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Shelly Lazarus: A front seat witness to advertising's gender shift

Shelly Lazarus rose through the ranks to become CEO of Ogilvy & Mather.

When Shelly Lazarus started her career in advertising, she was often "the only woman in the room." She rose through the ranks to become worldwide chief executive officer and chairman of advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather, and one of the most prominent leaders in the industry. Now chairman emeritus, she continues to consult with the agency and its clients, and to offer her marketing wisdom.

Ms. Lazarus will be in Toronto on Friday as part of the FFWD Advertising Week conference. She spoke with The Globe about how the ad industry has changed, what women need to get ahead, and what makes for good marketing.

Your first encounter with advertising was in the ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel in 1967, at the Advertising Women of New York conference. What did you hear that day, that made you think this is something you'd like to spend your life doing?

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I always tell this story, that the meeting went on for five hours and I was disappointed when it was over. I'd been watching advertising from the time I was a young child. It had never occurred to me that there was a strategy, that it was thought out, that there was a target audience. I couldn't have been more naive. To me, it was the most fascinating intellectual puzzle. ... It's like discovering a whole new country that's right outside your door. It's obviously something odd about me, but I just found it mesmerizing. ... I have the lowest boredom threshold in the world. Ask my husband. I can't do anything for longer than 15 minutes without changing. The fact that I've stayed in the same industry, at the same company, for more than 40 years, it gives me pause. Every day is different. You never know the answer, every problem is a fresh problem. We have consumers who are endlessly fickle. You can guess how people will react, but even if you do testing, you never really know. To me, that's what makes it endlessly fascinating. That's why I just love what I do.

You started at Ogilvy when David Ogilvy was still around. What was the best advice he ever gave you?

If you attract the right people and you create an environment where they're as successful as they can possibly be, everything follows from that. ... He judged the output vigorously. He would have divine discontent, we would say. Nothing was ever good enough. If we said, okay, the work could be better, how do we get there? He would go back to either better people, or a better environment where they could do better work. Every answer came back to the quality of the people.

When you started, Ogilvy was still doing the Maxwell Housewife commercials.

Right! "I think I'll keep you around." [The husband says this to his wife in the ad, on the condition that she remains a "good little Maxwell Housewife."]

You had a front seat for how advertisers changed their approach in speaking to women. What was that like?

Advertising reflects the values of a society at a period of time. I don't think it can lead. If we had had advertising at that time that showed independent women, I don't think it would have had any impact. The truth is, women really did judge themselves at that time, by the quality of the meal served at night and how white the shirts were, and whether the coffee was of high quality, and all that. You could argue with them, but those were their values. But as women awakened to the women's movement and started to think, "I can play a role that's much larger than being the maker of the coffee in the morning," then advertising could be nudged along to show women playing a larger role. When I show this advertising, people start guffawing or hissing. I say, I only wish that back in the 1960s, that was the way women reacted, but they didn't. It worked. It sold stuff. If it wasn't relevant, it wouldn't have sold anything.

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When you became CEO, you were hailed as one of the only women at the top, but there was an important one before you – Charlotte Beers, Ogilvy's first-ever female CEO. What did she teach you?

She was the one who got us refocused on our real mission, which was to help our clients build brands – which sounds so simplistic, but trust me, we were lost. Remember, we had a hostile takeover [by WPP Group in 1989], which is very distracting. We forgot about what the central mission was. It took an outsider to come in and hold a mirror to the agency, and say, "Here's everything that made you great. You need to focus on that again." She did a brilliant job of that.

So much coverage of your career has focused on you being a woman – whether that's celebratory, or somewhat diminutive, as when reports characterized your 1994 win of the IBM business as the result of two ladies having a manicure.

Right. [Laughs]

How did it feel to be evaluated on those terms?

It's one of those things that you can't fight. I was a pioneer in many ways. … For someone to say, "We're startled that it's a woman filling this role," that was just the truth. I used to be the only woman in the room.

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There are more leaders now, but the ad industry is still very male.

It is, it is. The real progress of course is at the entry level. When I joined the advertising industry, there weren't women at any level; they were all secretaries. Now, something like 60 per cent of our new employees are female. It might be more than that. So the question is, if women are overrepresented at entry level ... why aren't they getting to the most senior levels? ... I don't happen to believe that women need remedial programs. We just need an even playing field. And from the view of women, they have to be brave enough to claim what they need for themselves. And not wait for someone to say, "Oh, we're going to put in a program that allows people to work from home on Fridays," or whatever. ... I used to have a boss who used to call me on Sunday afternoons. I would either not call him back, because the weekends were for my family, or if he got me, I'd say, "OK, that's great, I'll get to that tomorrow morning." But there's a certain amount of courage not to go running off at 2 p.m. on Sunday to do something that could just as easily be done at 8 a.m. on Monday.

Your area is account management. [These people manage an ad agency's relationship with clients, and win new business; this role is not often seen in pop culture as someone who is part of the creative team. Think Pete Campbell on Mad Men.] What role does the account person play in the creative side?

People who are really good at account management have to be good marketers. It's often overlooked. What's the business goal? It's not brilliant film for brilliant film's sake. … You have to know what you expect to happen when you put forth this stimulus. Unless you can articulate that, it's kind of a waste.

What types of marketers are the best to work with?

The ones that share with you their business goals, way beyond advertising. They invite you in to think about the strategy. Creative people tend to be creative about everything. You ask them to write a commercial, that's great. But I always say, "Ask me a bigger question. I'll come back to you with 10 interesting ideas that go way beyond a print ad or doing something to your website." It's those clients who invite you in, that are great to work with, because they let you think with them.

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Is there work out there that you wish Ogilvy made?

The hardest thing of all is when you have a great, strong, admired, respected, loved brand – is to keep it fresh over decades. That's really hard. Coming out once in a while with a great campaign, that's not so hard. Look at Apple, Nike. Over time, they continue to reinvigorate and strengthen their brand. At Ogilvy, this is why I have so much regard for Dove and IBM and American Express. It's the same brand. It's the same positioning. But there's a new way of making people pay attention to it all over again that just continues year after year, decade after decade. They never lose the core of the brand, but the work is always fresh. That's really hard to do. Finding a new way at it.

There's a lot of talk about millennials, and how different they are as a generation of consumers. From the perspective of 40 years in the industry, is anything really different, or have young people always been a mystifying bunch to marketers?

The one thing from a marketing standpoint that I think is real, is the social conscience part: the awareness of good actors and bad actors, of every part of society's responsibility to society. That's real. Every commercial enterprise has to think about that, how do young people think about them as a member of society. I don't think this would have occurred to anybody in the last century. Even before you get to whether they buy your products and services, the crucial thing is, who will they work for? That's back to David Ogilvy. If you can't attract the best people, and keep them in your organization, you're cooked. You're absolutely cooked.

What preoccupies you about advertising today?

I've lived through a time where our industry has gone through such upheaval and change, but – maybe you need to be old to have this perspective – at the same time, so much of what was necessary to be successful 30 years ago still holds true. It's that tension, all the time, of embracing everything that's new, but at the same time remembering that it is all about ideas. It is all about an overall positioning for a brand. It is all about building strong brands. We just now have 1,000 ways to do it, if before we used to have 500 ways.

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A lot of ad people get distracted with the shiny toys.

Exactly. Steve Hayden, who was my creative partner, used to say, "It doesn't matter how many places you can put something, if there is no core idea in the first place." People get so carried away with everything you do on social media, and all that. It's almost that the content is irrelevant. But nothing could be further from the truth. ... What we need to do is pay attention to how we talk to people when we're interrupting them.

Are there examples of advertisers doing it well?

The positive part of this – which we never thought about when I was young – is there are people going online to find your messages. You don't have to pay for it, because they're coming to find you. Take our whole experience with Dove, which I love to talk about in general, but particularly when I'm in Toronto, since a lot of the original thinking came from Ogilvy Toronto. These are videos that people seek out, spend time with, share with others. We have the same kind of experience with [business-to-business advertising], where we have people spending 20 to 25 minutes on the IBM website watching mini-documentaries that we created to inform people about some of the products and capabilities of IBM. You never would have imagined years ago, people spending their time seeking you out, going to find what we know is a commercial message, because it's useful, because it's entertaining, because it's interesting, because it's relevant. There's huge promise, and potential. It's just a question of finding out how to use it well.

That makes me think of the Volvo ad, "Epic Split." People watched it because it was delightfully surreal to see this ad with Enya playing and Jean-Claude Van Damme doing the splits on top of moving trucks. But Volvo found that those people were actually continuing on and watching other Volvo videos.

To me, all you need is a few examples of things that really work, and then you go, "Okay, now I know how good it can be. I just need to keep working at it so that everything is as good as that." It doesn't all have to look the same, but there's no reason you can't achieve that effect for every brand, product, or service that you're advertising. Take the Dove work, here's what it can be. It's completely on-message, and yet it has a reach that's so far beyond anything we could have imagined.

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