CEO Conversations

CEO in Seconds; More than Ready to Lead

An unremarkable Monday in December turned into a dramatic inflection point for one company and for the career of Kristen Cavallo. At the time she was the Chief Strategy Officer for Mullen Lowe, headquartered in Boston. The “Me-Too” movement was dominating the national conversation with sudden, jolting consequences for many established leaders. Such was the case for The Martin Agency, a sister-agency to Mullen Lowe located in Richmond, Virigina. On that particular Monday, Kristen received the call to step in as the new CEO.

Within 24-hours, Kristen was introduced as the first-female CEO in the sixty-year history of The Martin Agency.  And while she was selected in haste, her experience and instincts proved essential to navigating the instability of the moment. We sat down with Kristen to better understand why she chose a leadership style that emphasizes generosity and how those decisions impacted her bottom-line.

What went through your mind when you were asked to be the first female CEO of The Martin Agency?

When I got the call, I felt a range of emotions. I’d never been a CEO before and frankly, had never even interviewed to be a CEO. I don’t think it’s because I wasn’t qualified, I was simply very happy at my current role. But I had this unreasonably strong connection to The Martin Agency because of the formative years I’d spent there early in my career. I felt this strong pull to go back.

Normally when you are interviewing for a job you have this window of time – 30-60-90 days to plan. I had none of the above. When the phone call came, I wasn’t in the headspace of running a company but I needed to make a quick decision. Society was shining a light on the potential of women leaders and I was glad for the opportunity to step into it. So I deliberated quickly and 20 hours later on was on a plane. 

“Deliberated quickly” may seem like two words that don’t belong together but I’ve actually come to believe they are perfect companions. From my perspective you need about 60% of the most relevant information to make a decision. You take the 60%, lean into your values and move.

Recently a friend shared a quote from Ulysses S. Grant that says, “Anything is better than indecision. We must decide. If I’m wrong, we shall soon find out”.  I’ve come to rely on my decisiveness a lot in my last four years. To not decide wastes valuable time and money so I moved quickly that day and every day since.

In this moment of instability, what was your first move?

Certainly an abrupt leadership change can be destabilizing not only for our staff but for our clients. We risked sending a signal to all of them that was worrisome. I immediately appointed a Chief Creative Officer, a woman named Karen Costello. I was the first female CEO in the history of the company and Karen became the first female Chief Creative Officer. The building was metaphorically burning around us so our first act was to grab a pail of water but as women we are great multi-taskers so luckily, we were also capable of taking strategic action to change the narrative. We stepped in to lead in a moment that was forcing conversations about transparency and accountability but most of all it was about correcting wrongs.

We chose pay equity. Now that might seem like an odd choice with so many other concerns. This was the right first act because as women leaders we had spent our entire careers waiting to be paid fairly, waiting for someone else to do the right thing. We were finally in the position where we could ensure pay equity. We did not have to wait another day. Karen actually suggested the idea and the moment she did I remember shifting from fear and anxiety about my ability to do this job to a realization of the potential in front of me. In that one act – announcing that we were going to do a broad scale review of pay equity – I stepped into the role of CEO. It was the moment where I shifted from being thrown into something to leading.

The next thing we did was paternity leave. Neither of us believed in the adage that the future is female. That notion feels like a reversal of inequity. We wanted women to feel supported at work, but we also wanted men to feel supported to be present at home.

We both believe strongly in the diversity dividend – this idea that diverse leadership delivers higher margin, higher returns and profitability and better employee engagement. So, we focused on creating a leadership team that reflected this belief. We doubled the number of women on our executive leadership team and added the first African American to the team. Within three months, the executive leadership team was 63% female and 37.5% diverse replacing the old leadership team that was 80% male and 100% white.

I know a lot of companies give themselves a long lead to make changes like this. But I think change can be made a lot faster. We made faster changes and realized the benefits of those changes a lot faster.  Progress to me is about implementing new ideas and because of the situation surrounding The Martin Agency at the time, I was given permission to act with impatience and purpose and do things differently.

How have your turned availability into one of your greatest leadership assets?

Availability meant living in the present moment and letting it stare you right in the face.

It was a transformational moment for the company. There was a lot of fear, some anger but definitely a lot of emotions. I didn’t want to live at 30,000 feet where strategy resides but I didn’t want to micro-manage or live in the minutiae. Availability meant living in the present moment and letting it stare you right in the face. It meant asking people how they were feeling, soliciting their ideas, getting their advice on what pieces of the company culture we should throw away but also what aspects should we lean into. And so, availability took place over a lot of cups of coffee sometimes five a day over the first few weeks.

Another example came when I invited the entire company to join me in achieving an impossible task. Each year I set an “impossible” personal goal. Some of the goals have been physical like running a marathon or climbing a mountain but on this particular year it was my 50th birthday so I decided that I would do 50 acts of service with 50 different organizations. I quickly found that I was going to need help to come up ideas. So I sent an all-staff email and asked, “if any one gives their time to a cause they find meaningful and would be willing to have me volunteer with you, I would love to join you.”

We have a company sponsored volunteer program where we serve together and its great team building. Our employees select where we designate our contributions of expertise and funds. But this ended up being really awesome not only because we achieved the 50 acts of service but because everyone held me accountable and wanted to know where I was serving and what I was doing. Doing this opened up my world to issues and causes I knew very little about and it allowed me to really get to know my staff. I served at Oakwood Arts, helped elementary school children learn how to swim, prepared meals at soup kitchens, coached women re-entering the workforce for interviews, and planted trees – to name a few. I had the opportunity to serve in a broad range of projects that really reflected the tapestry of the people who work for the company. And today, we will still laugh about something that happened and feel bonded by the experience of serving together.

Because of that time that I’ve spent being available, it’s become a hallmark trait of my leadership. I think people are more inclined to follow me even when I come up with an idea that that they may not agree with, they will follow me up that hill because they know me and I’ve taken the time to hear them.

Can you tell us about your “work-life balance” experiment?

One thing I’ve learned along the way is that if you introduce a “new process” it’s gets resistance, but if you say we want to “experiment” with something then the threshold of acceptance is lower. And if the experiment succeeds it’s great but if it doesn’t people seem less concerned.

Our latest experiment is a monthly three-day weekend. It’s our flip on a “four-day workweek”.  A four-day work week is focused on what an employer’s needs. A three-day weekend shifts the focus to what employees need. We already have unlimited personal time off, vacation and holidays but we all know that no one is taking the days they need. Very often leaders believe this comes from a place of fear. More often, I find that it comes from a place of compassion. People do not want to shift their workload onto their co-workers who also have a lot going on in their lives.

But people seem willing to give themselves the grace to take a single day when they wouldn’t necessarily give themselves the grace to take a week. So with the help of their direct managers, we are strongly encouraging people to take one three-day weekend a month. This allows for 12 additional vacation days and gives everyone a pause once a month to recharge and reconnect. Sure we hope this will help with turnover but I am hopeful that people will feel supported to take needed breaks more often.

You recently became something of a Twitter lightening rod, can you tell us why you jumped in on social media?

Well the short answer is that I felt like I needed to defend our industry.

I’m rarely on Twitter and frankly think I had about four followers at the time. There was a CEO who chose to go on Twitter to celebrate a win for his team. They had a high performing ad that ran during the Superbowl. I’m all about raising up your team, but in this instance, he chose to elevate his team at the expense of others – the creative agencies that provided him the very ideas he was lauding. He falsely claimed that no ad agency could have come up with their winning ad, when in fact, several did.

Some people thought it was a conversation about credit or intellectual property but if it had been that, I would have started that conversation a week before when the ad first ran. What I objected to was his demeaning tone toward an entire industry. I spoke up on their behalf without realizing what a lightning rod the conversation was going to be. 

I have spent the last 28 years in this industry. It’s an industry filled with professionals who take their job very seriously, people who study advertising 100% of their day. We study why something works, we study human behavior, we also study the work of our peers and competitors. We are constantly trying to figure out how to improve, consistently striving to bring joy. We work long hours, tight timelines and decreasing budgets and in the end, we are an economic multiplier in the ways we help grow a business.

The silver lining was the unexpected solidarity I felt from the industry as a whole. We are often competing against one another but in this instance, we were aligned. One New York agency sent me a cake. I received a bouquet of flowers from an agency in Toronto telling me “Canada has your back”. I’ve received emails from the Netherlands, Ghana, the Philippines, China, Japan, France and all over the United States letting me know that my public defense helped people stand a little taller.

As an agency, your role is often to shape other brands’ point-of-view. How did you find your company’s purpose?

We have a point of view, like any brand should, about the way brands grow and the way people react to things.

I think the business world has become very good about fighting for things but we don’t always clarify what we fight against which in my mind is equally if not more important. Where do you draw the line in the sand? What are you going to rail against?

For us at The Martin Agency, we’ve named our purpose as “Fighting Invisibility”.  What that means externally is that we guarantee our work will be noticed, that it will stand up and stand apart. The reason that matters is because the strongest correlation to sales today is relevance. The most talked about brands grow two and half times faster. We will make sure your brand is talked about.

What this means internally is all about representation and belonging. It means this is a place where you can come and fully be yourself. We’ve built our company to deliver on this promise. As a result, we’ve attracted employees and clients that value being seen.

You’ve taken risks and made bold moves. What bottom-line impacts have you seen as a result?

We’ve seen double digit growth every year for the last four years. We’ve won Agency of the Year for back-to-back years. It’s a special moment in this company’s 60-year history and a rare accolade that only three agencies have ever claimed. We know exactly who are and exactly what we are fighting for and we’ve grown because we found the people and clients who have the same goals and ambitions.

From this position of strength, you’ve decided to lend your influence. What’s the vision?

As an extension of our purpose, we want to fight invisibility in how the work gets made in our industry. We want to tell new and different stories and break stereotypes. We want different people behind the camera, diverse talent writing, directing, and designing the work. There are simply not enough minority directors (race, gender and ability) in the mix. We’ve set a goal for ourselves to reach 50% of our work created by minority directors and we are working with our clients to get there. It’s going to require hard work across the entire production pipeline but I believe we’ve all been drawn to this purpose and together we can reach this ambitious goal. It won’t be easy. It might cost more in the short term. I think we have the opportunity, and frankly the responsibility to change the stereotypes and that’s what we are going to try to influence over the next year.

Kristen Cavallo
CEO, The Martin Agency
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