Love & Wisdom

The Woman of Madison Avenue 

Barbara Feigin overcame stereotypes and sexism to rise to the top of the Mad Men-era advertising world

By Sarah Stackhouse April 19, 2024

Author Barbara Sommer Feigin, a woman in literature, stands beside a promotional poster for her book "My American Dream," which features the book cover.

Back in the 1960s, the ad world hit its golden age, marked by iconic campaigns like Volkswagen’s “Think Small” and Coca-Cola’s “It’s the Real Thing.” This era, brought back to life by the TV show Mad Men, was defined by sharp suits, sleek dresses, and martini-soaked lunches — a mix of sophistication and swagger that dominated Madison Avenue. Against this backdrop, Barbara Feigin stood out as one of the few women in a predominantly male industry. Unlike today’s advertising, often criticized for intrusive data practices, and aggressive pop-ups, Feigin’s era prioritized innovation and creativity. 

The family’s harrowing journey from Germany to America.

Photo courtesy of Barbara Feigin

When Feigin was just 2-years old, she fled Nazi Germany with her mother and Jewish father. They traveled across Russia by train and later departed Tokyo on a Japanese ship, eventually arriving on the shores of Seattle in 1940. They settled in Chehalis more than a month after leaving Berlin. Raised in the United States as a refugee, she absorbed her parents’ values of courage, optimism, and determination, which guided her through the early challenges of adapting to a new life.


Eric and Charlotte Sommer, Feigin’s father and mother

Photo courtesy of Barbara Feigin

Barbara Feigin’s immigration card

Photo courtesy of Barbara Feigin

The Hikawa Maru, the Japanese ship that carried Feigin and her family across the Pacific to safety

Photo courtesy of Barbara Feigin

In Chehalis, Feigin thrived in high school, graduating third in her class. She continued her education at Whitman College, supported by a scholarship. After Whitman, she pursued the Harvard-Radcliffe Program in Business Administration, facing its gender-specific limits: While her male counterparts graduated from the Harvard School of Business with an MBA, the women, deemed “separate but equal,” only received a Certificate in Business Administration. This prepared her for her move to New York City in 1960. She quickly landed a marketing research position at Vick Chemical Co., a role that set the foundation for her rise in the advertising world at Grey Advertising.


The Whitman College years

Photo courtesy of Barbara Feigin

The Harvard-Radcliffe Program (that’s Feigin in the first row)

Photo courtesy of Barbara Feigin

As executive vice president at New York-based Grey (now Grey Global Group), Feigin spearheaded iconic ad campaigns such as “Easy, Breezy, CoverGirl,” and “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk.” Her career demonstrates her knack for breaking barriers while balancing personal commitments, like raising three sons and caring for her husband, who suffered two strokes early in their life together.

Feigin at Grey Advertising, often the only woman in the room during the 1960s

Photo courtesy of Barbara Feigin

In her memoir, My American Dream: From Fascism to Freedom, Feigin opens up about her journey, offering insights on overcoming challenges and rising to leadership.

Recently, we got to ask Feigin about growing up in Washington state and how it shaped her approach to advertising, her thoughts on the industry’s future, and how she stayed optimistic in the face of sexism. Feigin will discuss her memoir with fellow Whitman College alum Judge James Robart at 4 p.m., April 21 at Parkview Event Space in Seattle. 


Growing up in Chehalis, how do you think the culture and values of the Pacific Northwest shaped your approach to leadership in the advertising industry?

My sense of the ethos of the Pacific Northwest is one of wholesome unpretentiousness, honesty and integrity, and respect for others. Having grown up in a culture that valued these characteristics, my approach has been to tell it like it is, to stand up for what I believe in, to be respectful of others, and, most important of all, to be myself. I’ve always tried to model these traits.


Magazine spread of the iconic “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” campaign by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, developed by Barbara Feigin and Grey, which significantly reduced teenage drunk driving fatalities.

Photo courtesy of NHTSA

How do you see Seattle influencing the fields of marketing and advertising today? 

Seattle’s leadership in the creative applications of technology has had a profound influence. Retail marketing has been forever disrupted by Amazon. And today, Microsoft’s creative applications of AI are having, and will continue to have, a huge influence on the creative process of developing advertising.


Do you believe your early experiences in Washington gave you a unique advantage or viewpoint?

I definitely believe that. Very few professionals in the advertising business came from a background of small-town living in the West. That background gave me a very important understanding of how real people live — how they behave, what they think, what their hopes and dreams and their worries and concerns are. All of this perspective was distinctive and invaluable as I built my career in advertising.


In your memoir, you describe the impact that escaping Nazi Germany and being a refugee has had on your personal and professional life. How did these experiences inform your approach to facing challenges in the advertising industry, especially in environments that were not very welcoming to women?

When I graduated from the Harvard-Radcliffe Program in Business Administration, I knew I wanted to go into marketing, and I knew that the center of marketing was New York City.  I summoned up my courage, and, like my parents had done before me, came to New York with nothing. I had no money, no job, no friends, no place to live, but I had the sense that in some way I would make it work. And I did! While I was unable to get a job in product or brand management, marketing-career stepping stone jobs that were open only to men, I went through the back door and got a job in market research. 

A year after I’d been in my first job, as a market research trainee, I decided the time had come for me to discuss career-path development and compensation with my boss. When I told him, he threw back his head and roared with laughter. I asked him why he was laughing, and he said, “Career path? There is no career path. Women, they get married, have babies, and leave. If you’re looking for a career path, I can’t help you, Barbara. You’ll have to leave.” And so I did, and I found my way into the advertising business, which I loved from the moment I got there.

In my earliest days as a senior advertising executive and then as a director of a New York Stock Exchange company, my male colleagues were not sure what to do with me. They tended to view me as the “token” woman. I learned to raise my voice until I was heard. My colleagues recognized I had something of value to bring to the table. At that point, I became integrated into the team.


You talk a lot about how you navigated sexism throughout your career. What was your mindset and what were your coping strategies?

I drew strongly from the values my parents had modeled and the guiding principle for life my mother had impressed upon me from the time I was very young: Dream big, work hard, and never quit. 

I was very focused on my goals, both small and large. There were definitely some bumps in the road but I worked hard to find my way around them. My focus was always on finding solutions, rather than belaboring problems. And I recognized that to achieve my dreams, I would always need to bring something of value to the table. For me that was my being recognized as an authority on the American consumer.


What major action would you say you accomplished that set the stage for future generations of women in advertising?

In my first advertising job, before I went to Grey, I learned that I was pregnant. When I began to show, I went to talk with my boss. I told him, “Val, I have very exciting news. Jim and I are expecting a baby.” He said, “That’s fantastic! Congratulations!” I then said, “Let me tell you my plan. I’ll work until the baby is born, take a few weeks off, and then come back.” His face fell. He said, “No, we don’t do that. We don’t have maternity leaves.” I said, “But Val, that’s my plan.” He said, “I can’t help you with that. I’ll have to go to the higher-ups.” And he did. He went to bat for me, and a few days later called me into his office and said, “You have it! You have the first-ever maternity leave at our (very large and very prestigious) agency.” I was thrilled, of course for myself, but importantly too because this set the pathway for all the women who came after me.


Can you share about a campaign where you really pushed the creative limits? 

Our client, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA, came to us deeply concerned about the increasing number of traffic fatalities caused by teenagers who were driving drunk. NHTSA had been running advertising focused on the fear of death and maiming associated with drunk driving, and still the fatalities increased. We told NHTSA we definitely could help, and started by doing a piece of large-scale consumer attitude research, the type of research Grey and I had pioneered and were famous for. 

We studied teenagers in depth as it related to their drinking situations — not only the who, what, where, when, why, but also the emotions and feelings they associated with their drinking occasions. Our learning led to a total change in strategic focus from fear of death and maiming to friendship and empathy. Grey created a famous tagline for the campaign which is still used today: “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” And importantly, the advertising had a call to action. We told teens what to do when they were in potential drunk driving situations: take your friend’s keys, have your friend stay over, call a cab, name a designated driver. 

As soon as this campaign began running, teenage drunk driving fatalities began to decrease significantly. It was a huge success — one with which I was very proud to be involved as it had such important societal implications.


In your memoir, you touch on the balancing act of managing a demanding career alongside family commitments. With the rise of remote work and more people balancing careers and family life from home, what impact do you think this has on modern families? 

For me it was threefold: a strong partnership with my husband, Jim; clear life priorities — our children and achieving success in our careers, on which we agreed; and communication as we went along. While we certainly had stressful moments, we strove for balance and did a pretty good job of achieving it most of the time. I believe these secrets continue to be foundational to finding balance in today’s world, with remote work and more people balancing careers and family life from home. 


Barbara Feigin and her husband Jim with their family during Thanksgiving 2013

Photo courtesy of Barbara Feigin

Feigin on Thanksgiving 2019 with her grandchildren

Photo courtesy of Barbara Feigin

How do you see this shift influencing their experiences and challenges?

The constant togetherness oftentimes in small spaces involved in couples working at home might well contribute to increasing levels of stress. Today’s couples will need to be conscious of that and find ways to alleviate it.


How has the culture of advertising agencies changed?

When I began in the advertising business, the number of women in executive roles were slim to none. And there were hardly any people of color in the business. Today, that has changed markedly. Women play very senior roles in the agency business. A number of women are agency CEOs. Agencies have worked hard to address the need for diversity of all kinds and are having success doing so. There is still major room to improve. Agency managers have a strong sense of urgency to continue their efforts.


What do you consider your most significant contribution to the field of advertising?

My most significant contribution to the advertising business was my pioneering role in helping to change the paradigm of how advertising is developed.


What do you hope future advertising professionals will remember or learn from your work?

When I began in the business, advertising was created principally by men brainstorming about their gut hunches. They sometimes got input from their wives and secretaries. To the extent research was done at all, it was about which alternative ads, or commercials, were most effective. 

At Grey, we turned this process on its head. We developed innovative consumer research and analytical tools to help us develop winning data-driven strategies to guide the development of advertising, focusing on the target consumers to whom it should be directed, the competition from which our client’s brand would need to take business, the motivating appeal that would persuade the target, and the emotional connection we needed to make between the brand and the consumer. This approach was enormously successful and essentially changed the way the advertising development was done. 

While Grey was the pioneer in creating this approach, over time it became the norm. My role was recognized by Grey when I was named one of the century’s “Legendary Pioneers” at Grey’s centennial celebration.


Where do you see the advertising industry heading in the next decade? What skills do you think will be most crucial for the next generation of advertising professionals?

In our fast-changing world, it is essential that the advertising professionals of tomorrow recognize that the consumer will always be king/queen. They will need the research and analytical skills essential for developing a deep understanding of the consumer. And they’ll need to turn data and insight into powerful, persuasive communications strategies. 

As advertising has become so digital and social-media dependent, ad professionals will need to be fluent with all things digital and all aspects of social media. In addition to being superb at crafting all types of advertising, they must be master storytellers so as to connect emotionally with consumers. They should be innovative at applying technology to create marketplace action. 

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