R/GA's Tiffany Rolfe on nurturing talent and culture as agency emerges from a tumultuous 2020
R/GA’s Tiffany Rolfe is one of the handful of female leaders in the industry who have risen to the role of global chief creative officer. This month marks her six-month anniversary at the worldwide helm, after she moved up from exec VP and U.S. chief creative officer last year. Prior to joining R/GA in 2018, she served as partner and chief creative officer at Co:Collective, leading projects for Puma and YouTube, and first made her mark during her decade at CP+B, where she oversaw accounts including Mini, Microsoft, Volkswagen, AmEx, Old Navy, Burger King and Truth.
Rolfe has now spent nearly half of her time at R/GA leading the company virtually under pandemic restrictions. In that period, the agency has endured not just the struggles that have come from COVID and addressing social injustice, but also a shakeup within its own ranks with the departure of key marketing and business transformation leaders. Here, Rolfe talks with Ad Age about how she and her team are reshaping the agency going forward and how that new vision is playing out in the work. She also shares how her approach to leadership has evolved.
The past year was difficult for everyone, but it seemed particularly tumultuous for R/GA with the departures of various key leaders, including the business transformation group and your CMO. Has there been a move to reshape the agency in light of all that?
When you go through a pandemic, it changes the way we work and how we have to connect with each other. When you go through a racial crisis, at a deep level, you can’t be incremental in terms of how you make changes to things. It’s given a lot of leeway and put pressure in a good way on all of us to really change in a more fundamental way. It’s enabled this next wave of leadership to do even more transformative change.
It wasn’t a surprise that there would be some shifts around how the consultancy team were part of the agency. Design is something we’ve always had at the center from the beginning when [Founder and Executive Chairman] Bob [Greenberg] and his brother [Richard] created their amazing movie titles. It’s been that thread across experiences, communications and how we think about building brands. The consultancy had design at its core. Design has always been key but hasn’t been as much a clear thread, so emphasizing design overall is a big piece of it. Also, the brand is so intertwined with how the business operates. We felt like all that had to be brought together to really feel like it’s part of one vision.
R/GA has been forecasting and preaching digital transformation for years. The pandemic accelerated it even more. Now we have the opportunity to further define what the vision is moving forward. Now is a time where brands need both high humanity and high technology. We have the opportunity and responsibility to take our understanding of technology and help brands put it through a much more human lens. Make it in service of people and not the other way around.
How are you moving in that direction?
We are not afraid of technology. We want to build what the future looks like. But maybe we haven’t been as focused on the human side of that, having that more human lens of how we utilize technology for ourselves and our clients. You walk into R/GA and it’s awe-inspiring, the white walls, the art, the high-techness of it all. But it can feel a little cold at times. I remember someone when they interviewed me, they said, “Are you gonna bring lots of plants with you?” [laughs] Technology can be humanity. We can bring in new kinds of leaders who are more empathetic leaders versus thinking through it just from a tech and innovation lens.
A key industry issue when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion is how women, people of color, LGBTQ and Black talents, in particular, don’t see a pathway to more senior roles once they get their foot in the door. How are you addressing that?
have been looking at leadership across the board. I had already brought in more women leaders across the network—Kim Laama in Portland as ECD and Megan Trinidad as ECD in Austin. And I’d hired Shannon Washington as ECD to lead one of our groups in March. Shannon’s first day was the day we all had to go home for the pandemic—she actually hasn’t set foot in an R/GA office, and quickly become an important leader in our New York office. She went from onboarding in an agency during a pandemic—to supporting our black community, and frankly all of us navigate the racial issues that rose to the surface in our country and in our industry. We all know that people of color often have to take on the burden of educating white co-workers around these issues. We’re working to ensure all of us take this on instead and that we change fundamentally how we operate so our culture is more inclusive and diverse. We recently shared our operating model for EDI, “Make/Change” and hired Jai Tedeschi, VP-global executive director, culture and operations. Another thing I’ve been working on is Talent Tracks, which is a program to help our junior talent define their career paths at R/GA for what type of work they want to do and become skilled at and then support them with education, inspiration and opportunities. Because some aren’t raising their hands as much, the shy ones, or the ones who might not have as many connections to people in the organization and feel like they miss out on projects and opportunities to learn.
You were one of the first agencies to release its diversity data last year after 600 and Rising introduced its “Commit to Change” campaign, and you were very forthcoming with it in a Medium post, versus basic images others put out. What drove that?
Coming from an agency that built FuelBand and all that, we know from building experiences that data holds you accountable. I don’t know what we’re afraid of because we’re all in the same boat—we knew it was going to be bad. So let’s all just share it—it’s something we all need to work on. The only way we know how to make change is if we have something to measure ourselves against. I still feel like there’s a lot more to do.
Historically in the industry the global chief creative officer has been seen as this trophy collector, figurehead type of post, but that’s kind of shifting at least at some agencies. How have you approached it?
At R/GA the role is far from that. To me, especially in this last year, with there not being “locations” anymore, the role has taken on a different dimension. When you are nowhere and everywhere simultaneously, the borders have broken down, and that’s been one of the big benefits of how we’ve been working. If anything, I’m helping to connect things, being a supporter, an amplifier. How do I take something that’s working somewhere else and find a way to bring that to others and evangelize it? And since we do so many different kinds of work and things, I have to understand what every office’s strengths are, where they need to be supplemented, so it’s also [Chief Experience Officer] Ben [Williams] and my role to get people what they need to do the best job possible.
With the work, Reddit has been standout, including the Super Bowl surprise no one saw coming. How did it reflect your high humanity-
high technology approach?
What I loved about that work was we did the Super Bowl, but we did it in our own way. Part of what our skill is, is understanding these communities, these platforms where new behaviors are happening. If anything, we made something for the Reddit community, first and foremost. We couldn’t jeopardize the relationship the brand has with its community over the scale and breadth and broadness of relaunching Reddit as an idea into the world in a bigger way. It was highly human in that we understood how the community worked and operated.
The tech side of that involved understanding how people’s behaviors would be during the Super Bowl. They were going to be sitting around their TVs at home, not in bars, not having big parties and maybe paying more attention to what’s happening more than ever—and they could actually pause the TV. Understanding user behavior actually helped us think through what could be a disruptive moment both from a media perspective but also with social behavior, especially if we tap into the Reddit community that might actually want to share and go deeper in this thing. When you’re a social agency of record, you’re less precious about things. You’re used to coming up with and changing ideas in a matter of days. When we got a brief on a Monday, it didn’t scare us to have to come up with something by Wednesday.
How did you pull it off?
The whole cultural moment [around the GameStop stock frenzy] happened a week prior on Thursday. We were planning to talk to the client on Monday, six days before the Super Bowl. We showed up with a number of ideas, including the idea of what was at first a one-second spot. And from there, we went running. By Tuesday night, we had figured out a buy, which I was scared about, to be honest. It wasn’t national, it was not all at the same time—it was a rolling buy—so is this going to have impact? We delivered it on Wednesday and the media company actually thought it was a mistake—a Power Point slide? Within a day we turned around the creative, made it in-house and delivered.
How do you think your leadership style has evolved over the years?
At Crispin we were thrown into the fire and so I was given a lot of work responsibility early. I quickly learned about driving the work forward—winning pitches and delivering successful projects. But truly managing people’s careers and bringing humanity to leadership wasn’t something that I was taught or focused on, which I think was true across the industry. Most creatives were being promoted through the lens of their work and awards, not their people management skills. I started to learn what it meant to be a leader once I went to Co:[Collective] and was a partner in an agency.
For one, I had a female boss (Rosemarie Ryan) for the first time, so I got to learn from her style of leadership. I realized I had so much to learn about being a more empathetic leader. I got a coach early on and one of the exercises was asking everyone to tell me what I most needed to work on. It was hard to hear, but I learned how to be open to feedback and grow, and it helped me with having hard conversations with others as well.
You have to be very intentional with finding more ways to connect and having clear communication. Part of my leadership approach now is to listen more. We have all needed to stop and hear the voices that haven’t been heard in this industry until now. While I’ve become a much more experienced leader over the years, I’m unlearning things, being more vulnerable, admitting what I don’t know, recognizing the mistakes I’ve made. All the things that you perhaps are fearful of revealing as you progress in your career.
It’s Women’s History Month. What are your thoughts on mentoring women and helping them to grow, become leaders themselves?
Over the years I’ve come to appreciate that there are all kinds of ways to lead. I think that’s why it’s so important for women and also POC to see leaders that look like them, that lead in different ways.
I’ve talked to women on my team that are starting families. So many of them make assumptions that they can’t take on a bigger role or a promotion; they start to slow things down before they’ve even had their children and experience what it’s like. I ask them to discover it rather than hold themselves back. I think motherhood made me a much better leader, and I’ve seen it happen with many other women as well.
I also learned along the way to show more cracks. I think early on I was afraid to show when things were hard. I felt I had to be tough, to work harder than anyone, to never let people see me struggle. It’s not that I hadn’t. I’ve hidden from my kids in a closet or cried when I feel overwhelmed. I don’t like when people say I’m where I am because I’m a superwoman. So I try to show the hard parts as much as possible. Like leaving for a parent-teacher conference in the middle of a meeting, or letting my kids crash my Zooms.
But I’m far from a perfect leader. The good thing is I can keep getting better.