She was young, pregnant, and working late. The man whose name was on the door of the firm for which she worked walked into her office. "He asked, ‘Are you alright?'" then sat down and started to talk. . . . He did so every night [at six], on the dot, for the next month until I gave birth. We became great friends." He was David Ogilvy, legendary ad man, and she was Shelly Lazarus, just beginning her career in advertising.
Years later, Lazarus became CEO of the agency. Now called Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, the firm has offices in over 100 countries and billings in excess of $13 billion. It handles some of the bluest of the blue-chip brands, including American Express, AT&T Wireless, Coca-Cola, IBM, Ford, and Kodak. Lazarus also is a member of the board of General Electric. She has cultivated her own brand of leadership, one that is consistent with her own values as well as with the values she gained from her agency, including David Ogilvy. According to Lazarus, women have gone from "reaching for the engagement ring to reaching for the brass ring." While she "crashed through the glass ceiling," her path was not without its obstacles; in particular, she recalls being told that jobs were not something to "waste . . . on a woman." Still, Lazarus was prepared. She was a graduate of Smith College and held an M.B.A. from Columbia. When Lazarus tells her story today, she is reminding young women of their collective past as a means of educating them about their future opportunities, a classic model of leadership communications.
In an age when advertising agencies are bought and sold like commodities, O&M remains distinctive. As part of the huge WPP communications family, O&M has retained a unique identity as the agency of brands: identity, image, inspiration, and aspiration. At O&M they call it 360 Degree Brand Stewardship, touching all the points where the consumer meets the product or service—on the shelf, in a commercial, in a print ad, using the product, or dreaming of the product. "Once the enterprise understands what the brand is all about, it gives direction to the whole enterprise." The responsibility for ensuring brand consistency falls on employees. "They are absolutely critical. If the people who work in a company don't understand what the brand is, if they can't articulate what the brand's all about, then who can?"
At the same, Lazarus believes that you have to make the communications genuine. "People don't like being given messages," says Lazarus, "but they love listening to stories. I encounter fresh new examples every day of the principles I consider important. I find them at work, in my everyday life, in the media, and anecdotally. When I communicate principles using fresh, real life examples, stories that tell a tale, people always ‘get it' that much better."
Her ability to be articulate has made Shelly Lazarus one of the most quoted advertising executives, not simply because of her gender but because of her insights. "Consider the value an ad agency brings. We help build brands, and a brand is the most critical asset a company has today. Sure, we're under more scrutiny from clients, but accountability means credibility." Lazarus believes that an ad agency is really a "business partner" that is responsible for helping to grow the client's business. Toward that end, Lazarus would like to see the agency become a partner that can help to integrate advertising, marketing, and internal communications.
The business of advertising is cyclical. Lazarus's belief in its power to influence is not. "The ad industry isn't struggling for a new set of principles or abandoning the ones that made it great from the start." Despite downturns, Lazarus says, "I'm having more fun than at any other moment in my 30-year advertising career. The game is more interesting and more relevant than ever." In 2001, O&M won more than $700 million in new billings. That same year, Advertising Age, the industry's top trade magazine, recognized O&M as "the outstanding American agency."
Lazarus has mingled her personal and professional lives in a way that makes her a role model. She and her husband, George, a pediatrician, both hold demanding jobs, but they make time for their three children, including finding time for skiing together. Her kids "insist that I ski alongside them without my cell phone." When her children were younger, she took them to visit David Ogilvy in the south of France. "Seeing him play with my children made me realize how completely intertwined my career and family have become."
Lazarus has come to an understanding of herself as a role model. Fortune magazine has included her in every issue of its annual "50 Most Powerful Women in American Business." Her example of making time for school functions "gives other women in the company, or clients, the confidence to be able to say, ‘I'm going too.'" Young women seek her out for advice. "There's one thing I say all the time: You have to love what you're doing in your professional life. If you ever want to find balance, you have to love your work, because you're going to love your children." Most important, Lazarus believes in the direct approach to integrating work and life. "Encourage them, outright, to follow your example."
Her boss, Martin Sorrell, chairman of the WPP group (of which O&M is a member), says, "She has an incredible focus on people and understanding of this business and the way it is developing. But I wouldn't want [to say] she's just a great people person; she is a very good business manager who doesn't back away from tough decisions."
Lazarus places great emphasis on reiteration. "I don't think you can ever communicate too much. Communicating to your organization is not something taken care of a couple of times a year in memos, or at the annual Christmas party speech. I know from my advertising background that the most effective communication is multilayered. One message builds on others."
As an advertiser, Lazarus understands the value of different forms of communications. "Emails are great for speed, but they never replace the face-to-face. Group meetings are fine for the camaraderie, but they never replace the intimacy of one-to-one. Formal communication—the written word—gives weight, but all the more so when it is supported by spontaneous and informal contact."
"Above all, you can never walk the halls too much," she says. "David Ogilvy once told me that as much time as he spent on people, it was never enough. Since people are the number one asset of any organization, I don't think you can ever spend too much time with them—in written communication, on the phone, in person."
Lazarus credits David Ogilvy with creating a sustainable foundation for the business. "[Ogilvy's] genius was in taking a very strong point of view about how to run an organization and from that point of view developing a set of principles . . . that have actually lived on in our people." Lazarus believes that Ogilvy's befriending of her as a young pregnant woman stemmed not only from his sense of "democracy" but also from its being another way of "challenging the status quo."
By telling and retelling her story and the story of her relationship with Ogilvy, Lazarus is building upon the virtues of the past as a means of creating the future—of growing the organizational brand, so to speak. Her stories remind others of the evolution of professional women as well as the opening of new doors of possibility for both men and women. As Ogilvy did, Lazarus, too, values a "meritocracy." People remain at O&M because they contribute. "[Ours] is a non-political culture. . . . It's an organization that holds its people accountable."
Accountability is essential to leadership, and through her words and example, Shelly Lazarus, brand leader, demonstrates what it takes to lead by developing others and challenging them to find their own paths. Her stories provide illumination for others who are seeking to create their own way or to add luster to their own brands.
Shelly Lazarus, "The Boss: A Job and Life Intertwined," New York Times, May 23, 2001.
Patricia Kitchen, "Engagement Ring to Brass Ring," Newsday, May 2, 2002.
Gerry Khermouch, "Shelly Lazarus: Guru of Growth," Business Week, Spring 2001.
Christine Canabou, "Shelly Lazarus," Fast Company, April 2002.
Conor Dignam, "Stormy Reign for Queen of the Blue-Chip Brands," Times (London), Mar. 13, 2002.
Canabou, "Shelly Lazarus."
Dignam, "Stormy Reign."
Lazarus, "The Boss."
Thomas J. Neff and James M. Citrin, Lessons from the Top: The Search for America's Best Business Leaders (New York: Currency/Doubleday, 1999), p. 226.
Ibid., pp. 226-227.
Dignam, "Stormy Reign."
Neff and Citrin, Lessons from the Top, p. 225.
Ibid., pp. 225-226.
Ibid., p. 225.