As the first female president and CEO, Alison Simpson breaks the mold at CMA

Women 'need to get much better at being our own advocates and celebrating the contributions that we're making'

As the first female president and CEO, Alison Simpson breaks the mold at CMA

When Alison Simpson was named president and CEO of the Canadian Marketing Association (CMA) late last year, she broke new ground for female executives within the organization.

Simpson is the first female president and CEO in the association’s 55+ years of existence, and she tells Canadian HR Reporter: “I'm very proud of that.”

It’s a field she has lived in for decades.

“I've actually grown up in the marketing profession. It's been a passion of mine since very early on in my career,” says Simpson. “And what I love about marketing is the combination of creativity and innovation to drive businesses forward and drive business results. So that's kept me very engaged in the profession for many, many years.”

‘Promoting myself’

All that started when Simpson decided to invest in herself once she got out of college.

“I actually got into marketing when I finished school by creating a marketing campaign for myself. I knew that – since I didn't have any marketing experience myself – I wasn't going to be an obvious choice for an employer to hire; they would have to take a bet on me. 

“So I figured… I should make myself my first product. And I developed a number of marketing initiatives that were about promoting myself to agencies that I wanted to work with.”

Soon after, Simpson got some interviews and a foot in the door.

“I demonstrated my creativity and my initiative by taking an unusual approach to landing my first job,” she says. “And that level of innovation and initiative to get into the profession, it served me well throughout.”

She has since garnered a lot of experience in the marketing field.

“Growing up in the agency and marketing services, companies gave me an opportunity to work across very diverse clients and very diverse industries. I think that ultimately has made me a stronger marketer… being able to market and grow my experience through those diverse industries has made me stronger.”

Simpson also rose into the executive ranks before coming to CMA. She has been a member of the board of directors at DCM since June 2022; board director at the CNIB Foundation since February 2017; and part of the advisory board at the Master of Management Analytics Program at the Smith School of Business at Queen's University.

“What really resonated to me about the opportunity to become the president and CEO of the CMA – after building my career in the profession – is a chance to come in and have an impact across the profession that I clearly have passion for, and that I've greatly benefited from.”

Under Plan International Canada’s “Girls Belong Here” program, more than 30 young women stepped into the roles of CEOs, HR directors, ambassadors, members of parliament and other leaders at 11 partner organizations leading up to International Women’s Day 2023.

Female leaders at CMA

Simpson has barely started in her role at CMA, but she is confident that more women can follow in her footsteps within the organization.

“I'm thrilled that our board chair Kerri Dawson is also female, and 64 per cent of our board of directors are female as well. And when I look across our staff team, my leadership team are female as well. So we have a very strong representation of senior women and great diversity across the CMA.”

“I'm also thrilled to say that when I look across our agency members and some of our board members, we already have a number of females that are in president and CEO roles. So I absolutely see [that] when my tenure [is] up with the CMA, there [will be] very strong, talented women who could step in and become the next president and CEO for the CMA.”

The share of women in leadership positions in Canada rose, despite challenges with the pandemic. Specifically, 41.2 per cent of those hired into leadership positions in 2021 were women – up from 39.4 per cent in 2020, according to a previous LinkedIn report.

However, the representation of women in pipeline to senior management level dropped by 11.9 percentage points this year compared to data from 2022, and the number of women already in the senior management level also decreased by 2.8 percentage points, reports The Prosperity Project.

Leadership advice

To the female youth in the corporate world hoping to land a leadership role in the future, Simpson recommends asking for help: 

“From the very early stage in your career, find mentors who can help you develop both your technical expertise as well as your soft skills. Having a sponsor – which is different from a mentor – who is advocating on your behalf, for your career growth, and your promotion, is critically important as well. And I would also encourage women to apply for roles and advocate more for themselves.

“Women tend to think that their work will speak for themselves and [they] are shyer about advocating for the impact that they're making in the business and the company. And we need to get much better at being our own advocates and celebrating the contributions that we're making in the roles that we're reaching.”

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