McCann, Renetta 1957(?)–

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Renetta McCann 1957(?)


Broke Through Glass Ceiling

Found Success with Starcom


Renetta McCann is chief executive officer of Starcom North America, a Chicago-based firm that manages media strategies for clients ranging from Sony Consumer Electronics to the McDonalds Corporation. McCann rose to the top of her profession by landing client after client for the company, a spin-off of the giant Leo Burnett advertising agency, in well-executed pitch sessions. Attesting to her achievements, Black Enterprise magazine named her its Corporate Executive of the Year for 2002. I didnt set out to be a CEO, McCann told a writer for the magazine. In fact, when I started in this business, it wasnt an option.

McCann has spent her entire life in the Chicago area, where Leo Burnett is headquartered. Born around 1957, she was the first of five children in a South Side Chicago household headed by her insurance-salesperson father and schoolteacher mother. After graduating from high school in 1974, McCann headed to Northwestern University, just north of the city, to study speech communications. When she earned her undergraduate degree four years later, she briefly considered law school, but was daunted by another three years of study, plus the financial obligation its tuition would demand. Instead, she signed on as a client-service trainee at Leo Burnett, one of the largest advertising agencies in the United States.

Broke Through Glass Ceiling

McCann started out as a media buyer, responsible for arranging an advertising campaigns radio and television spots as well as print strategies in magazines and newspapers. She was promoted to media supervisor in 1982, where she handled some of Leo Burnetts large national clients, including the Kimberly-Clark and Kellogg brands. In the mid-1980s, she helped the company land a relative unknown in the consumer market, Hewlett-Packard, which was beginning to introduce its products into the growing personal-computer peripherals industry. In 1986 McCann was named an assistant media director, and two years later was made a company vice president at Leo Burnett. Promoted to media director in 1989, she continued to win impressively lucrative accounts, and was made a senior vice president in 1995.

McCann rose through the ranks during a time when minorities, and especially minority women, were relative rarities in the upper-management echelons of advertising and media. She recalled once preparing a pitch for what would become her second big client, when colleagues told her that the clients executive leadership preferred to deal with white, male, Christians on their business. Well, I only had one of the three going for me and I wasnt so sure about that one, she said in a speech she gave before the Womens Ad Club of Chicago. At the pitch meeting, introductions were made and, as McCann recalled, the top client pauses for a moment, then looks in my direction and says Rosetta, how nice to meet you. Rosetta is not my given nameand Im pretty sure he knew that. Now I gotta tell you, you coulda heard a mouse pee on cotton at that point. Because no one, including me, knew what was going to come out of my mouth. Should I respond based on what I had been told? Was this a war?

At a Glance

Born c. 1957, in Chicago, IL; daughter of an insurance salesperson and Editha Walker (a teacher); married Kevin McCann (a former advertising executive and homemaker); children: Ella, Alex. Education: Northwestern University, BA, c. 1978.

Career: Leo Burnett Company, Inc., Chicago, IL, client service trainee in media buying, 1978-82, media supervisor, 1982-86, assistant media director, 1986-88, vice president, 1988-89, media director, 1989-95, senior vice president, 1995-99; Starcom North America, chief executive officer, 1999.

Awards: Adwoman of the Year, Womens Advertising Club of Chicago, 2002; Corporate Executive of the Year, Black Enterprise, 2002.

Addresses: Office Starcom Worldwide, 35 West Wacker Dr., Chicago, IL 60601-1723

I simply ignored my new name and said nice to meet you. The room let out a collective sigh.

McCann and Leo Burnett won the account, and for years afterward her colleagues sometimes jokingly called her Rosetta. But more important for her was the fact that the client was happy with her work, which proved a bigger victory than the response to the slight. They even gave me a most touching wedding present, she recalled in the Ad Club speech. I learned a lot. I won the real war. Over the next decade, McCanns star continued to rise at the company and she proved one of its sawiest media-strategy experts, though it was a career choice that made having a life outside the office difficult. Nevertheless, she wed a fellow advertising executivewhom she had known since her teensand became a mother in the early 1990s, all the while landing such prestigious accounts as Sony Consumer Electronics and Fruit of the Loom. She eventually became managing director of the media division.

Found Success with Starcom

In the late 1990s, Leo Burnett decided to spin off its media department into Starcom Global, and McCann was made the CEO of the newly created entitys North American division. The change in structure, and her added executive responsibilities, placed McCann in a somewhat tricky situation. Going from media director to managing director was a big leap, she told Black Enterprise writer Sonia Alleyne. As she explained, in the former job, her responsibilities were to her clients and her employees. But as managing director, I represented the voice of the company. I had an obligation to balance the needs of the company against those of a client or any specific media piece. Some of her decision-making capabilities were shared with three other company vice presidents, and I had to perform extremely well, told Alleyne. And on that level, the politics sort of explode. I just kept doing the work. The reason people fail at this is because they let others into their head. At this level, everybodys got an agenda. A friend on Monday is a foe on Tuesday. I dont let anybody mess with my head.

McCann helped make Starcom a tremendous success, with clients such as Hallmark, Polaroid, Sara Lee, and the Showtime Networks. In 2001 the company landed the lucrative Walt Disney World account, and by the following year it boasted its second annual 20 percent growth in revenues, with some $4.6 billion in billings. McCanns executive abilities in leading some 600-plus employees were reflected by her companys low employee-turnover rate. The Womens Advertising Club of Chicago named her its 2002 Adwoman of the Year, an honor that often went to creative and account personnel rather than media specialists like McCann. In her acceptance speech in June of 2002, she noted that being a mother has helped her in her career, especially my negotiating and conflict resolution skillsonce I understood what it took to negotiate a stick of gum thirty minutes before dinner, with a 6 year old, I became a much better negotiator at work. On a more serious note, she also said that having children herself has improved my understanding of how the next generation absorbs mediawatching my kids multitask, understanding their media choices, watching the media images they imitate, watching how they build brand loyaltiesall their own. Yes, it happens in the under ten crowd. All of these perspectives have made me a better media person.

Having transcended the so-called glass ceiling, McCann is determined to lead the way for others. She noted in the Black Enterprise interview that she had had few mentors along the way, but was working to change that: I want to make sure there are others in the pipeline who follow me. Its not about the next promotion; its where I can contribute next.



Advertising Age, October 1, 2001, p. S1.

AdWeek Eastern Edition, March 12, 2001, p. 18.

AdWeek Midwest Edition, June 17, 2002, p. 5.

Black Enterprise, September 2002, p. 90.

Ebony, June 2002, p. 36.

Electronic Media, August 23, 1999, p. 10.

Jet, October 18, 1999, p. 20; May 6, 2002, p. 32.

MediaWeek, March 3, 2003, p. S12.


Living Beyond Boundaries speech, delivered at the Ad Woman of the Year luncheon, Womens Ad Club of Chicago, June 5, 2002.

Carol Brennan

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McCann, Renetta 1957(?)–

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