Women in Business Q&A: Claudia Strauss, CEO, GREY Activation & PR

05/20/2015 04:15 am ET | Updated May 19, 2016

Claudia joined Grey in 2011 to lead the Activation and PR practices. Known as an innovator with several industry "firsts" to her credit, Claudia is passionate about integrated marketing. At Grey she oversees a team that creates campaigns outside the bounds of traditional advertising that include promotions, partnerships, entertainment, influencer, public relations, content, experiential and grassroots tactics. Since she joined Grey the team has grown very rapidly, and the work has proven to be effective as well as famous, winning Effies, Lions, Reggies, Bulldogs, Pro Awards and many more. In March 2014, Ad Age called the Dallas Gas Station produced by her team one of "Marketing's Most Memorable Experiential Moves." Most recently Claudia was named a "Trailblazer Mom" by Advertising Women of New York and Working Woman magazine.

The Activation and PR group drives the multi-year and award-winning Canon "Project Imagination" project that achieved wide acclaim as it propelled Canon ahead of Nikon to the #1 spot in its category. The team also works on large integrated programs and PR for Marriott Hotels, TNT Dallas and The National Parks Foundation, as well as activation programs for T.J. Maxx, UPMC, Volvo, Papa John's and Eli Lilly among many other clients.

Prior to Grey, Claudia was a managing partner at kbs+ where she headed up the Promotions and PR practices and produced integrated campaigns for clients including Target, Snapple, HomeGoods, Old Navy, Revlon, Puma, Lexus and HBO. She started her career in the arts and collectibles field, overseeing marketing for a Swiss auction house and even creating her own vintage clothing and textile auctions.

Claudia has an MBA from NYU Stern, and lives in NYC with her teenage sons. She is known to be a travel and culture fanatic and can always be counted on to take advantage of all the city has to offer, from pop-up dinners to music events to vintage car shows to Mexican Wrestling and more.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
As a first generation American child of German parents, one of whom was a refugee from Nazi Germany, I learned early on that strength and belief in yourself was critical to survival - and to personal happiness. In fact, I think dealing with challenge adds to character, and importantly also makes one a better leader -- more empathetic to those who are on your team, but also less tolerant of those who hold great employees back.

Beyond promoting belief in self and overall confidence, my European parents instilled in me from a very young age the passion for travel, culture, exploration and adventure. Our trips several times a year around the globe opened my eyes and my mind. And, being a city kid I logged countless hours on weekends heading to museums, theater and other cultural events. Overall, I believe that travel and experiences of all kinds helps mold marketers and are far more powerful than studies, especially for me as the head of an Activation and PR practice and I distill this belief with my team.

Finally, parenting teens has been a very powerful ingredient in helping me understand our younger workforce - and has helped me hone my craft as a marketer. Aside from having a far more digitally native 'team' at home, they offer me insights into what is driving their peers from an inspiration perspective, what platforms are hot, what music is essential, what the new 'funny' is and what in general is trending.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenures at Grey NY?
My first job after getting my Marketing BA was 'perfect on paper' - I was a junior team member on the Global Business team for a beauty brand. However, I quickly learned a critical lesson - perfect on paper is not always perfect. Beyond the glamour of the position, it was evident that I was better suited to a truly creative environment. I dove deep into my passion for art and launched and ran Marketing for a Swiss auction house in New York. Finally, a job where I got to come up with ideas, work with something I loved (art), and make things happen! From events to partnerships to influencer relationships and PR and everything else, I did it and I loved it. This was the job that convinced me that every element of the marketing mix was important, and that the real magic is when they all come together. I parlayed this into launching my own auctions of vintage fashions and textiles to indulge my own collecting and play at entrepreneur a bit all the while raising my first child and writing a shopping column for the New York Post.

When the auction house closed post art-market crash, I ultimately found myself in another dream job - building the Activation and PR practices at one of the first, if not the first, integrated agencies, Kirshenbaum and Bond, working directly with the founders - who are still mentors to this day. This experience was certainly foundational for the work I am doing at GREY NY. While we were early to embrace non-advertising led campaigns (yes, even before the internet was everything), the same principles apply now. Creating smart ownable non-traditional work for brands that moves the needle, gets people talking and gains traction across ALL of a brands' audiences (from Walmart to Wall Street to the WSJ) is always the right thing to do. We were doing content before we called it that when we developed a television show for Meow Mix and sold it to Oxygen! Who knew what to call a fan convention that we dreamed up for Snapple? All we knew is that these things worked, often better than advertising would have.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenures at Grey NY?
I can still say that one of the highlights here at Grey was seeing the original Project Imagination campaign for Canon come together in 2011; this was a campaign that completely changed the way we viewed work at Grey in my mind - a truly integrated idea that was not driven by television. The idea was simple but visionary - a user generated photo contest to inspire a Hollywood film produced by Ron Howard. The idea helped the brand beat their nemesis in Nikon, and went on to win almost every marketing award around. The success of this campaign is the spark that spurred the growth in the Activation and PR practices. We built teams around it, and proved we could do it, and that it worked. We just launched the third iteration of Project Imagination and expect it to be as groundbreaking as the last two years programs' were.

Another highlight has certainly been working closely with Michael Houston (CEO, GREY North America and a past colleague from Kirshenbaum) and Jane Reiss (GREY CMO) on overarching GREY initiatives to modernize the agency. Partnering with our most inspiring and talented thought leaders to think about the future of the agency is certainly an honor. There will certainly be another hundred years of famously effective work that breaks the mold from GREY and I will be proud to have been part of that.

And yes, there have been challenges especially as the kind of work that my group does is a bit 'envelope-pushing'. Often, even when we know an idea will be famously effective for clients we have to work hard to prove why and how when we share it with them. We sometimes are even challenged internally by teams who don't see the value of a big idea that goes beyond television. Creating a great analytical approach to measuring non-traditional campaigns has helped with this. Measuring the value of earned media certainly helps. Ultimately though, it's such a win to work with brave clients and teams that face their fear to do something that has never been done before.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in advertising?
My advice - go for it! It is one of the rare fields in which your creative thinking and strategic abilities are equally important. Advertising is also a field in which you keep learning - each day we are faced with new challenges, new categories, new products, new channels.

Beyond that, be fearless about your thinking, and if you believe in an idea and have done your due diligence, present it with passion. This advice goes for both men and women.

And learning doesn't have to take place at your desk. If the men are going for long lunches, they are probably connecting and women should do the same. Put yourself out there to meet others and experience cool things.

Finally, take all those truly great qualities that women have - multitasking, nurturing, and communication and make them work, particularly if you are a manager. Women need great female role models; it's a responsibility AND an honor to do this job well.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Never be afraid to think big, to try something that's never been done before. Tor Myrhen, President of GREY NY even hands out a heroic failure award so people can take those risks. I whole heartedly believe in that mantra and want my team to reach for the stars.

When you do have that big idea, just be ready to stand up for why it works and what it will do for the company/client/team. To that point, always speak up (IF you have something to say), be confident - but not cocky. And remember that working with other great smart people will make your work better - and that collaboration is the name of the game at agencies today. And in life forever.

Finally, never ever feel badly about having a life and a family. Nobody wants to work with a bore, or someone who doesn't appreciate friends and family. And if they do, they shouldn't hang around too long.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I am the odd agency creature who loves the morning. I get the thinking done when it's quiet before the meetings start. I also practice a ritual I call 'walking myself'. Getting a few laps around the neighborhood in the middle of the day is a brain cleanser.

And of course, take vacations! Not doing that is simply disrespectful to yourself. Adding to that, living in NYC and leading an activation practice I feel it is my duty to partake in all the culture (high and low) that surrounds us. Life is for living, not for working. And getting out and being inspired makes me much better at my job.

Finally, we all hustle in this business and there are late nights and all of that. But, no matter what, whenever possible, family is a priority, and this is a great example to set in place for your female employees. Call me crazy, but I like even seeing kids in the office every now and then. It humanizes the employee/parent and sets a great example. And kids have great energy. If we could have dogs in the GREY offices I'd support that as well!

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Women need to know their worth in the workplace and stop being so modest. Being humble isn't necessarily attractive anymore - in a nutshell, without being obnoxious, we should all stop asking for so little. Women bring talents that have never been MORE important actually - multi-tasking, mentorship, collaboration and more. Frankly, the campaign that GREY did for one of our global clients, Pantene, sums it up nicely 'Sorry, not sorry'.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I would say that mentorship has been a key factor in my success both from the perspective of having had great mentors, as well as enjoying being a mentor myself. Through a trustworthy mentor, one gains advice, an outlet, a creative partner and often, even a step closer to a new better job.

My first boss in advertising, Richard Kirshenbaum, was definitely a mentor - and to some degree still is. He taught me the power of thinking big, the importance of earned media for everything, and how valuable it is to go out for lunch with colleagues or even take a walk. I still follow this advice today. Clearly I work with so many fantastic leaders here at Grey as well. Michael Houston's smarts, grace under pressure, strategic management and drive to greatness is inspiring every day.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I am in absolute awe of Malala Yousafzai, who, while at the time only 16, had the conviction, strength and passion to fight for what is right and beyond that, more importantly, to be a true role model and leader for young women around the world. Her story is remarkable, her work is remarkable, and her impact will be felt. Her story is a true embodiment of the belief that we can do anything if we put our minds to it. And her youth makes it that much more incredible.

At work, there are a number of female leaders I admire. Jane Reiss, GREY CMO, Deb Freeman, one of our fabulous Executive Strategy Directors and Amy Tunick, the President of my group are all inspiring female leaders at the agency. Each one of these women is a great example to the women on their teams and the rest of the women at GREY. They have built fantastic and inspiring careers, maintain deep friendships, have wonderful families, and are all simply a delight to work with and have a glass of wine with. I am so lucky to work with all of them.

What do you want Grey NY to accomplish in the next year?
My somewhat selfish business goal is to partner with key leaders at the agency to convert at least 75% of our clients to integrated clients within the next year. We are at a key moment in marketing where Activation and PR have never been more critical to creating Famously Effective work and we are all pushing towards doing more of that at all times. Along the same lines, I would love to see us create at least one truly breakthrough experiential campaign with technology at the very center. We're working on that.

And, overall, I would like us to continue the good work we've been doing on maintaining our culture at the agency. We're investing in making big feel small and it is paying off with happier employees, better work, and more fruitful collaborations. One of the greatest culture initiatives we have at Grey is our Social Responsibility platform - The Healing Power of Creativity. Getting my team involved in their great works is great for everyone.