Tanya Lewis speaks to seven industry leaders about challenges they have overcome and lessons that still inform their managerial philosophy.
Melissa Waggener Zorkin
Agency: Waggener Edstrom Worldwide
Title: CEO, president, and founder
Years in current role: 27
Melissa Waggener Zorkin says “perfectionist zeal” was a pattern in the first 10 years at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide. That commitment to getting things right remains, but she's learned that perfectionism can take its toll on agency culture.
“It was insane how hard we used to work,” recalls Zorkin. “We still work many, many hours, but back then I would keep teams through the night.”
She recalls one occasion when a team of about six worked all night to get a “bulky and complex” strategy ready to pitch to an important client. Though the team aced the presentation, Zorkin realized she was lucky to avoid any staff defections.
CEO and president, Waggener Edstrom Worldwide
“I really could have lost someone over that,” she says. “I learned to focus on the big things and not worry about all the smaller ones. If you're spending that amount of time getting everything perfect, when do you think about what's new and different? When do you push the envelope?
“We were so focused on getting everything right, we didn't take enough time to listen intently to all employees,” adds Zorkin. “Great ideas don't have to come from the top. They come from everywhere.”
This is especially important now, she explains, as clients are more open to fresh ideas and innovation than ever before. She also notes that she truly values lessons learned from mistakes.
“I've made thousands of mistakes,” admits Zorkin. “If I've got three successes, I've had 10 failures. But failure is enlightening. We're building that into our culture and getting better solutions for clients. If we don't keep learning, why do anything at all?”
President, COO, Ketchum
New York and Eastern region director, Ketchum
EVP, G.S. Schwartz & Co.
Group manager, Ketchum
VP, J. Walter Thompson
Intern, Exxon (summer)
Location: New York
Years in current role: 10
Soon after becoming CEO of Ketchum in 2000, Ray Kotcher faced a tough decision when an “extraordinarily influential” special interest group asked the firm to work on a national advocacy program – a lucrative task with long-term potential.
The problem, he explains, is the group was engaged in “extremely controversial” work and accepting the assignment could cause a rift among employees and existing clients.
“Some work is potentially so divisive that taking it isn't right for every firm and demands careful consideration,” Kotcher says. “After much deliberation, what ultimately guided my decision was considering how it would impact our agency's culture.”
He notes that Ketchum's core values of trust, reciprocity, and civility create an “intense sense of community” and unite the agency.
“By taking on this client – though lucrative – we risked fracturing what had been built through the years,” he adds. “We didn't engage with the client. It was a pivotal and serious moment. What I learned then has become the source of guidance. Leading at Ketchum means making decisions that will keep us together, sustain our culture, and maintain our values. This is my most important responsibility.”
Kotcher doesn't take his role for granted and he stresses the importance of being genuine.
“People give me permission to lead,” he says. “I must earn their trust every day. Your value system and ethics really matter. The line between who you are as a person and who you are on the job doesn't really exist anymore. You've got to be authentic. I'm fortunate because who I am as a person is synchronous with Ketchum's values.”
Company: Dow Jones
Location: New York
Years in current role: Just over a year
Bethany Sherman began her career in 1991 at Middleberg Euro RSCG. After a decade at the agency, she moved in-house at NASDAQ OMX Group. Last spring, she joined Dow Jones in the newly created CCO role. But it was during her tenure at Middleberg when she learned a valuable lesson that has helped her throughout her career.
CCO, Dow Jones
SVP, communications, NASDAQ OMX Group
Chief client services officer, Middleberg Euro RSCG
“As a team, we were developing product positioning for a fairly complex b-to-b product,” she recalls. “We had input from many people for several weeks. We ended up with what I would call an ‘artful mess.' Beware the corporate game of ‘telephone' –the message got diluted and distorted from the CEO to the unit head, to the product manager to marketing. We, the PR team, knew it was a mess.”
Sherman went back to the CEO with two simple, straightforward questions: What did he want to accomplish? What was he hoping to read in the paper after the product launched? After getting the answers, the team started over.
“It's an important lesson,” she says. “There's always a tendency when you've invested time to try and fix work as opposed to scrap it. Trust your instincts. Sometimes you have to say, ‘This isn't working,' and start again. You need a certain amount of courage to go back to the basics.”
When Sherman joined Dow Jones, she centralized internal and external communications. It's a whole new way of communicating for the company. Now she's busy helping both internal and external audiences think differently about Dow Jones.
“Re-evaluating older, traditional approaches and finding a new way and a new path – that's really what communications is all about,” she adds.
Title: SVP, global communications
Location: San Jose, CA
Years in current role: Three
Alan Marks has worked for some of the world's biggest brands. As a VP at Gap, he helped navigate “serious and sustained crisis management” around global supply chains and sweatshop labor, from which emerged modern ideas about CSR. The experience left him deeply committed to transparency and maintaining an “outside-in” perspective.
SVP, global communications, eBay
Director, corporate media relations, Nike
VP, corporate communications, Gap
Senior director, global communications, Avon Products
“I have a bias toward openness and transparency today that wasn't part of the business culture early in my career,” he explains. “The Saipan litigation started the week I joined Gap. It resurrected a round of activism. The traditional business attitude in the 1990s was, ‘These aren't our factories.' Many corporations either didn't understand the external point of view or marginalized it. We learned the importance of listening and understanding multiple points of view. We started setting transparency standards. We got there by taking an outside-in perspective.”
Marks also learned that contrary points of view are legitimate, important, and influential.
“Things emerge, move, and shift fast,” he notes. “It's much more about multidimensional dialogue. You must listen to those who engage you because their ability to amplify their voice is bigger than ever.”
When Marks joined eBay, sellers were angry about platform changes and selling policy changes. Dialogue, listening, and engagement led eBay to modify some changes because it became clear the result differed from the intention.
“Through engagement, transparency, open dialogue, and listening, you can create a positive experience,” he adds. “Listening is so important because it gets to the real issue. That's where you find common ground.”
Title: VP, corporate affairs
Location: Gaithersburg, MD
Years in current role: Just over a year
Lisa Davis has traversed an array of high-profile situations during her career. She was at the American Bar Association during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. She was on the 1996 Clinton/Gore reelection campaign during the Dick Morris toe-sucking hooker scandal. And she also worked at AARP through the Medicare Part D hubbub.
VP, corporate affairs, MedImmune
VP, corporate communications, AstraZeneca
Various roles, AARP
Deputy national press secretary, Clinton/Gore reelection campaign
“No matter the situation, exceptional communications practices do not change,” she notes. “Do what you know. People forget the basics.”
Overall, the situations taught her the value of engaging a broad set of stakeholders. “You can't have just a media strategy or an investor strategy,” Davis explains. “During Part D, I would have done a better job working with external stakeholders earlier.”
The Clinton/Gore days taught her the value of recognizing “there can be fun in a crisis” and of having “a balanced attitude.”
She learned the importance of distinguishing enemies from friends during the Thomas hearings. “It was a contentious time,” recalls Davis. “The bar association had a prominent role. I gave an internal document – not a damaging one – to another group. They weren't supposed to print it, but did. Know your friends and enemies because your actions can unleash issues, especially in high-profile situations.”
Above all, Davis has learned to roll with changes.
“Situations always change – for good or bad,” she explains. “You need an automatic reset button and you must get comfortable with it. Very often, we're called to be leaders in change, but we must not let it get to us the way it gets to other people. Don't be buffeted by it.”
CEO/managing partner, Kwittken & Company
CEO, Euro RSCG PR North America
President, Euro RSCG Magnet
President, Euro RSCG Middleberg
EVP/GM of New York, corporate group head, GCI New York
SVP, Fleishman-Hillard New York
Agency: Kwittken & Company
Title: CEO / managing partner
Location: New York
Years in current role: 6
Aaron Kwittken held senior roles at several large agencies before founding Kwittken & Company in 2005. He's learned many valuable lessons about both client-related and employee-related issues. One employee-related issue led him to live by the tenet that “‘like' is not a luxury when you're hiring.”
Earlier in his career, Kwittken inherited charge of a senior staffer who ran a portfolio of business worth several million dollars. He calls the employee “a genius” who was great with clients. However, this person also had an explosive temper and was abusive to agency colleagues. “It wasn't illegal, but close,” recalls Kwittken.
“I had to decide whether or not to let this person go and risk losing all that business or to just manage it,” he says. “This is a challenge senior people face more often than they want to talk about. I made the mistake of trying to manage around it. We lost more than half those clients anyway because half the talent working with this person walked out the door. I couldn't replace them fast enough. Word travels fast.”
Kwittken let the employee go and had frank discussions with remaining clients.
“I told clients this person was doing a disservice to the agency and the staff, and I hoped they trusted me,” he adds. “It worked out fine in every instance.”
Kwittken advises against trying to reform employees because it rarely works.
“You have to really appreciate, respect, and like the people you work with,” he adds. “If you wouldn't bring a potential employee home and introduce them to your family, don't hire them. Screen for competency and skill, but hire for chemistry.”
Agency: Kaplow PR
Title: CEO and president
Location: New York
Years in current role: 20
From the earliest days of her career, Liz Kaplow understood that relationships – with media, clients, and colleagues – are key to business success. Mentor relationships have also been valuable, a view that has been strengthened as Kaplow has gained more experience as a leader. Recently, in fact, a newly hired former intern, who is particularly adept at social media, began mentoring her.
CEO and president, Kaplow PR
Various positions, starting at AE, DeVries PR
A client friend helped Kaplow learn another valuable lesson years ago when she first pitched business in Silicon Valley. She was concerned because she and her firm were atypical of the region. The client friend advised her to just be herself because tech companies would value her unique perspective.
“It was good advice,” Kaplow recalls. “The client we pitched had been through several tech agencies. We couldn't have been more different. We came in talking about the consumer and they responded to our ideas. Trust yourself. Be confident in your ideas and solutions, even if they aren't the obvious ones. Make a good business case and you'll stand out.”
The firm built a very strong tech client base while it has also flourished in multiple other categories. Kaplow says the ability to bring together a variety of ideas and interface with all different types of people really strengthens both teams and the agency.
“We've since worked in many different categories with people who have many different styles,” she adds. “If you own who you are, those who are different from you will respond well. If you're disingenuous, it'll never work. You won't be loved by everyone, but be who you are. Differences make business exciting.”