THE BLOG

Women in Business: Q&A with Donna Wiederkehr, CMO Dentsu Aegis Media Americas

05/15/2014 02:46 pm ET | Updated Jul 15, 2014

Ms. Donna Wiederkehr is Chief Marketing Officer of Dentsu Aegis Network and has held that role since she joined Aegis Media in 2011. Ms. Wiederkehr provides strategic brand marketing and development counsel across all eight of the global network brands at Dentsu Aegis Network - Carat, Dentsu, Dentsu media, iProspect, Isobar, mcarrybowen, Posterscope and Vizeum - as well as its specialist/multi-market brands including Amnet, Amplifi, Data2Decisions, Mitchell Communications (PR), psLIVE and 360i. The first truly global communications network for the digital age, Dentsu Aegis Network is innovating the way brands are built for its clients through its best-in-class expertise and capabilities in brand, media and digital communications services.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I got into the business in a most unusual way. I was a full time hot air balloon pilot for my dad's company. I grew up living out of a suitcase, traveling the world and helping companies create awareness and preference for their products. I was up at dawn to see the sunrise and worked with the media and our client through sunset and beyond.

If I look closely, it's nearly the same job today.

My leadership style feeds from that foundation. As a pilot, I need to count on our crew (team) to be successful. It's critical to give clear direction, as anything less than that can be catastrophic when flying or at least a mess in business. Sometimes our crew needs to be ahead of me when landing; that means I need to build teams with great intuition and problem solving skills that can get there before me. My crew needs to work together or the balloon will not launch safely. If someone makes a wrong move the whole team can be in trouble. Sometimes the weather changes unexpectedly inflight and it can be unnerving trying to get to the ground safely to try to fly again another day. That means our team needs to be agile and responsive to let go of our current plans and start again. We celebrate each landing with a bottle of champagne to toast the owner who let us land without permission and toast the crew that found me. In business, I try to celebrate each victory no matter how small.

The other core life experience that shaped my leadership style was - dare I say it - being a cheerleader. I fundamentally believe that you can cheer and motivate a team to greatness; they just need to believe that you believe in them so they dig deep enough.

How has your previous career experience aided your position as the Chief Marketing Officer for Dentsu Aegis Network Americas?
As with everyone, the journey of life takes each of us to where we are today. When you look back (even if it's just five years) you can see how each strand was beautifully woven to the path we are on today. It's hard to see it when we are in it, but upon reflection, it's clear.

I spent the bulk of my career in full-service creative agencies. The founder of the first agency I worked for was a true pioneer in the industry. He built the agency on integration way before any other shop thought this way. I grew up in the business always trying to solve the client business problem, not create an ad. We grew by helping our clients create new products. It's that foundation that serves me so well today.

Consulting at many different agencies gave me great insight into how to seek out and create winning teams. A consultant told me: "when you think about whether you should work at a particular agency, honestly assess the talent and what's holding the company back. If you don't believe you can impact the problem areas don't take the job." It was some of the best advice I've ever received.

Being a part of multiple turnaround agencies gave me insight on how to inspire a team to greatness. Each agency has hidden talent; sometimes it just needs to be coaxed out, coached a bit and cheered on to greatness.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
In all honesty, I don't. While my life is blessed in so many ways, this is the one area that is out of whack. I could give you a great answer about how I juggle everything effortlessly, but I don't. However, that doesn't mean I am unhappy - I just juggle a little differently each day. I have a very unusual ecosystem that feeds it all. I attend daily mass in NY, get back to Minneapolis to care for my parents at least one weekend each month and travel to Rwanda three times a year to be with my kids there. I visit with my new son from Rwanda who is studying at St. Olaf College. And I work extreme hours in my CMO job. I believe with every fiber of my being that my work at Dentsu Aegis Network has been so blessed (a.k.a. successful) because of the other parts of my ecosystem that I feed and nurture to the fullest of my abilities. So while my life is far from what we classically define as work/life balance, I am happy and thankful for every moment, trying to be IN each moment.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Dentsu Aegis Network?
I told a consultant five years ago that one thing I knew for sure was that I would never work at a media agency full time. Well, the joke is on me. I have never had more fun in my career, and never been more inspired than I have here at Aegis Media and now at Dentsu Aegis Network.

Initially my work was with the media and digitally-centric brands, but now with the Dentsu-Aegis merger, I get to return to my roots by also working with brilliant full-service creative agencies like mcgarrybowen.

My time here has been nothing less than exceptional. I have worked for many people in my career, but for the first time, I am reporting to a true visionary in the business: Nigel Morris (CEO of Dentsu Aegis Network Americas & EMEA). I have never found a brain like his. I could spend all day listening to how he sees the future and how we can be leading our clients to success in that convergent landscape. He pairs that talent with a genuine compassion for others. One of the reasons I decided to leave consulting was because Nigel truly believes in the work I am doing in Rwanda and wanted to find a way to allow me to meet the needs of my kids there and help strengthen our team here. He is fully committed to the time I need to be in Rwanda.

Working at a holding company/group level gives me the opportunity to work across all our brands, which is great fun for me. One of the brands I have spent a lot of time with is the team at Carat. We have been on a remarkable growth journey, being named Media Agency of the year for the last two years by Advertising Age and Media Magazine. We won the largest single account in the industry ever - General Motors - and are now ranked by RECMA (an independent ranking service) as the #1 network.

What advice can you offer women seeking a career in the advertising industry?
Here's my top 10 ten list:

Dream big. Don't let anyone stop you.

Learn from everything. If you have a great boss, emulate him or her. If you have a not-so-good one, take note and never replicate it.

Immerse yourself in this business. Read everything. Network.

Don't be afraid to ask questions. It's a great way to learn.

Find a mentor and inspire them to mentor you. It's your job to make it happen - not theirs.

Take charge of your career. It's your career, not your company's, so make sure you get the learning, coaching and compensation you deserve.

Add value. This is the single best advice I have to give. You can add value at any stage of your career. Don't convince yourself that is only for the senior people.

Be Kind. 'Please' and 'thank you' go a long way. Remember what it feels like to you today. As you climb the corporate ladder, be kind to the people that help get you there, from office services to the cleaning person at night to who gives your conference room a little extra love before an important meeting - and anyone who rallies to make you or your team shine.

Understand what makes your client's business tick. Remember, our success depends on their success. So dig deep into what makes theirs work.

Build teams. This business is a team sport, not a solo act, so build yours wisely.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Not finding your own voice. I believe men and women lead differently. When given a challenge, we might get to the same great results, but the process for getting there is different. Your voice matters. Find your path. Ensure you are aggressively managing your career and don't expect others to do it for you.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
It has been essential. From my first mentor, Madeline Betsch, who was an early pioneer in our business and ensured I reached my fullest potential, and then some. To Pam Larrick, who gave me a kick in the butt when I needed it about seven years ago to not let anyone discount my value. To Chantal Mbanda in Rwanda who has shown me to step outside of how the world defines success to truly make a difference in the lives of 28 orphans in Rwanda. Of course, my all-time favorite mentors are my parents - a dad who ensured I absolutely believed I was capable of achieving anything I set my mind to, and a mom who ensured that I planned for my future.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Kristen Cavallo, the new president of Mullen. We met about eight years ago when we were the only two women presenting at a big holding company best practices meeting. We immediately found our other half in the business: women of faith who believed integrity was too often missing in the business world and believed we had the chutzpah to be change agents in helping our companies grow; but doing it in a way that was 100% authentic to who we are. She has been my first call for help for many years. Importantly the call that she proactively answered was to help with my work in Rwanda.

Chantal Mbanda in Rwanda lives to serve. Chantal had the vision to create homes (not orphanages) in Rwanda to love and care for orphans. She fundamentally believes that when people hear about the need and feel confident their funds will be stewarded well, they respond. Chantal has a clear mission. She is articulate about the plan. People rally to support her. Isn't that fundamentally what we are all trying to achieve? The difference is she is knows her 'paycheck' will be on the other side of eternity. The ultimate paying it forward.

You're involved with New Hope Homes, which provides assistance for orphaned and abandoned children in Rwanda. How is this making a real difference in the region and what are your hopes for its future?
April 6th marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide and the 8th year that I have been working in Rwanda. This country and its people have absolutely stolen my heart. Our dream at New Hope Homes is to create the brightest future possible for our 28 kids who are all orphaned or abandoned. These kids came to us as newborns to five years old and will be our kids for life. I have watched our kids arrive scared and shy, and then blossom into good health and then start to really thrive. One of our girls was about seven when she came to us. She had been caring for her two younger sisters. If you are seven years old and keeping your younger sisters alive, then you are smart, creative and have exceptional problem solving skills! We take that base, ensure they get healthy (life on the street is hard), are clothed and fed. Then they take all those key skills they have been using for survival and use it to succeed in school, and wow, do they soar. Seven of our kids are top 3 in their classes at school. We believe education is the way out of poverty, thus we send our kids to the best schools. This means we are building tomorrows leaders in the country. We have so much more work to do, and our dreams are only limited by our available donations.