EVEN TODAY, IT’S RARE FOR A WOMAN to rise to the top of the advertising business. Though women buy most of the products pitched to consumers, the industry remains resolutely male-dominated. So it was the talk of Madison Avenue in March when Beaumont native Charlotte Beers was named chairwoman of the venerable New York ad agency J. Walter Thompson—the third time she’s been called on to run a big shop.
Not that anyone was surprised, of course. For forty years Beers has thrived by selling everything from Uncle Ben’s rice to American Express Travelers Cheques. In her bailiwick of the management side of the ad game—the care and feeding of advertisers rather than the creation of campaigns—she has been deemed among the all-time best, male or female, at wooing and keeping accounts, drawing on an overstuffed Rolodex and her usual mix of charm and determination. “Texas has this attitude of ‘If you’re big enough to try, honey, go ahead,’” she says. “I’ve always been encouraged to try.”
Beers, 64, was born to parents who, she says, were not Texans but “embodied the character of Texas that fascinates people—the independence and a kind of personal bravery. We in advertising talk about brands, and there are very few brands as colorful and penetrating as Texas.” After earning degrees in math and physics at Baylor University, in Waco, she taught algebra to engineers. In 1959 she joined the Houston office of Uncle Ben’s as a group product manager. Her love of brand building was instilled during a decade there; for one product, Uncle Ben’s Long Grain and Wild Rice, her ardor was such that she would stop people on the street and tell them about it. “Our job is to build a bridge between all that passion for a product [felt by its maker and consumers],” she says, “to fit it into [consumers’] lives. The better you understand those people, the more superior the fit.”
In 1969 she left Houston for Chicago, where she worked at J. Walter Thompson as an assistant account executive. Ten years later she defected to Tatham-Laird and Kudner (now Euro RSCG Tatham), which tripled in size during her tenure in posts that ultimately included chief executive officer. In 1992 she moved to New York and took the helm of the world’s tenth-largest ad agency, Ogilvy and Mather, where she was instrumental in engineering a turnaround following the loss of large accounts and senior managers.
By 1997 Beers (who is divorced and has one daughter) was ready to retire—or at least semi-retire. She packed herself up for West Palm Beach, Florida, where she began writing a book and performed some duties as Ogilvy’s chairwoman emeritus. A year later, however, she was asked to consult at Thompson, the world’s fourth-largest ad agency, with a worldwide gross income of nearly $1.2 billion in 1998 from high-dollar accounts like Kellogg and Kimberly-Clark. Martin Sorrell, the head of the giant British advertising company WPP Group, which owns both Ogilvy and Thompson, was worried about difficulties at the latter caused by turmoil in the executive suite and the departure of clients like Dell Computer and Sprint—in other words, problems not unlike those Beers had faced at Ogilvy. This spring her consulting gig turned permanent when Chris Jones relinquished his duties as Thompson’s chairman while remaining its CEO.
“Since Charlotte arrived we’ve seen a whirlwind of activity and excitement,” says Jones, an affable Englishman. “She brings out the very best in people by understanding clients’ brands sometimes better than they do.” Indeed, Thompson has been rebounding in recent months, attracting new talent and landing more assignments from current clients and such new accounts as Qwest Communications. “As for her Texas charm,” Jones continues, “I’m not sure just what that is, but when it gets together with a dodgy Brit, it’s pretty funny. Do they have more down there like her?” Not many.