to grow.

What about the marketing industry do you wish was different? 

Women that have a good depth of managing large teams are hard to find. There’s a vicious cycle: She doesn’t have experience, so I'm not going to promote her, so therefore she doesn’t get the experience. We’re going to have to give women an opportunity even if they don't have the perfect background.

We also need to think about age. We’re a very young, edgy and vibrant industry, but what can we do to embrace older workers? What are we doing to acknowledge, appreciate and reward their participation? That will help balance our industry in a really healthy way.

This interview has been condensed.

 

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