CREATING AN ENVIRONMENT " WHERE PEOPLE CAN DO GREAT WORK'': SHELLY LAZARUS TALKS ABOUT THE CHALLENGES AND SATISFACTIONS OF HER ROLE AS CEO OF OGILVY & MATHER

Published on .

Shelly lazarus became CEO of Ogilvy & Mather in 1996 after a 25-year career at the agency. She earned her BA at Smith College and an MBA from Columbia University. A child of the '60s, Ms. Lazarus said she was not an activist. "We were so isolated in the business school," she said, "we didn't even know Mark Rudd took over the Columbia buildings during the 1968 protests." After Columbia she joined Clairol as an assistant product manager. Two years later, in 1971, she was approached by friends at O&M. "Two years at Clairol had made me a `hair expert,' " she says with a grin."Ogilvy needed someone on their hair-care account, so I figured I'd stay two years." That was 27 years ago. Today, Ms. Lazarus is the mother of three children, ages 10 to 24, and keeps her ear to the ground of pop culture by watching "South Park" with her youngest. The interview was conducted by John McDonough in her 10th floor office in New York.

Ad Age: You've been at Ogilvy & Mather for 27 years. When did you feel you were acquiring a strong sense of loyalty and identification with the company? Was it in stages?

Ms. Lazarus: Yes. When I came, David was still here a lot of the time. Within my first month I, like others, got a call from David's office summoning me to a "magic lantern" [presentation] by David himself on everything he'd learned about advertising. He took it very seriously and even checked attendance.

From the first month, I sensed the culture and point of view, the set of beliefs about what makes good advertising, a good organization, what makes people productive. It was very persuasive. There was a sense of common purpose and mission.

Ad Age: When did you begin to develop ambitions for yourself here?

Ms. Lazarus: I never had a sense of ambition. I just loved the business. I could give you a more sophisticated answer, but the truth is I just loved it every day. I always said I would leave the day I was bored. But I was never allowed to get bored.

Ad Age: Who were your mentors?

Ms. Lazarus: I have many, actually. I joined the Lever Bros. group when Lazarus came here and the man who headed it was Charlie Fredericks. He made me love my job. It wasn't even work. He used to have Wiffle ball games on Fridays, right in the halls. People would stand on desks and throw balls.

Ad Age: Reflect on yourself as CEO vis-a-vis your predecessor, Charlotte Beers -- not because you're women, but because you were raised here and she came from another agency.

Ms. Lazarus: I don't think that made for differences that were distinct. What Charlotte lacked, although she learned quickly, was the history and the relationships. I don't think she understood, in as immediate a sense, the culture.

But she brought us something very important because she was an outsider. Agencies go through mood swings, and in 1992 we were still thinking of ourselves as victim of a hostile takeover. What Charlotte did was restore faith in our own innate abilities and capabilities. With the eyes of an outsider, she said you are so talented and have so much to offer; we need to reactivate it all. Because she was an outsider, people listened to her.

Ad Age: What will you look for in your replacement?

Ms. Lazarus: This is a rather simple statement, but this [business] is all about people. We're only as good as the people we have. The agency with the best people wins.

I think you have to be able to motivate and direct people and create an environment where people can do great work. That's the hardest part of this job actually -- picking everybody up.

There are times when this is a capricious and arbitrary business. You can't take it personally for precisely the reason that everyone else does.

Ad Age: It's possible your replacement will never have had any contact with David Ogilvy. In your years here, how has the agency moved away from the style and precepts of David?

Ms. Lazarus: I think about [continuity] a lot. We're lucky that we're not a cult of personality. It doesn't matter whether you knew David personally or not. Even if you don't know his principles specifically, you feel them every day as you work here. It's not important that he isn't here as the enforcer. And that's precisely the way David planned it. He recognized that it would all disappear with him if he didn't take steps to institutionalize his principles.

If we turned over every two years, I would worry. But so many people have been here for 15, 20 and 25 years. If everyone stays for a significant time and the principles are understood, the spirit will be passed on. We did go through a period a few years ago where there were people who believed we were too focused on the past, too tied to David's ideas.

They set out to rewrite the precepts of David Ogilvy. And the more they tried, the more we eventually realized we actually believed in those precepts. Suddenly they were not the beliefs of an old man but the principles of a timeless mind. So from a rewriting, it turned into a reaffirmation. It was a good process.

Ad Age: Have you seen an opening up of the creative process as David's presence has diminished?

Ms. Lazarus: Of course. But even if you go back to something like [David's aversion to] reverse type, you realize it's not about reverse type; it's about readability and a willingness to seek measurements of the effectiveness of communication. All David was trying to do was force people to base decisions on knowledge and experience. If you choose to veer from that, you'd better have a rationale beyond your own opinion.

Ad Age: There are those today rebelling against the "workaholic" pace and who don't want to commit totally to job and ambition at the price of a personal life. Is there a place for them here?

Ms. Lazarus: Yes. That's one thing I've learned. If you want to attract and keep [talent], you have to create opportunities that match that person's desires and ambitions. You cannot dictate how a person's career will evolve. If you want that person's talent, you're probably going to have to get it on their terms rather than Ogilvy's. I see that more clearly every day, and I'm comfortable with it. If you're superb at what you do, then you define the terms of employment.

Ad Age: Do you feel you've made inordinate sacrifices to achieve your success?

Ms. Lazarus: No. I've always felt that the philosophy of the agency allowed me to make those decisions that were important to me and my family. The organization would respect those decisions and then just work around me.

Ad Age: Let's talk about the business in general. We hear about the decline of the mass market and the rise of a million segments? Is this overrated?

Ms. Lazarus: There's definitely a mass market, and as I work more and more on global brands, I think there are some universal principles that motivate people, that delight people, that intrigue people everywhere -- it's mass on a global basis.

The answer is yes, even as we're also getting to market to a universe of one. Segmentation is becoming almost irrelevant in a way. Because I don't have to segment now. I can actually talk to you one-to-one.

The real power is to do a mass message, which is powerful and important and positions a product or service in the broadest way, and then make it relevant to each person individually. To me that's all the power in the world. And with the Internet, we can talk back and forth in real time.

These days I often find the media part of the presentation the most creative. We can now create "unwired networks."

You give media people a target, and define it any way you want -- behaviorally, attitudinally, geographically -- and they can develop a plan to reach this group of people, no matter how small.

Ad Age: If there still is a mass market, what's your view of minority advertising?

Ms. Lazarus: I don't think minority advertising is going to be a big factor. I think it's a stopping point along the way. It's a remedial step until we get to where it should be, which is that we should portray people naturally, as they happen in the population.

I lived through the whole "career woman" thing when [being a homemaker became almost over-night a kind of insult] and women suddenly became a group to be portrayed as doctors, pilots and engineers. It was pretty nauseating, because there was something very patronizing about it. Very patronizing. Now it's all very natural.

Ad Age: What is WPP Group's role in O&M?

Ms. Lazarus: They interfere with us very little on the "spiritual" plane, which is right because the brand is Ogilvy. But they've made us much better business people. They've gotten us disciplined to set goals and think about business strategies.

In giving us this discipline, we have a lot more to reward our people with, which is terribly important. I don't think we should give short shrift to the financial security and equity portions of people's lives.

Ad Age: How often do you meet with WPP people for substantive talks?

Ms. Lazarus: We have quarterly reviews. I find Martin [Sorrell] a very wise counsel. I talk to him a lot. Most of the dealing with WPP is through me.

Ad Age: What was your feeling about the takeover in 1989?

Ms. Lazarus: I opposed it because I don't like having things done to me. As for David [and his reaction to the takeover], that was quintessential David. He says what he thinks. In the end, David was very important in making WPP understand what was important to O&M.

Ad Age: What are you going to say at your next WPP meeting about O&M's future?

Ms. Lazarus: While much of Ogilvy's success has centered on advertising and direct marketing, we believe that our real value to clients going forward begins and ends with brand, not just the execution.

Branding today requires consistent communication of the brand at every point of contact with the consumer. Therefore, brand thinking must be brought to bear beyond marketing -- it must be understood and reflected in every company action, from showroom design to sales promotion to corporate policy. That is the challenge brand stewardship must meet.

Ad Age: Does WPP expect a certain level of growth every year?

Ms. Lazarus: Certainly. Goals are set, and we've exceeded them for the past six years.

Ad Age: Because you're responsible for this growth, does it ever scare you that there may be limits to growth?

Ms. Lazarus: Growth is my job. I have to figure out what the obstacles are, how do you overcome them, what is the next opportunity? Someone said that I'm dangerously experimental. I think that's a good thing. I'm willing to try almost anything. It's been my experience that the great ideas come in trying things. In the trying you get the next three interesting ideas. There has to be constant activity to generate ideas, not just thinking alone.

Ad Age: Is there anything else you would like to emphasize?

Ms. Lazarus: One thing. Because of Charlotte and me, a lot of people say O&M must be a place that's great for women. I don't think that's the right take. What O&M has been from the beginning is a true meritocracy. That is the reason so many people have been successful here.

Ad Age: How long do you want to keep your job?

Ms. Lazarus: Until I get bored . . . or screw up really badly (laughter). I've been in the job for two and a half years. I haven't even started to do all the things that I know we need to do.

In this article:
Most Popular