For seven years, Judy Guerin de Neco sat on the board of directors of the Advertising Club of New York, which - not unlike many of the male-dominated ad agencies it represents - had never had a woman president in its 67-year history.
After two terms as vice-president, a position that normally leads to the top job, Mrs. de Neco found she was about to be passed over again. This time, however, she embarked on a careful campaign for the presidency. The campaign worked, and although it took some of the male members by surprise, Mrs. de Neco handily won, becoming the club's first female president.
''As a member of the board of directors, I had served on every committee and I knew I was the best qualified,'' Mrs. de Neco says. Evidently, the members agreed. Already she has lowered the annual dues and nearly doubled the membership.
Mrs. de Neco's victory at the Ad Club represented just one more barrier women have been going through in recent years to reach the top levels in advertising.
Once, if a talented woman wanted to succeed in advertising management, she had to form her own agency, as did copywriters like Mary Wells Lawrence, who founded Wells, Rich, Greene and launched the famous Braniff Airlines campaign of the 1970s, or Shirley Polykoff of Shirley Polykoff Inc., who designed campaigns for Clairol hair care products. Today, that route to the top is becoming less necessary.
Jane Maas, for example, was tapped late last year for the presidency of Muller Jordan Weiss, a 25-year-old agency with over $30 million in billings. In assuming her new role in the rarefied ranks of top management, Mrs. Maas joined what is still a very exclusive domain for women. The only other woman in a similar position at a large firm is Charlotte Beers, who, as managing partner and chief executive of Tatham-Laird & Kudner, heads up operations for that $100 million agency in Chicago.
Like many men who make it to the top in the American corporate dream, Mrs. Maas arrived at her new position with a fistful of credentials. She began her career in advertising as a copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather. Before she left this agency, she completed work on the first of two books, ''How to Advertise,'' which she wrote with Kenneth Roman, now Ogilvy & Mather's president.
When Mrs. Maas moved to Wells, Rich, Greene, she also changed agency roles to become a senior vice-president in account services, shepherding the record-breaking ''I Love New York'' state tourism campaign from a modest beginning to its much-heralded acclaim. It was during this time that Mrs. Maas wrote her second book, ''Better Brochures, Catalogs and Mailing Pieces,'' this time on her own.
One of those women executives who juggle marriage and family with career, Mrs. Maas feels women have a better opportunity to succeed in advertising today, if they are willing to make the extra effort. ''I see increasing opportunity for women in advertising, particularly in the account management role,'' Mrs. Maas says. ''There are sacrifices that have to be made, of course. But every day I see barriers falling, especially on the client side, and more opportunity for women in advertising's middle management to move up.''
''It's a journey and not just a destination,'' says Carolyn Wall, publisher of Adweek, a weekly trade publication. ''In a tight economy like this, talent and the ability to manage money are the deciding factors for women in advertising.''
In addition to her publishing chores, Ms. Wall presides over Advertising Women of New York Inc., a 74-year-old organization with over 700 members. She is only cautiously optimistic about the future for women in advertising, citing a salary survey by her publication last year which showed men outearning women in every category in the industry.
Lois Wyse is even more guarded in her optimism, having detected a slowing of women's forward pace in the field. Ms. Wyse is a founder and now president of Wyse Advertising, a 31-year-old agency billing $64 million, with offices in Cleveland and New York. It was as a copywriter 22 years ago that Ms. Wyse coined the slogan for one of her clients, ''With a name like Smucker's, it has to be good.''
One thing that is needed to pick up the pace for women in advertising, Ms. Wyse believes, is clients who are more liberal in their attitudes. ''There's still a client barrier,'' she says. ''And men will have to allow women the same freedom to fail. When a woman fails now, men say, 'I told you so,' and never hire another woman. I feel that in the future it's going to get even more competitive for women in advertising.''
Lois Geraci Ernst, president of Advertising to Women Inc., an agency she founded in 1975 which today bills over $70 million, believes firmly that women must overcome their qualms about risk-taking in order to succeed in the highly competitive advertising world. ''Do what terrifies you'' is her motto. ''Everything else is boring.''
Is that still a valid formula for women who want to get ahead in the challenging years to come? ''Absolutely,'' she responds. ''As the forward pace for the women's movement slows, there will have to be an ever-increasing emphasis on women's ability to meet challenges and take them in stride.''
Mrs. Ernst does not think the name of her agency - Advertising to Women - is itself sexist. ''Not at all,'' she says. ''We identified an important segment of the market which many agencies coveted but weren't willing to concentrate on, and give the attention and time it deserves.''
Mrs. Ernst has been an outspoken critic of what have been perceived as sexist portrayals of women in advertising, especially in television spots in the past. ''Today, there's progress. We're far less frequently insulted by attractive young women draped over cars, smiling inanely like live props used simply to distract the attention of a male audience from boring and poorly thought-out product displays. But there is still room for more progress. We've won a lot of battles but the war isn't over yet.''