Women in Business Q&A: Nina Tooley, Chief Marketing Officer, High Wide & Handsome

05/27/2015 07:01 am ET | Updated May 27, 2016

Nina Tooley is the Chief Marketing Officer of High Wide & Handsome, an "Uncommonly Loyal" advertising agency based in Culver City, California.

Nina has a B.A. in Political Science from Princeton University ('98) and an MBA from Pepperdine's Graziadio School of Business and Management ('08). She started her career as an entrepreneur in the fashion industry, launching a successful line of women's handbags and working with Body Glove on a line of women's active-wear. After graduating from Pepperdine, she went on to become Director of Digital Marketing Guthy-Renker, managing new customer acquisition, social media, online branding, and online celebrity campaigns for their top four beauty brands including Proactiv, Meaningful Beauty, Wen Haircare, and Sheer Cover.

She then joined Sole Society, a direct-to-consumer women's shoe brand owned by Nordstrom and Insight Venture Partners. She spent the next several years as Vice President of Marketing, building the Sole Society brand from pre-launch to over 1MM registered customers. Prior to joining High Wide & Handsome, Nina also worked as Chief Marketing Officer for The Left Shoe Company, a men's luxury custom shoe brand from Finland, helping to launch their brand and retail operation in the US.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My father is a well-known actor so I had a somewhat unusual upbringing, spending time on film and TV sets and never really being exposed to a traditional office environment or 9-5 type of schedule. He is a gifted communicator and treats everyone he meets with respect. As a result, he connects with people in a very down-to-earth way and makes an impact. These are all qualities I've tried to emulate in both my professional and personal life, but it's a lifelong learning process. My mother has been an incredible model of leadership as well, but in a totally different way. She has an unshakeable sense of self and a quiet confidence- not something you'd expect from a woman married to a celebrity. She raised 6 children- and is a small business owner, so I can't really think of a stronger female role model in my life.

How did your previous experience aid your position at High Wide & Handsome?
One of my unique qualifications for the position is that I've spent most of my career on the client side. When I was at Guthy-Renker, I brought High Wide & Handsome in to work on digital campaigns for two of our beauty brands- Sheer Cover and Meaningful Beauty by Cindy Crawford. I've worked with many different agencies, large and small, and I've had a range of activity and client experiences. I've also fought a lot of the internal battles that our clients face every day. When I meet with a potential client, I understand their needs, challenges and objectives from a first-hand perspective because I used to sit in their seat. I also believe in what I'm selling and that's one of the best parts of my job.

What have the highlights and challenges been thus far during your tenure at High Wide & Handsome?
I have to be honest, sometimes it's hard to sit on the other side of the table! Competition between agencies is fierce and clients have a lot of choices out there. We don't participate in competitive pitches or respond to mass RFP's so I have to take a very targeted approach in my outreach. My daily challenge is to connect with the right people at the right time and to communicate our different points of differentiation in a meaningful and relavent way. It's also one of the highlights- I love working for an agency that is so client-focused and has clearly defined principles. We know who we are. Another major highlight for me has been working with such wonderful people. High Wide & Handsome is like a family. People treat each other with respect and kindness and it makes for a wonderful working environment.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Every day is a new work/life balance challenge- for everyone these days, not just women. Especially when you're passionate about your job and it's such an integral part of your life. I have a 13-month old son so that's taken the challenge to a whole new level. My husband and I have had to become a lot more organized in our personal lives so we can accommodate all of the things we want to achieve. Clear and frequent communication is key. A family friend once told me, "you can do it all, but not at the same time." That advice really resonated with me. Women are so hard on themselves! C'mon ladies... forgive yourself when you don't work out enough, or you need to order takeout instead of cooking. Priorities have to shift sometimes.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Work with good people. That's been the biggest lesson for me so far. You've heard the saying that you're the average of the people you spend your time with... it's true for both your personal and professional life. Most of us spend more waking hours with our co-workers than our families. When you're with negative people, or people who lack integrity, it rubs off quickly. Look for people who will lift you up and do the same for them. Your network will grow quickly and it will pay dividends.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
It really depends on a woman's age, experience and the industry she works in. I've encountered a variety of issues over the course of my career and in the different positions I've held. When I was starting out, I wasn't taken seriously. It was partially due to my lack of experience, but I also didn't have the confidence some of my male counterparts had. I didn't speak up enough, even when I knew I had the right answer. I've also experienced outright, blatant sexism, which was shocking and disheartening. The advertising industry, like most industries, tends to skew male at the very top. What I love about High Wide & Handsome is that two of the partners are women and it's a very female-friendly agency.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
A good mentor should inspire you, encourage you to stretch beyond your comfort level and help you learn from your failures or missteps, which inevitably happen. I've been so fortunate in my career that people have recognized my desire to grow and learn and they've given me that chance, even if the bullet-points on my resume did not match up perfectly with what they were looking for. I've tried to do the same- to look for people who are great raw material and eager to learn. It's so incredibly rewarding to work for someone who has a personal investment in your growth so I've tried to share that experience.

What other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire fearless females who are pioneers like Gloria Steinem and Marla Yousafzai. They somehow transcend criticism and threats and are untiring in their activism. That's the kind of person I'd like to be, but I'm not that brave. I'm a happy follower though. I also admire women like Sheryl Sandberg, for bringing women workplace issues back to the forefront, and Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, for empowering girls to pursue careers in engineering and technology.

What are your hopes for the future of High Wide & Handsome?
I'm incredibly optimistic because I've been a client, so I know how rewarding it is to work with High Wide & Handsome. My hope is that we continue to grow in a thoughtful, healthy way so we can maintain our core principles and stay focused on producing beautiful, effective work. The founders of High Wide & Handsome created a new model for advertising with this agency. They aren't aspiring to be rock stars. It's not about them. It's about our clients and creating meaningful, lasting relationships based on mutual respect.