Shelly Lazarus exudes authority, from her perfect posture to her impeccably tailored suit. Yet spend a few minutes with her and you’ll find a contradiction: This Hall of Famer, this rare woman to break the glass ceiling at a major ad agency, is actually very down-to-earth. She is as approachable as she is knowledgeable and candid as she is capable.
Prior to my meeting with Lazarus, I prodded Jeff Goodby, founder of Goodby Silverstein & Partners, who once worked with Lazarus at Ogilvy, for a good interview question. “Ask her how she kept her humanity while running such a huge company,” he said. “She was wonderful at that.”
I did ask her that, and you’ll have to listen to this podcast to hear how Lazarus, who was named by Ad Age as one of the 100 most influential women in advertising, responded. Our conversation with Ogilvy’s chairman emeritus covered a lot of ground, from what it was like to be a woman ad exec in the 1970s to today's #MeToo movement to where holding companies are going in the future.
“I got an MBA because I discovered my first job was going to be typing,” she recalls. “This was in 1968 and I really didn’t want to type and there was this PR person at J. Walter Thompson who saw how stricken I was that this was yet another typing job that she said, ‘I think if you had an MBA they couldn’t make you type.’”
That MBA led to work at Clairol and a few years later, Ogilvy, where she spent her entire career and got to know its famous founder. “He was outrageous,” Lazarus says with evident admiration, citing a story about David Ogilvy’s singular dining habits. “We would go to a restaurant and the waiter would ask him what he wanted and he'd order mayonnaise," she says. Once in a hotel, he ordered jam for dinner, says Lazarus. “The waiter said “‘Sir, we don’t have jam for dinner’ and David said ‘Of course you do. Don’t you serve breakfast in the morning with toast? Don’t you have those little jam jars?’ And the waiter said ‘Yes, I guess we do.’” Ogilvy, says Lazarus, responded: “‘Bring me three of those and a spoon.’”
Lazarus says she has no regrets and in our talk her love for the business was abundantly clear. Even the story of how she was named Ogilvy chairman in 1996 is unpretentious. She was in Riverside Park at a field day for one of her sons when she was called by then WPP chief executive Martin Sorrell on an unreliable cellphone with a bad connection. “I thought he was offering me the CEO job at Ogilvy, but I couldn’t really hear him, so I said ‘Martin is it OK if I call you back?’” Continues Lazarus: “I went home and called and found out I’d been correct in what he had been saying.”