Ogilvy & Mather’s Shelly Lazarus On Leadership, Millennials, The Beauty Of Memes, And Why She Doesn’t Watch ‘Mad Men’

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Shelly Lazarus, chairman emeritus of Ogilvy & Mather.

For more than four decades, Shelly Lazarus has helped shape the direction of Ogilvy & Mather, the storied advertising, marketing and PR firm that served as inspiration for AMC’s “Mad Men.” A pioneer in every sense of the word, Lazarus earned an MBA from Columbia University in 1970, one of only four women in her graduating class. She began her career at Ogilvy as an account executive the following year, rising through the ranks to become CEO of the company in 1996 and chairman in 1997. Under her tenure, the agency has attracted such brands as American Express (NYSE:AXP), Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO), IBM (NYSE:IBM) and Motorola (NYSE:MSI).

Last year, Lazarus stepped down as chairman and moved into the role of chairman emeritus, but she hasn’t slowed down. IBTimes caught up with the real-life Mad Woman at the 2013 IABC World Conference in Midtown Manhattan, where she was speaking at multiple events.

IBTimes: What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in advertising over four decades?

Shelly Lazarus: I think changing what we mean by advertising. When I started it was basically print, outdoor, television and radio. For most packaged goods companies, you could do two television commercials and three print ads a year and you were done. The big decisions were whether you were going to run on primetime, or daytime or late night, and which of the women’s magazines were you going to run the print ads in. And then we could all go to lunch. [Laughs] And today, I mean, just the number of different ways you can communicate, the way you can target people and have information about them. You can know who you’re talking to and have them talk back to you.

IBT: What kind of challenges does that create for an ad agency from a business standpoint?

SL: I always say the business plan sort of wrote itself. If part of the way a constituency came to know a brand was through websites, well, then we better figure out how to have all the expertise on interactive and digital. And so it came about rather naturally, as opposed to waking up one morning and saying, ‘Oh my God, now we’re in digital and we have to buy something.’

IBT: The perception of digital ads is much different than in print or on television. Adobe did a study recently that found that about 70 percent of consumers find digital ads annoying.

SL: Because they’re interruptive. I’ve been on a tear about this from the beginning. Go back to the 80s and 90s, when everything we did was try to simulate a real conversation. When we finally got the opportunity to do that, we just put small-space print ads on the screen, which popped up in an annoying way. So I think we’re in the infancy of how we use online communication as advertising.

IBT: One of the things that Ogilvy does online especially well is social media. Your Facebook page has 137,000 fans. Other large agencies don’t come close to that. And you share all these brilliantly conceived memes.

SL: We follow our own teachings. We know that, for some people, this is the way they form a connection. We know that social media is a brilliant way to create community -- for some people, again, not for everybody. The trick is to figure out how to make sure that you’re meeting the needs and expectations of all different target audiences you have.

IBT: I just love the idea that a meme can be something artistic.

SL: Well, it’s another way of communicating with our audiences. Creative people tend to be creative in all ways, is my experience.

IBT: Everyone’s talking about the Millennials, that they’re harder to communicate with through advertising. Do you think that’s true?

SL: No. How you distribute might be different to Millennials versus people who are 65, but I think the danger that comes out of the question you’re asking is that we try to tailor communications to each one of these demographic groups. And we lose sight of the fact that there has to be a core idea in the first place.

IBT: Then how do you think the younger generation differs from older demographics?

SL: Well, I think they respond to the same ideas. I think a really powerful idea speaks to Millennials and everybody else. How they find it and consume it is different.

IBT: Do you think there’s a greater cynicism in regards to advertising today?

SL: No, I don’t. I think everybody’s cynical about advertising. They’ve always been.  

IBT: Building on that, I know everyone asks you questions about "Mad Men" constantly. Has that show and all its glamour changed attitudes about your industry?

SL: I don’t think so. I think it’s created interest, for sure. Frankly, from my own perspective, I think the most important, poignant part of that whole series is the portrayal of the wives at home, and what it was like to be a woman in the 50s and 60s. I think they captured that, the emptiness of it, the tedium of it.

IBT: Do you think they capture that better than they do the industry side of it?

SL: I think it’s more nuanced. I think it’s a harder thing to capture than what goes on inside an advertising agency.

IBT: Do you watch it?

SL: No. I watched two episodes the first season. It’s a little slow for me. But I do think the art direction is incredible.

IBT: You’ve said that your favorite quote from [Ogilvy & Mather founder] David Ogilvy is this one: ‘If you always hire people who are smaller than you are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. If, on the other hand, you always hire people who are bigger than you are, we shall become a company of giants.’ Why does that quote appeal to you so much?

SL: You’re only as good as the people you have. If you want a management philosophy, start with the people. I think this view of finding people who might even take your job or displace you -- but they’re such big thinkers that they excite you -- that’s actually not what people tend to do. They don’t like to be threatened by people who work for them. And yet, to me, that’s what you should do.

IBT: Do you have a favorite Ogilvy ad campaign?

SL: No, it’s like choosing between my one of my children. [Laughs] Absolutely not.

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