100 Most Influential Women in Advertising

The Winning Attributes of Abby Kohnstamm

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Abby Kohnstamm

Former Senior VP-Marketing, IBM

Just tell Abby Kohnstamm she can't do something. Then stand back.

One of my favorite stories about her is about when she transitioned from majoring in dance to business at NYU. In her first accounting class, she asked the professor for help with some of the more arcane material. Noting that she was a dancer, he told her to drop the class -- that she would never get it. She not only passed that course, she aced it and went on to earn her MBA with flying colors.

In one of her first big jobs at American Express, she worked with Lou Gerstner. When Lou was asked to take over a very broken IBM in 1993, Abby was one of the first people he called. After talking with customers around the world, Lou decided that one integrated IBM would be more valuable than its separate parts.

In her role as senior VP of marketing, Abby felt the best way to support this was to have one integrated agency -- instead of the 50-plus that IBM had at the time. She quickly built a team of superb marketing talent to partner with and, after a secret search, awarded the business to Ogilvy. It's the only time I know of when an account switch made the front page of The New York Times. It was a bold and risky move and far from the norm at the time.

As I came to know, this was quintessential Abby. She's a gentle woman with a spine of steel. She has courage under fire, patience, vision, clarity, character and a subtlety of understanding that helped change the perception of IBM from dinosaur to industry leader.

Ogilvy recruited me from my duties on Apple at BBDO. After meeting Shelly Lazarus and Charlotte Beers at Ogilvy, I had my last interview with Abby. I was worried about leaving my good life in L.A., but Abby looked me in the eye said, "Remember, Steve, no guts, no glory."

Over the 18 years since that first meeting, she's demonstrated plenty of guts but shared all the glory with the people around her.

Steve Hayden is the former vice chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide and member of The Collective.

See more: Most Influential Women in Advertising: The Power Players
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