Six Questions With New Hill Holliday President Chris Wallrapp

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Hill Holliday President Chris Wallrapp
Hill Holliday President Chris Wallrapp Credit: Hill Holliday

Hill Holliday has promoted Chief Growth Officer Chris Wallrapp to president, a role that's been vacant since Karen Kaplan became CEO in 2013.

Ms. Kaplan, who also serves as chairman of the shop, said she waited four years to refill the president slot because she "wanted to make sure it was the right person at the right time, and Chris is the right person at the right time." She said he's an incredible, inspiring leader, who helped drive the shop's 100% new-business-win rate in 2016.

In addition to Mr. Wallrapp's promotion, Hill Holliday shifted Leslee Kiley from head of account management to chief operating officer, a position that hasn't been filled in a long time and was previously focused more on finance than operations. Account Services Director Kerry Benson will succeed Ms. Kiley as head of account management, while Austin Gardner-Smith will continue to serve as senior-VP of growth, but will take on Mr. Wallrapp's previous responsibilities.

Ad Age chatted with Mr. Wallrapp to get the scoop on his new role and objectives.

Ad Age: What are your first objectives as president?

Chris Wallrapp: Karen oversees Hill Holliday, Erwin Penland and Trilia, and she sets the strategic vision for our agency network, so that allows me to take on some of the day-to-day responsibilities with Leslee Kiley, our COO. I'm going to be focused on raising the work here at Hill Holliday, trying to attract the best talent from around the world and then working with Karen to raise our profile.

Ad Age: Ms. Kaplan mentioned that you and Ms. Kiley have complementary skill sets. How do you plan on working with her to lead the agency?

Mr. Wallrapp: If you think about it from an internal and external standpoint, that's where Leslee and I really balance each other. We both can inspire and lead the agency, and we haven't really had a true chief operations officer before, so a lot of the things she's going to be implementing and the strategic initiatives she'll be overseeing will be in the spirit of making us more efficient and more innovative. From my standpoint, it's evaluating and working with our current clients. When I say we're trying to raise the bar creatively, what does that look like now? And I'll be continuing to focus on new clients that are appropriate for our brand.

Ad Age: It's an increasingly competitive industry, so how do you plan on differentiating Hill Holliday?

Mr. Wallrapp: We're coming up on our 50th anniversary next year, so we've always had a true compass on who we are. The way we set ourselves apart is we may not be right for every client, but we do our best work with clients who find themselves fighting a daily share battle in very noisy categories, so categories with little differentiation or no budget advantage or no clear leader. We love those kind of opportunities and working with clients who find themselves in that messy space, where it's a giant scrum for consumers to choose. We're really thoughtful with what clients we work with and who we prospect and who we reach out to. When you know what you're good at, then you have to figure out how to attract not only talent, but clients that fit that mindset.

Ad Age: What areas are you looking to invest in the most this year?

Mr. Wallrapp: No. 1 is finding the best talent. We've seen a lot of growth in brand consulting and the way we bring our work to life and the early conversations we're having with our clients is through really thoughtful customer journeys. When you get the customer journey right – the data and insight-packed journeys – it really shapes the way we think creatively about solving that right problem. So, brand consulting I want to invest in and I think there's a huge opportunity for us as an agency – and in our industry – around customer experience. Not just communications, but bringing ideas to light that prove something of value in a new way and I think that's an area where we're going to be investing in and we see growth coming from.

Ad Age: What's been keeping you up at night?

Mr. Wallrapp: It's growth. That's what's been keeping me up at night for the last couple of years and it's still what keeps me up at night now. Agencies have to constantly be moving and you can't just be content with where you are. When you see all of the new threats that we have as an industry and new companies and startups, it's about how you attract the right talent because that's where the ideas come from. You have to look broad and wide to find the best and attract the best talent and when you get the right people, that's when everything starts to click and you start to see that growth happen and the momentum accelerate.

Ad Age: What used to keep you up at night that doesn't anymore, and how'd you get your mind around it?

Mr. Wallrapp: What used to keep me up at night was creating the momentum – how do you get it going? And now that we have it, it's about how we sustain it and accelerate it.

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