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Marlene Hore: A Trailblazer for Women in Advertising

Marketing Hall of Legends Marlene Hore, formerly the most senior female creative in Canada, was also one of the first women in advertising to have a baby and return to work.

By Ashley Milne-Tyte | Photography By Raina + Wilson

Marlene Hore never strove to be an executive creative director. When she started working in the ad industry in the early 1970s, the thought never crossed her mind.

“It wasn’t something I aspired to because the option didn’t exist,” says Hore, now a marketing and advertising consultant. She remembers a woman at the start of her career who was offered the post of account executive, a first at the time. “And she failed. She didn’t do a good job by somebody’s standards.” Hore remembers walking behind two male colleagues who were discussing the woman, smirking that women just weren’t capable of doing such a job. “She didn’t fail individually,” says Hore. “She failed for an entire gender.”

Marlene Hore knew that for her, failure was not an option. But her route from junior copywriter to Canada’s most senior ad woman wasn’t taken in pursuit of a grand title. “It was, ‘I want to do great work, I want to win awards, I want people to think I’m a great advertising person.’” That, she says, is as far as it went. She then set about working “27 hours a day” to achieve those goals. More than 20 years of her career was spent at agency J Walter Thompson, now known as JWT.

I found out I was pregnant just about the time my career was getting traction and I really was horrified at the thought of leaving at that point, because there would have never been an opportunity for me to come back.

When Hore became pregnant with her first daughter a couple of years into her new career, she faced a crossroads. It was not the done thing to come back to work after having a baby. There was no precedent for such a move.

“I found out I was pregnant just about the time my career was getting traction and I really was horrified at the thought of leaving at that point, because there would have never been an opportunity for me to come back.”

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She says women at ad agencies left in their fifth month of pregnancy back then, for fear of “embarrassing the client” by displaying their delicate condition in public. When Hore pressed on, and assured her creative director she’d be back, he didn’t believe her. “He patted me on the head and said, ‘Well, you can work until you have the baby, but you won’t want to come back.’” Colleagues and friends thought she was nuts. But she had a very supportive husband. And she was driven.

Return she did – and again several years later after the birth of her second daughter.

Not that the intensity of the ad world was easy to balance with a growing family. Hore says after she became the most senior female creative in Canada, she thought, “I’ve opened a door for women – lots will follow. But they haven’t.” She’s often considered why. “I think it takes a lot of hard work and dedication and giving up other things – ballet recitals and dinners at home.”

She admits she gave up plenty, things she says her daughters might have preferred her to be there for. “I love my kids to the ends of the earth and I’d do anything for them, but I had to do what was ‘me’.”

Check out: Why do women quit after maternity leave?

“I told the president, ‘I’m hiring a friend’, and he said, ‘Good, you’re going to need one.’”

She knows not every woman has that same drive to reach the top of her profession. And, she says, that’s OK. “I think a lot of women don’t have the stomach for it and they don’t have to – they want to have more balance in their lives.” But she believes while you don’t need to work flat-out to be good, you need to do so if you want to lead. “If you want to get to the top you have to put in the time, you have to be there, you have to be in the present.”

She says there have been many hurdles en route. At the beginning of her career the biggest one was simply being taken seriously as a woman in the business. It took a while before colleagues stopped asking her to get the coffee. As she progressed and gained more respect she still had to take on the men in the office. “You had to fight the guys, fight for control, fight to do it your way, not their way.

As for mistakes, she’s made a few.

“No one ever told me that when you’re in a board meeting it’s not the time to table issues,” she says. She was about to leave JWT for another job, and thought the board meeting would be an ideal time to let the firm know it needed to focus more on its creative product. “They called it my ‘elephant in the room speech’,” she says. The chairman of the company stormed out of the boardroom, so indignant was he at her advice. Colleagues avoided her at lunch. To cap it all, the new job she was about to accept failed to materialize, so she had to quickly repair some relationships. Still, she’s philosophical. Her lesson learned: you need to get buy-in before the meeting.

Much of this happened against the backdrop of some tough years in Hore’s personal life. In 1985 her first husband died suddenly when he was in his mid-forties. At the time she was commuting between Toronto and her home in Montreal each week. She soon moved herself and her daughters to Toronto, where she had become executive creative director of JWT Canada. “The first thing I did was hire a friend,” and a female friend, at that. “I told the president, ‘I’m hiring a friend’, and he said, ‘Good, you’re going to need one.’”

There were no other women she could turn to for advice during much of her career. “I remember the first board meeting I went to in New York [at JWT]. I was all excited that I was on the board, I sat down in a chair, and it was somebody else’s chair! He’d probably sat in it for 20 years.” The chair’s regular occupant walked in and fixed Hore with an icy stare. “So I learned very quickly [about] threatening [men’s] territorial imperative.”

The industry, she says, has changed tremendously since she started, from the financial model to the way new business is pursued. But she’s glad she worked in advertising during what she considers its glory years. “We had the most fun,” she recalls. “We played hard, and we worked hard.”

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