Lust for Life

22 November 2010 Shelly Lazarus

One of the most powerful executives in advertising, Shelly Lazarus joined Ogilvy & Mather in the early 1970s and rose through its ranks to become its chairman. Michael Jones caught up with her at the British- American Business Council Conference in London to discuss her success, the role of women in business and striking a work/life balance in a career she loves.

Michael Jones: You've advocated that people need to love the work they do. How have you managed to retain that love for more than three decades?

Shelly Lazarus: The world of advertising changes so rapidly that you can't help but stay interested. I think if the industry was the same as it was when I started 30 years ago, I probably would have left it by now. But with the constant changes in the way that you can communicate with people, that you can interact, it's never dull.

I have a basic interest in marketing: how can I get people's attention? How can I present a proposition in a way that is compelling, that makes a difference and makes people take action? I'm inherently interested in the way that people think and act.

Another factor is that the people who work in marketing and advertising are remarkable. They tend to be curious, clever and quick. They always challenge everything and are wildly experimental. That kind of dynamic environment keeps me engaged.

You started your career at Ogilvy at the tail end of the 'Mad Men' era. What have been the most significant milestones in your time in the industry?

Well, there's no drinking or smoking in the office any more! I think that the other thing that strikes me so much about the era portrayed in Mad Men is the role of women.

The fact that women were only present in those days as secretaries and sex objects is striking when you contrast it with today, where I'd say most marketing and advertising organisations are probably split 50% male and 50% female. There has been an extraordinary level of change over the last 20 years.

As one of the most powerful executives in advertising, and as a female chairman of a large company, how much of a concern is it that there is still such a paucity of women CEOs in Fortune 500 and FTSE 100 companies? 

I think we have to be concerned when we look at the figures, but I think we should also keep it in some perspective. When I came into the business world in the early 1970s, I used to be the only woman in the room. That feels a long way away from conversations about women CEOs. The amount of progress that I have seen during my professional lifetime has been remarkable.

We still have the issue of low numbers of women leaders, so I think it's good to be impatient. Keep life in perspective, but be impatient.

What can be done to address this?

"For years I've said to women that I never snuck out of the office when I had to do something with my kids. I always walked down the centre aisle."

It's a numbers game. We need a big enough pool of women who are willing to fight the fight and put in the time. If there is one thing that concerns me, it's the number of extremely talented and capable women in their 30s who are choosing to leave the workforce to stay at home.

On the one hand, I think it's wonderful that women are free enough to make these choices, because that's the ultimate freedom; to recognise that they could be a CEO, but choose instead to take a break in their career and spend time with their children.

It's wonderful that women feel free to do that. On the other hand, the more women who opt to stay at home, the smaller the pool of female executives. When thinking of the number of potential female CEO candidates, it's not that large, so we have got to figure out a way of getting women to want to stay in the game.

You've advocated the need for balance between work and family life. How hard is it to achieve this in the cut and thrust of the corporate world? How sympathetic are boards to this?

I don't think boards should be sympathetic to this because it's not a board issue. The issue is retaining talent and making sure that the environment in which the talent works is as conducive to success as possible. Balance is not easy to attain but I'm positive that unless you are passionate about the work that you do, you're never going to achieve it. You have to find something that you love to do, that you can be passionate about.

You're going to love your children, you know that, so, professionally, if what you do is anything less than scintillating, exciting or fulfilling, your life is never going to be in balance. If your work is frustrating, tedious and not engaging then the balance will never be right and you'll resent every minute that you're away from your children.

 One of the things I have learnt is that you can fit into your life all the things that you love to do, but you can't fit in so easily what you find tedious. If you love your children and you love your job, it all becomes do-able. You have to figure out the balance day by day.

I think many people are challenged in finding balance and are unhappy with how their work/life balance pans out. In most cases, they don't like their work life.

How can employer policies support female advancement in the workforce?

I think you have to create a meritocracy, which means judging people by the results that they achieve, and by the contribution they make. It's not a question of how many hours were worked last night, or someone's availability on the weekends. If you want women to be successful, you have to let them to be able to figure it out for themselves. You need to trust people to do what is necessary to deliver what is needed from them and stop paying attention to things like how late they stay in the office or whether they are available at 7am for a conference call.

If you start to introduce these extraneous evaluation criteria, it's going to make it hard for people who are juggling a lot of things.

For years you've been held up as a role model for businesswomen. Is this a heavy burden?

I'm non-plussed by it. One of the things that made it easy for me when I was starting out was that there were no role models.  When I came into the business I had to make it up. There was a self-conscious aspect to what I was doing because I was never trying to live up to what anybody else was doing. Everything I do comes naturally from what I value and what is important to me.

For years I've said to women that I never snuck out of the office when I had to do something with my kids. I always walked down the centre aisle. That's who I am. I knew it was important to me. I knew I was going to a school play on Thursday morning at 11.05am.

The play never lasted more than 25 minutes though. I could be back in the office by midday and what difference did it make? You don't have to hide. I think you need the self-confidence to say 'this is who I am, this is what I do and if you want me to keep on working here, you need to trust me enough that I will get done what needs to be get done, but I'm going to do it on my own time.'

Who have been important mentors for you? Have any of them remained as touchstones throughout your career?

One of the best things about my job is that I get to work with so many great companies, so my clients have all been my mentors. They have allowed me to get close to them and form partnerships.

I've also been able to observe some of the great business leaders over the years. It's been fantastic because you can compare and contrast styles. The one thing I've learned is that there is not just one way of doing something. I've seen so many different approaches from people who have been equally successful because they are authentic. I've found that you have got to find what is authentic to you, what fits who you are and the way that you see life.

As long as you're true to yourself, and you're consistent about the way that you operate and behave and interact with people, then it will work.

Have the same motivating factors driven you?

"As long as you're true to yourself, and you're consistent about the way that you operate and behave and interact with people, then it will work."

Absolutely. I never set out to be a CEO or a senior vice-president. I liked what I was doing, kept doing it and every now and then they'd throw another title at me. I feel that I'm doing the same job that I did when I started: getting the best work and ideas I can out of a remarkable group of creative people for a particular client. All that has happened over the years is that the clients are now the CEOs of companies rather than the ad mangers. But the task hasn't changed.

If you get any downtime, how do you relax?

It's a wonderful thing to serve on the boards of several philanthropic and academic organisations and serve them professionally and apply it to things you believe in and make a specific contribution.

I don't have much downtime so I like to spend it with my family, I always have. Nothing is as relaxing to me as being in the country in Massachusetts on the weekends with my kids and husband. Being outside and reading a novel; that is total pleasure for me. And wearing sweatpants! I never get to wear them except at the weekend in the country.