Kristen Cavallo, CEO of Richmond-based The Martin Agency, was named Ad Age 2019 Executive of the Year. In recognizing Cavallo, Ad Age stated:
“When a woman is tapped for leadership, it’s often in a time of crisis, and that increases the probability of failure,” says Kristen Cavallo, who was installed as CEO of The Martin Agency in December 2017. Not two weeks before her appointment, a #MeToo scandal had toppled longtime Chief Creative Officer Joe Alexander, and would later force the resignations of CEO Matt Williams and President Beth Rilee-Kelley.
“I knew that I wouldn’t have the luxury of failure,” says Cavallo. “The truth is that men fail all the time at being leaders, but when one woman fails, all women fail.”
The first woman to lead the Richmond, Virginia-based shop since its 1965 founding, Cavallo was brought over from Interpublic Group of Cos. sibling MullenLowe to put the pieces back together. She promoted Karen Costello, an industry veteran but relative newcomer to Martin, to chief creative officer, forming one of advertising’s few all-female leadership duos. The pair quickly adopted equality and accountability as their remit.
Cavallo also reassured anxious clients and staff that the agency was committed to change. Her efforts were so successful that no clients left due to the scandal and by the end of 2018, the agency had won seven more, including UPS and Buffalo Wild Wings, boosting revenue 20 percent higher than in 2017, it said.
She had been at MullenLowe for seven years—after 13 years at Martin—and was splitting her time between work in Boston and her home and family in Virginia when she received the call from IPG about her promotion. She had 20 hours to fly back to Richmond and prepare for the announcement.
“I’d never actually interviewed to be a CEO before becoming one,” says Cavallo, a strategist by training. “Truthfully, I think part of the reason I got the job was because I am a woman. I’m not implying I don’t think I was the right person for the job, nor am I implying that I don’t think I was ready. I was an IPG employee for 25 years.”
But as a relative outsider, she was also untainted by the scandal while still having a history with the agency and much of the staff. “To the people here, it really felt inspiring and comforting to know that a beloved person from their past who understood the foundation and the DNA and the spirit of how this place was built would come in,” says Costello.
After accepting the job, Cavallo made a point to spend time with each client, using the scandal as an opportunity to reset the relationships. Some were cautious, and none promised to stay. Potential clients were nervous, too.
“We were dropped out of two pitches in January that I know of,” says Cavallo. “They were transparent that they didn’t want to take a risk.” But others approached the agency because of the new female leadership. In the end, the only agency-of-record loss of 2018 was Benjamin Moore, following a CEO change at the brand.
Cavallo has done more than help bring in clients. She requested a third-party wage audit for gender disparities. It revealed no statistically significant pay discrepancies between men and women, though a few salaries were bumped up, including one man’s. She revamped the human resources department, which helped improve the diversity of new hires.
She also doubled the number of women on the agency’s executive committee and added two new positions: Chief Culture Officer Carmina Drummond, responsible for employee satisfaction and inclusive hiring; and Chief Client Officer Danny Robinson, the first African-American on the committee in the agency’s history. (More than half of Richmond’s population is African-American.)
Cavallo and Costello have two children each, and they wanted to foster an environment where the staff could prioritize their families, so the family leave policy was amended to add six weeks of paternity leave. The agency is also looking at student loan reimbursements.
In addition to Buffalo Wild Wings and UPS—which had been with the agency for 10 years until 2009—the agency expanded its Mondelez roster to include Trident, and won Kohl’s, Lidl and Sling TV. It also won back Virginia Tourism Corporation, for which the agency wrote “Virginia is for Lovers” in 1969.
“Don’t waste a good crisis,” Cavallo says. “It gives you permission to be impatient and to make broad changes.”
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