Cheryl Berman started her career like a lot of us: unsure.
What mattered is that she kept going until she was.
After earning her Bachelor of Journalism at the University of Illinois, she began working at her uncle’s local neighborhood paper in Chicago. Three weeks later, Cheryl recalled through laughter, she was fired.
“If you want to make things up you should be in advertising,” her uncle said.
So at 21 years old, she moved her persistent spirit in that direction.
As Cheryl began interviewing at ad agencies in Chicago, recruiters kept insisting she needed “a book.” She originally thought it meant she had to be reading something while sitting in the waiting room, but after eventually being shown a few examples of advertising portfolios, she put her first together.
“When someone gave me advice on how to change it, I changed it over the weekend," Cheryl shared with Adspire. "When I got ahold of this guy the next week he was pretty impressed with the timeframe that I was able to work in - maybe more impressed by that than he was by the work. But that’s when I got a job at Leo Burnett.”
Cheryl advanced from copywriter to Leo Burnett’s old job as Chairman and Chief Creative Officer in just a little over 20 years, while also becoming the first woman elected to the agency’s Board of Directors.
Cheryl's portfolio ranges from Super Bowl commercials for McDonald's [below] to Disney’s “Where Dreams Come True” branding that still lives on today.
Her passion for songwriting led her to write music for Disney that reached No. 7 on the charts, as well as Hallmark’s timeless and womxn-centered “To Us” piece, featured further below.
A few years after Leo Burnett was acquired by Publicis, Cheryl left to found her own agency, unbundled. At unbundled, she feels fortunate to build brands creating change, including the Ounce of Prevention Fund, Philadelphia Promise and Florida Children’s Movement, who all champion early childhood education.
“You have to feel like you can do it like nobody else can do it.”
When it came to rising in the advertising ranks, Cheryl credited her passionate drive as well as confidence in her individuality.
“Failure’s part of [success], and it’s not always going to go the way you want,” Cheryl said. “You just have to persist and you have to decide that if you’re going to try and do something, that you’re going to try and do it and be determined to keep doing it.”
When it comes to the job search, Cheryl said she won’t hire anyone who says, “Oh, I’ll do anything.” She wants to hire people who say, “I’m a writer,” or “I’m a designer.” People who feel passionate, involved and determined about what they think they do well, and want to keep doing it and getting better.
Figuring out your passion can be tough and can come to fruition in a myriad ways. Cheryl had it a bit easier, discovering a love for writing poems, songs and stories when she was little.
“Writing was something that I always wanted to do and something that I felt I could do, something that was easy for me,” she said. “I think the things that you’re good at and you really enjoy doing, are not hard.”
What was difficult for Cheryl was finding female role models to look up to, especially in the 1970s. She found herself searching for information about ad womxn she hadn’t met but had just heard of, trying to find out who they are and how they got to where they are without the luxury of Google.
Today, it’s gotten much easier.
“I would push womxn to get out there and go do it because now is the time.”
“I think we live in a time now where we really do want more womxn to excel in the industry, we want more womxn to be able to take higher jobs in the industry, and I think that they can and they will,” Cheryl noted. “This is a time right now when people can flourish and prosper, and womxn especially.”
Above: Hallmark's "To Us," one of many musical ads Cheryl wrote in her three decades at Leo.
The fact that womxn make 85 percent of all purchases underpins the notion that advertising needs womxn creatives more than anything else, she added.
“Who better to market to the largest target audience in the world than the largest target audience in the world?”
Along the path to success and creation and accomplishments, though, there are always obstacles, and failure, like Cheryl mentioned. The biggest mistake she said she made was not speaking up when the Leo Burnett brand was sold to Publicis.
“I think of myself back there at that time and maybe I could have done something and maybe I could’ve changed something and maybe it didn’t have to happen in the way it did,” she said. “I think that I was acting more as a creative person than I was as a person high up in the agency who maybe could’ve made a difference in whether or not that happened. Now maybe I couldn’t have done anything, but I do think it was a mistake to not try and understand it better, and maybe do something to avoid it.”
Nevertheless Cheryl has created a proud and accomplished career for herself, taking time and effort to perform her best each step of the way. She credits her tenacity and fervor for her success, but also the brilliant minds she always had around from Leo Burnett and onwards.
“I always felt that you should hire and work with people who you think are smarter than you are, that will make you much better at what you do… You need to listen to those people and to learn from them, as opposed to saying, ‘I think this or I think that.'"
“You’ve got to get smart.”
Her advice for young womxn going into the advertising industry walks a similar path.
“Try and talk to as many people as you can who are in it before you get into it. Try and figure out exactly what you think you’d be able to add, where your talent is… I don’t think people are adding up as much of how many years you have been in the ad industry, as how creative you are and what talent do you have?
“And learn as much as you can beforehand," she added. There's online tutorials for designers; portfolio school for creatives; and entry-level talent can study great, influential creative work on Ad Age, Ad Week, Cannes reels or award shows.
“The smarter you can be when you get there, the better off you’re going to be. The more you know, the more you’ve learned, the more you’ve seen, the more you’ve experienced... I think we live in a world now that allows you to get smart and so you just can’t go in not knowing. So know as much as you can.”
Check out Cheryl's widespread collection of work right here.