How I Got Here Apr 26 2012

Ogilvy's Shelly Lazarus on the "Even Playing Field"

By damian ghigliotty

In her years at the same ad agency, Ogilvy & Mather Chairman Shelly Lazarus recalls only one time when she experienced the kind of sexism rife on AMC's "Mad Men."

A client once told management they didn't feel comfortable having a woman run their account. Lazarus had pitched the business, "but one of the higher-ups on their side did not want a woman in that role," she said. Ogilvy backed her. That kind of support kept her at the same agency for her entire career, even after European ad conglomerate WPP acquired Ogilvy in 1989.

Lazarus, 64, began as an account executive after a short stint working on hair product marketing at Clairol. She took on various leadership positions at Ogilvy, including president of O&M Direct Marketing and chief executive of the agency's New York, North America and global offices. She has overseen advertising campaigns for American Express, Coca-Cola, IBM, Dove and Nestlé, among others.

Lazarus, born Rochelle Braff in Oceanside, N.Y., received her bachelor's degree from Smith College in Northampton, Mass., in 1968 and her M.B.A. from Columbia University in 1970. She earned her M.B.A. to ensure that she would be able to get into a high position in marketing, she said. She's now a director at Merck, General Electric, New York Presbyterian Hospital and the World Wildlife Fund, among other organizations.

The wife and mother talked to FINS about her two-year stint in Dayton, Ohio, where she worked at a suburban shopping mall, why she prefers agency work and why women don't need mentors.

Damian Ghigliotty: How were you first introduced to Ogilvy & Mather?

Shelly Lazarus: In the summer of 1969 I was an intern at General Foods, which is now Kraft, and Ogilvy was their advertising agency, so that was how I first met some of the people who worked here.

DG: What led you to Clairol before joining Ogilvy?

SL: I knew I wanted to do marketing, since that's what I really liked, so the question was how I was going to do marketing. The two choices, really, at the time were you could go work for a company in their marketing department or you could join an advertising agency.

I went to work at Clairol as a product manager because I thought they had a lot of energy in their marketing department. Also, there was another woman who was a product manager there, which was a lot more than some places had. It wasn't long after Clairol started doing, "Is it true blondes have more fun?" and "Does she…or doesn't she?" so there were these deep insights into how women felt about their appearances and their lives. That had some appeal as well.

DG: How did you make the move to Ogilvy?

SL: I got a call from a headhunter saying that Ogilvy was looking for somebody who knew something about hair. So where do you find somebody who knows something about hair? You go to Clairol. I had no intention of leaving Clairol at the time, but I hadn't seen anyone from Ogilvy since the summer I interned at General Foods so I wanted to stop by and say hello to all the guys. After an interview or two, the next thing I knew I was going to work at Ogilvy.

DG: Were there many women at the agency when you joined?

SL: There were very few women in executive positions. In account management there was one other woman who had just come in from the media department. On the creative side there were more, maybe 10 out of 100 or so. Media and market research had the most women, but they were still the minority in those departments.

Back then people dressed wildly. The first time I met Jane Maas, who is this tiny pixie-like woman, she had bright red hair and a pink one-piece playsuit. I suddenly thought: Where am I? What's going on? Why are people dressed like this? And then I realized, oh those are the creative people, that's what they look like. That's great, they wear strange things. I certainly had no role models to dress by.

DG: Was there more of an appeal to working on the agency side of the business?

SL: I figured I'll do two years on the client side and two years on the agency side and then figure out what I'm going to do. But a lot of it just fell into place.

When I thought about what parts of my job as a product manager I liked the most it was all of those that revolved around the agency side--the strategy, the brand articulation, the questions of how are we going to communicate it and the how are we going to go to market. The other thing I didn't realize until I came to the agency side was that I had access to people much higher up in the client organization as an agency person than I did as a junior person within the company.

So I thought I'd go to Ogilvy and stay for two years. But I came and never left. It wasn't a conscious thing, I just never left.

DG: You moved with your husband George to Dayton, Ohio, for two years while he was in the military. How did you handle that?

SL: The agency offered to fly me back and forth between Ohio and New York, but it was the 1970s and I had just had a child. You didn't split up families back then, unlike today. In retrospect I told my husband, "I should have stayed in New York with the baby," who turned 37 two days ago, "and you should have flown back and forth from Dayton."

But it was quite an experience. In Dayton, Ohio, you see real America up close and personal. It was a real blue-collar town back then and had five divisions of General Motors. The women out there were fabulous. I actually started working at a department store while I was there. After a year of staying home and raising my son I was completely crazed. I didn't have it in me to stay home all day and play blocks on the floor for hours, so I knew I needed to get back to work and I knew it would be better for him if I were happy.

DG: What did you do at the department store?

SL: I ran a department there for about a year. It was Missy Budget Sportswear and it was great. It was the first time I had run something and was held responsible for the bottom line.

I also had employees and these women were great--they just needed to be unleashed. That's when I really learned that the morale of the people who work in a department make all the difference. If they're feeling motivated, recognized and respected, that plays out in the way they treat the customers who come into the store. If they're unhappy and disgruntled and feel they're being taken advantage of, then they become surly and nasty and that makes all the difference in what the sales are for the day.

It is incredible too what I learned about merchandising. You put stuff out on the floor and you can immediately see what's selling and what's not selling. That's something you never really have when you're working with big companies and advertising agencies.

DG: After you returned to the agency, you took on bigger and bigger roles. What do you attribute to your success?

SL: The makeup of this organization. After Charlotte Beers became the first female CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide and then I became the next CEO after her, the conclusion was that David Ogilvy must like women. The truth is, yes he did, there's no question about that.

But that's not why there are women at the head of Ogilvy. I think what David established from the start and what he set out to establish was a true meritocracy where it doesn't matter how you dress, or where you came from, or where you went to school or what your background is. You are only judged by the contributions that you make to the organization.

I've been saying for years that women don't need remedial help. We don't need programs and mentors more than anybody else does. What we need is a true even playing field and equal opportunity to perform and be recognized.

DG: Did you face obstacles as a woman rising up in a male-dominated field?

SL: Never from within. There was only one time in my entire career where a client came to the agency's management and said, "I really wouldn't feel comfortable having a woman run our account."

I had pitched the business and we had won it, but one of the higher-ups on their side did not want a woman in that role. The managing director at Ogilvy then said to them, "Don't worry about it. We value Shelly and would never put her on a piece of business where she would not be fully appreciated for what she can do."

That's the Ogilvy philosophy: talent is our best resource and so we put our people on accounts where they can be the most successful. That was the only instance where I experienced discrimination. Other than that, I never faced any obstacles because of my gender.

DG: What were the biggest steps you took?

SL: One of the biggest moments in my career and my account work at Ogilvy was in the mid-1980s when I was asked to take over as management supervisor for the American Express account.

While nobody was looking, American Express became the biggest account we had. Ken Roman, who was CEO at the time, decided that Ogilvy should take someone who was well-disciplined in marketing and put them on that account to raise the level of account service on American Express.

Being given that opportunity was a huge thing for me. They were so vibrant and they were growing so fast, it was wonderful. When you've been marketing a detergent or a shampoo for so many years, you start to see only incremental growth. With American Express, the mentality was, "Hey, we can offer this to college students all over the country, but can we print the plastic fast enough?"

DG: What was one of the biggest challenges you faced in your years at Ogilvy?

SL: In the early '90s the New York office of the advertising agency was having a lot of trouble. There was a lot of disruption--clients were leaving, people were leaving. I was asked to come back and run that office, which I had mixed feelings about since we were seeing so much success with our direct marketing for American Express and other clients.

It is tough when you're working on a part of the business that is experiencing such rapid growth hand over fist and someone asks you to come back over and fix this sinking ship. One of the first things I noticed when I came back was that all of the senior people looked contorted and there was no sense of optimism left, which was the main reason everyone's resume was out on the street.

DG: How did you turn things around?

SL: What became obvious to me was that if you said to any individual, "Do you think you can turn around Ogilvy New York at this point?" they would go, "No, it's too much to deal with." But if you said to them, "Do you think you can make the advertising on Maxwell House just a little bit better?" they would go, "Yeah, I can do that."

So what I did was break the task into chunks that seemed doable. Then I gave each person a chunk and said, "Don't worry about the New York office, I'll worry about that. All I need you to do is restore the relationships on your account." Slowly but surely, it started to work and we started to win again.

That's when Charlotte Beers came in as the new CEO of the entire agency and that gave everyone a new spirit. As she won the confidence of our global clients that all accrued to New York. When IBM came to us in 1994 with the biggest brand problem the world had seen and we took on this struggling behemoth as their single agency globally, that also did a lot to restore faith in Ogilvy, inside and out.

DG: How would you describe yourself as a leader?

SL: I have a very simple philosophy: You've got to find five to 10 people who will stick by you to achieve a mission. Together, you have to be clear about what that mission is, what the strategy is and you also have to have a shared awareness about what the culture you wish to establish is.

Then you divide up the task and get out of the way, but make sure you're always available to support your team. People say you lead the way you've always wanted to be led and that is how I have always wanted to be led.

Write to Damian Ghigliotty at

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