Laurel Rossi, CMO, OMD USA
If you had to choose one specific creative piece (can be a song, photo, artwork, movie, etc.) that best reflects your professional journey, what would that be and why?
Since I love comedy, I thought I’d take a more humorous approach to IWD by likening my career to The Devil Wears Prada. While that makes the feminine hairs on most people’s necks stand up, the truth is that intimidation, fear of not fitting in, and the sheer pitting of one woman against the other is a reality in business. You might remember Anne Hathaway’s description of Miranda Priestly, “She’s not happy unless everyone around her is panicked, nauseous, or suicidal.” We spend a lot of time condemning the boys for putting these unacceptable paradigms in place, but there are also those “special places in hell” for women who thrive on tough love as the way to assist young women in moving up the ranks—particularly in creative businesses like advertising, marketing, fashion, beauty and even tech. On this IWD, I’d like to suggest that leadership is a skill many have not acquired along the way and that true leaders bring others up.
My career journey—from an agency account coordinator, to a brand manager, to an entrepreneur, to President, to CMO of a $42B company—was charted by those who LED me to the next natural place in my development. My career mishaps were most often a function of working both for and with those fearful non-leaders who were struggling themselves. My first promotion was largely orchestrated by a male peer who watched me work and support his efforts. He was a leader in his own right—that special person who anyone would follow off the end of a pier without question. He was our social, moral and confident leader. But, he was a peer. He had no responsibility to me. He felt he had a hand in bringing good people up in the organization alongside him—in fact since we worked in the same group, I’m sure he got less of a salary increase that year because of my promotion. For years, I watched his own career flourish and saw him grow into the creative entrepreneur he innately seemed to be. I can rattle off similar stories on my career trajectory about working with and for those with outstanding leadership skills who saw something special in me.
By contrast, my career setbacks tell a dramatically different story about those in charge who had few real leadership qualities. The first and most important signal that you will “go nowhere fast” is that you work for someone who fails to ascribe credit to those who truly deserve it. The insecurity around their own abilities is apparent—they wear it on their sleeves. My favorite interview question when working with a partner company or interviewing for a position is asking who is responsible for that company’s latest achievement. If this answer is “me”, run the other way. The “we” versus “me” persona is far too common. When I hear young women say “I” or “me” with some regularity I know that I have a problem employee on my hands. It’s likely that she, or he, will never grow into the kind of leader we need to boost women up into C-suite, board and into critical public sector positions. As I reflect on the commitments I’ve made to women who come into the business, I remember my number one job is to train the women beneath me and to give credit where credit is due. Perhaps the best way to end this post is to see beyond Miranda Priestley’s bluster and think about how the story really ends: the fashion queen bee recommends Andy for her new position.
What was the turning point, or most important moment, in your career? How has this moment led you to the leader you are today?
In 2009 I left a job that I loved to do something really new, brave, and unexpected — I started a company that I ultimately sold to one of the agency holding companies. All of that was an important moment in my career. Developing new entrepreneurial, sales, and leadership skills was an important addition to my skill set. That experience shaped how I think about managing, leading, and the future of business in my role today. I am forever grateful to Donna Murphy who allowed me to bring my company, Strategy Farm, to Havas and made it sing. Clearly someone with her skill set as a strong leader with financial skills, topped off with great street smarts, was a big turning point in my development as a leader. I believe Donna’s instincts, and mine, were born in NYC in Brooklyn—a place where kids learn to be total empaths at an early stage. Today, we try to breed empathetic marketers in our industry in order to relate to consumers. After my experience at Havas working with Donna, I would like to ask the question: are empaths born or made? The answer to that question may lead us to new ways of recruiting and/or training the talent we invest so much in at work.
Tell us about a female figure who’s had a major impact in your life/professional journey.
I have been fortunate to have many fabulous mentors in my career. There was my mentor at Revlon, Barbara Cooperman, who was a smart marketer and, in addition to her ivy league upbringing, is was one of the most objective and intellectually generous leaders anyone could ever work for. She appreciated my entrepreneurial spirit and helped me channel my creativity in very corporate environments and turned them into brand successes that propelled both of our careers. Throughout the years, I’ve worked for many women who truly changed the trajectory of my career, but one of those women has never been my direct superior. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Tami Erwin at Verizon several years ago and have continued to share an intellectually fulfilling relationship with her. Her even hand and unwavering support of women, diversity, and all things balanced has shaped my day-to-day approach to business and life itself. In the tech world, dominated by men, Tami is a standout among female leaders. She leads by example and owns a special brand of ‘niceness isn’t weakness’ that few get right. You are likely getting the idea that I have been fortunate in the professional development department when it comes to very special women who have had an impact. My good fortune doesn’t stop there. Mari Kim Novak—my peer on the Ad Club board of directors (well she’s chair actually) is that one extraordinary person in your life that is the ultimate connector, mother, woman-about-town (does that sound bad?) and friend. We have done so many things together in the industry, along with Gina Grillo, CEO of the Ad Club of NY, a genius in her own right at teaching women to collaborate—including the launch of Women’s Fellowship and Masterclass, “MEDIACTION” fundraiser for the Ad Club Foundation, Creative Spirit; the list goes on. How do you quantify the impact of that kind of collaboration on your life, psyche, and on generations of women to come?
What is the bravest thing you’ve done in your career so far?
There’s bravery and then there’s bravery. I’d like to think of my personal brave moment as nothing more than an opportunity to do what I love. In 2017, I left my corporate position to start a nonprofit that provides fair wage inclusive jobs in marketing, advertising, technology, finance, and entertainment. The thought of knowing that 10 million adults in the U.S. alone are unemployed, sitting at home on the couch with no prospects for a normal life, truly moved me. For six months, I dropped out of corporate life to leverage my relationships, instincts and even funds to bring Creative Spirit to life. I’m excited to say that during those six months, we were able to put a fabulous board of directors together, place candidates in the best companies in the world, and get the formula for what it takes to employ highly talented individuals with intellectual, developmental, and learning disabilities into extraordinary positions. I returned to corporate life about a year ago (to an organization that is truly committed to diversity in the workplace at Omnicom). My ongoing involvement with Creative Spirit continues to pay dividends well beyond the bravery it took to attack this enormous problem head on. I attribute that feeling to the women and men who make Creative Spirit possible every single day. I am grateful that my journey led me to work with John Osborn, Janet Riccio, and Kate Stephenson among others at OMD, to bravely attack one of the biggest diversity problems in our lifetime. Bold moves never feel that brave when it’s a topic you’re passionate about.