CAMPAIGNCRAFT: PROFILE NINA DISESA - New York attitude shatters adland’s glass ceiling/Nina DiSesa is the first woman to be chair and creative director of a US agency, Lisa Campbell says

Nina DiSesa is exceptional. She is the only woman in the whole of the United States to hold the position of agency chairman and chief creative officer.

Nina DiSesa is exceptional. She is the only woman in the whole of

the United States to hold the position of agency chairman and chief

creative officer.

It has taken her 26 years to reach these heady heights at

McCann-Erickson Worldwide’s New York office, but DiSesa is unfazed,

probably because she’s used to setting records. On joining McCann’s

flagship office in 1994 as executive vice-president, executive creative

director (the job is as grand as it sounds) she made history as the

first woman in the agency’s 92 years to claim the top New York creative


Seeing DiSesa in action last month as chairman of the Kinsale

Advertising Awards and speaker at one of the conferences, it isn’t hard

to see why she’s smashed through the glass ceiling.

She has a confident and captivating style of delivery and began her

presentation with a few jokes, striding around on stage with her hair in

bunches, seeming more like a hot US stand-up than an agency suit.

By the time she’d finished her Mastercard presentation, members of the

audience were almost reaching into their wallets to tear up their Visas,

so convincing was her argument and so moving were her ads. This may go

some way to explain why McCann scooped dollars 500 million worth of new

business last year and why the Mastercard campaign has entered US

culture - it was recently the subject of a spoof ad on the Letterman


DiSesa first joined McCann in 1987 and departed in 1991, leaving the

AT&T campaign - ’we want you back’ - as her parting shot. It is, she

says, one of her best campaigns - and she is not alone in this view.

According to sources in the industry it was one of the major reasons why

she was courted by four agencies while at the creative helm of J. Walter

Thompson Chicago in 1994. DiSesa eventually opted for McCann and a

performance-based contract reputed to be worth between dollars 500,000

and dollars 600,000 a year.

DiSesa always wanted to be a writer. At school she wanted to write


At college it was plays. She even tried journalism but didn’t want to

work on the women’s pages and ’wind up writing about pantyhose’. So she

wrote ads instead.

’If you’re into instant gratification, there’s nothing more satisfying

than advertising,’ she says.

Her first foray into the business was in the ad division of a department

store. She took her first agency job in 1973 as a copywriter at Cargill,

Wilson and Acree in Richmond, Virginia.

She then moved to Young & Rubicam, where she worked for five years on

accounts such as KFC and Frito-Lay. After that she joined McCann to work

on AT&T, Alka-Seltzer, Nabisco and Waterman Pens and later joined JWT

Chicago where she became executive vice-president, executive creative

director. DiSesa remembers the distinct cultures at each agency.

’In the 80s, Y&R was a very process-driven place and it was like a men’s

club. I’d yell and scream in the halls to get them to take notice of


’McCann was also like a boys’ club, but a rowdy one. It was also

entrepreneurial, we could do what we wanted. At JWT, I couldn’t write

because I was involved in management more and was too busy putting out


At JWT, she was part of a team that revived a struggling agency by

revamping the creative department. This comes as no surprise to those

who have worked with her. DiSesa’s fellow Kinsale judge, Paul Shearer,

deputy creative director at Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper, jokes: ’She’s as

tough as a Slovakian coal miner’s boots.’ But he adds: ’With a

personality bigger than the Empire State building, you knew straightaway

she was someone you were going to like. Nina made everything seem


At McCann, DiSesa attempts to manage in a spirit of shared


’A good creative director is empathic. A lot of CDs manage in an

environment of fear but I think you can be firm and keep raising

creative standards without being denigrating. Creative people are

insecure enough. They don’t need another level of fear on top of


She also believes that a creative team should be given freedom and be

rewarded for its efforts. ’They won’t learn and grow if you’re hovering

over them all the time. You have to allow them to work as a team. I’m a

passionate believer in the team concept and a good leader deflects the

glory to them.’

DiSesa cites the recent Agilent Technologies and Solomon Smith Barney

work as examples of McCann’s creative strengths.

Agilent, a mosaic of individual stories narrated by Anthony Hopkins,

uses the line ’Dreams made real’ to show how technology can transform

lives. Work for the brokerage firm, Solomon Smith Barney, was described

as ’beautifully shot and intelligently written’ by the trade press.

Ben Langdon, managing director at McCann’s London office, has

experienced DiSesa’s team spirit on multinational accounts. ’She’s

passionate about creative work, and is driven, feisty and intelligent.

You wouldn’t miss her in a crowded room.’

Although DiSesa first entered advertising out of love for the written

word, she now accepts that it is the idea which is the most important

thing. ’I try to encourage my writers not to write their way out of a

paper bag, but to think their way out.’

So what does the future hold for DiSesa, who recently celebrated her

53rd birthday?

She has committed the next five years to McCann but has shunned the

position of worldwide creative director because she doesn’t want to

spend her life at airports.

She would, however, like to complete two writing projects - one a novel,

the other a book about the industry. ’It’s impossible to do now. When

you get home at 8pm you can’t start writing - least of all about the ad

industry. I’d rather shoot my brains out.’


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