Shelly Lazarus on Bundling, Brands And Her 'Random' Career

'If You Hate It, Tell Me,' the Recent Advertising Hall of Fame Inductee Says

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With her immaculately coiffed gray hair, matching gray skirt, blue jacket and white blouse, Shelly Lazarus presents herself as a very focused and resolute woman. So it was hard to fathom that the poised and elegant chairwoman emeritus of Ogilvy & Mather at one time didn't have an inkling of what she wanted to do with her life.

But after chatting with me about how her early exposure to advertising was entirely serendipitous, Shelly came around to the view that her non-plan might, after all, have been the best plan. In a video interview I did with Shelly on the occasion of her induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame, she said, "It's an odd story to tell, but the whole reason I wound up in advertising was because I had nothing to do on a Saturday morning in New York."

On that fateful day, she accompanied a friend to an Advertising Women of New York seminar for college kids. "I had no idea there was an advertising industry, I didn't know you could have a career in it, and yet I found myself sitting in the ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel, I still remember it, for hours. I was completely mesmerized." Shelly graduated from Smith College, then went on to get an MBA from Columbia University "not really thinking about having a career in business [but rather] because I needed to get a job and didn't want to type." She ended up at Clairol "because I liked the people there, again with no plan whatsoever."

Headhunter Judy Wald called her and said Ogilvy was looking for an account executive "who knows something about hair. And since I had been at Clairol, I was the perfect person."

Shelly Lazarus
Shelly Lazarus Credit: Sebastian Mlynarski

Would that kind of non-plan work for other young people, I asked her.But, Shelly said, "it was all sort of random, random movement. And I went over there and I just kind of fell in love. And I never left. People said, "Well, why did you stay?' You know, again, there was no plan. It was just I found a place where I loved what I was doing every day, and I never wanted to leave."

"Absolutely. Because even if you have the plan, it never works like the plan. ... The advice I give is you have to recognize an opportunity, and then if it feels right, if it feels good in your stomach, just jump. And chances are it will be right, and if it's not, you can always course-correct."

Shelly contends authenticity counts for a lot. "I think that being able to recognize who you truly are, and then make yourself as relevant to the time in which you live is really the trick, as opposed to saying, "Oh no, I'm leaving over there the woman I used to be, and now I'm going to chop off my hair and become a blonde and move to Greenwich Village and start going to clubs at night.' And friends look at you and go, "Who are you?'"

She says the same thinking applies to brands. "If people ask me what's important when you think about branding, it's understand your essence, figure out who you are, and then consistency, maniacal consistency, is really what makes for strong brands."

One of the reasons brands go astray, Shelly offered, is because companies have little "institutional history." She's always "flummoxed when a company buys another company because they believe in the brands, and they value them, and then within the space of six months they fire all the people who have been there forever. ... And so I think that the enlightened leaders always look to have someone in the organization who has a deep understanding of the brand." At Ogilvy, Shelly said, the agency sometimes plays the role of being brand continuity steward because it has people who have been there for 30, 40 and 50 years.

Shelly is not a fan of agencies unbundling their various components. Her basic philosophy is that the role of the agency is to bring together all the resources that exist to help a client drive the business forward.

"And so I think you need to somehow bundle everything. You don't necessarily have to own it, but you have to be able to ally with it, or venture with it, or something so that all the services that could be of value to a client are brought together in an integrated way. Clients don't want to buy services, they want to buy solutions. They want an answer. And media is part of the answer. And so I weep when we stop thinking together, that the solution we bring to the client is not as good, it's not as rich as the solution we could bring to the client."

Shelly contends that longstanding client-agency relationships, like longstanding marriages, come from telling the truth. "I always say to clients, if you hate something just tell me. Sometimes clients will feel like they want to protect you, and not tell you the truth. Somehow it seems arbitrary and immature to just say, "I hate it,' but I always say to clients, "People are allowed to hate things. If you hate it, just tell me. Don't tell me it's not on strategy or whatever.'"

Shelly maintains that "it's not typical but I think it's not unusual" for a CEO to abdicate the job of owning the brand. She noted that there are CEOs who are "just not comfortable with marketing and branding and advertising, and they think that because they're not expert in the field they're not allowed to have an opinion. But they are, especially if they're the CEO."

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