Women in Business Q&A: Amber Guild, President, Collins

01/01/2016 12:57 pm ET Updated Jan 01, 2017

Amber Guild is the president of Collins, a New York-based brand consultancy, focused on helping their clients create more meaningful experiences for their customers. In a world where digital, physical and human converge, Collins helps their clients solve the puzzles of relevancy to build brands people can't live without.

Collins works with notable brands such as Spotify, Target, Coca-Cola, Foursquare, ACE Group and Babyganics with the belief that the only way Collins can help their clients create meaningful experiences for their customers, is if Collins' own creative culture reflects the diversity of the world we live in today. One of few women of color to become President of a top-flight agency, Amber has made it her mission to reimagine what creative culture looks like for the industry - one that is inclusive of talent from all backgrounds.

Amber comes from an accomplished career in account management where she's worked closely with clients to build their brands (and their businesses). While she spent the majority of her career in brand-building, including in key roles at Ogilvy & Mather, Saatchi & Saatchi and TBWA\Chiat\ Day. In 2009, Amber turned her focus to digital marketing when she joined agency T3. Amber was Managing Director of its New York office and grew it into a remarkable player, leading clients including Chase, Allstate and Pfizer.

While Amber's experience across many industries and channels has honed her gifts in leading big, meaningful experiences for people, it's her daily experience as a wife, mom, daughter, sister and friend that reminds her why it matters.

She graduated cum laude from Boston University with a degree in Psychology and Women's Studies. She lives with her husband and two young children in New Jersey.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up in two very politically active households (my mother's in New York and my father's in New Jersey). Each had radically different forms of activism (one through education, the other through more tangible acts of protest). I found myself from an early age attending demonstrations and rallies. By the time I was in middle school I was organizing walk-outs and holding political fundraisers (well, an 11 year-olds version of a fundraiser).

Being surrounded by people from very different backgrounds working together for an idea they believed in had a profound influence on me. Not to mention, learning at a young age that I had a voice and an ability - if not a responsibility - to affect change was powerful and motivating.

As a business leader, these tenets still guide me. We work to build, evolve and create ideas that push our clients' businesses forward and we can't do that unless we have highly skilled, talented and diverse people working together to imagine, innovate and create. As a leader, I have to help create an environment where different people can come together, but feel united by a shared vision. I have to nurture a place where everyone knows they have a voice, and most importantly, has the ability to affect change - whether it be for our clients' brands or to our own internal culture.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Collins?
The most beautiful thing we can make for our clients are sales charts that curve up.

I've worked for some phenomenal organizations. They've taught me what it really takes to deliver results.

Our success lies purely in the people who work with us. And as many great organizations I have been with, I have also been in organizations where the culture was not conducive to collaboration, diversity, or debate. Leaders at these organizations say our industry has a "talent problem". But the problem is not with the talent. It's with an archaic, Mad-men-esque culture that doesn't allow the diverse thinkers of today's generation to thrive. And it's those businesses that are struggling, and will continue to struggle, as other more progressive companies learn how to evolve, adapt and create new creative cultures that will allow talent from all different backgrounds to thrive.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Collins?
We've made some pretty massive strides in the last 8 months that could have only been made possible by working with a talented group of people. By the end of this year, we will have doubled in size, created a new framework for how we work internally and with our clients, won 10 new clients, opened a thriving San Francisco office and launched an internal "Culture Club" that sponsors outside events for our people to stay engaged within the design community. We've also just started to concept a new paid internship program that will identify high school students from economically disadvantaged school districts to spend the summer learning (and playing) with us. Last but not least, we've also worked hard to improve our employee benefits so we can make sure our people are taken care of. As with any company that is undergoing tremendous growth, we have some growing pains. Change, even for the better, is always a challenge to navigate. But we put our people first. If we can do that, the rest will follow.

How can companies retain female millennials?
Over the last couple of years I've felt a personal and professional mission to answer that very question. A year ago I would have said that we have to stop telling women they are the ones that have to change, and rather look at the culture of our professional organizations and see how they have to change.

We need to start by raising awareness on institutional gender and racial biases in the workplace that impact employee retention and progress. We need to look at new models of how we allow both men and women to work so they have the flexibility and ability to be caregivers as well as employees. And we need to start paying women equal wages to men doing the same job.

The big question that companies have to answer is "What happens to our businesses if we don't?"

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
It can be easy to confuse who you are with what you do for a living. Make sure that what you do for a living only represents a part of you. Leave room for all the other roles you can (and should) play in your life - ideally they should all influence each other.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I wish I could give you my five point plan but I'm not sure it's currently possible given our overarching culture of work in this country. When I started at Collins, the owners of the company (Brian Collins & Leland Maschmeyer) agreed that this was an important issue and that we needed to figure out what that looks like for our company. Currently, I have a work schedule that allows me to come in very early to the office and leave by 4:30pm‬ so I can pick up the kids and then I work from home on Fridays. I remind myself on a daily basis that I can't be all things at one time, which allows me to focus and prioritize, and ultimately to be present and engaged whether it's at work or at home with my kids.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
That we think women need to change (Lean in ladies!) instead of the change happening within the companies that hire them. That we think things like equal pay, institutional sexism, flexibility, and a culture of overwork are "women's issues" versus issues that impact and harm everyone, and most significantly, our families.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I don't know how you can move through your professional or your personal life without a mentor and/or a personal board of directors. It's made all the difference in the world for me. The more senior you become, the more isolated you can become. My mentors are both men and women who have been able to provide me perspective, insight and guidance. Oh, and a good laugh.

Early in my career the head of our department had taken me under his wing and created some career changing opportunities for me. Year's later over coffee, I thanked him. And he said to me - "Amber, all I did was provide you a stage and a spotlight, you did the rest."

Now that I'm a leader, it's what I try to do for others thanks to his influence and mentorship.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Gay Gaddis - Founder and CEO of T3. Almost 20 years ago she did something revolutionary - she didn't want to lose some of her top talent (which happened to be women) and so when two women became pregnant at the same time she told them that after their maternity leave they could bring their babies back to work with them. This started the T3 and under program that allows mothers, fathers and their children to more easily transition back in to work and in to their new lives. It was a company realizing it needed to adapt to its talent, not the other way around.

Mellody Hobson - President of Ariel investments. Not only does she lead an incredibly successful investment firm but she also talks openly about the things you're not supposed to talk about in business when you're a woman of color - that fact that you're a woman of color! Her TED talk "Color Blind or Color Brave" should be mandatory viewing for everyone.

Anne-Marie Slaughter - President of The New America Foundation. Her provocative essay "Why women still can't have it all" has had me tossing and turning at night since I first read it two years ago. It prompted me and some other women to start a think tank - we know our current culture of overwork isn't working - for anybody - so we're looking to ideate solutions to change it. I don't want my daughter or my son to have to choose between being great at their job and being great at their lives.

What do you want Collins to accomplish in the next year?
We want to re-imagine what a creative culture looks like for our industry. That means creating a place where our people are sincerely valued, heard and supported. Where our people come in and feel inspired to inspire others. A culture where truly diverse creative talent comes together to solve the challenges our clients face, and where we help them create more meaningful experiences for their customers.

That means creating an environment where women, people of color, gay, lesbian, straight, transgender, parents, caregivers, white dudes, introverts, extroverts, data seekers and intuitive feelers can all thrive.

The way we see it, companies need to work for people. And we can only do that by having the most talented, spirited, and passionate people working with us every day. It's that tough. But it's that simple.