Posted on February 16 2017
This week's Wednesday Woman is the inspiring Nicole Yershon, advertising and innovation guru who started and led the Ogilvy Labs for almost ten years before it was abruptly shut down last year. Nicole is currently writing her first book as well as consulting and organising innovation events. Here's her story:
Danielle Newnham: How did you get into advertising ? What was your start?
Nicole Yershon: My dad (Mike Yershon) was like adversiting royalty but in the days where media was part of agencies (not separate) so he was kind of like the original mad man. He was at McCann in the late 60s then Collett Dickenson Pearce (CDP) in the advertising heyday before he became global media director for Leo Burnett. The distribution of agency salaries and structure at the time would be 27% of the money to account handlers, 26% to creative and just 10% to media guys and they would be given the last slot in the client meetings or pitches. Dad was one of a small group of media men who took media out of full service agencies and created media independents.
If you research on Mike Yershon and when I was first in advertising everyone use to say when people heard my surname are you any relation to Mike - because he was in Campaign every week - now they say to him "Any relation to Nicole?"
Newnham: So you obviously knew about advertising from a young age, and got the bug from your dad?
Yerson: Yes but I didn’t want to work on the media side, I wanted to work on the creative side and I was hugely inspired by Dave Trott. I wrote notes to the top 100 agencies at the time and he came back with 'you know we could be looking for an assistant, secretarial position type thing' but I really liked what he was doing with shaking things up. An example of this was with D&AD, who were considered the top awards and courses to do. Dave set up a non-D&AD course to find talent in alternative places, so he was always in my eyes doing the right thing. I never saw it as disruptive and he felt really inspirational to me.
Newnham: So you started working with him, was that your first job in advertising?
Yershon: No, my first job was at another agency called Marketing Events which was part of Dorland doing sales promotion in Paddington, which was after I came out of finishing school in Hampstead - I think my parents wanted to make a nice young lady out of me because I was always quite disruptive. I was curious and asked questions or said how come? Or why? And that wasn't liked at school - they wanted you to "sit down and shut up, I don't want to hear from you." In the days before google, you had to take what the teachers said as gospel and I always disputed it. So I think they thought well let's send her to this finishing school in Hampstead and see if we can smooth out the edges I guess.
then I worked at Gold Greenlees Trott (GGT) and then Simons Palmer which were both full service agencies. Any talented people who run an agency around the world now, especially in London, all came from that stable. You’ve heard of Cindy Gallop? Well Cindy and I worked together at GGT.
There was this group of unbelievable women and guys that came out of GGT and Simons Palmer, it was s brave and fearless culture. They were all great but that changed when I moved to Ogilvy; I felt like I stood out like a sore thumb. It was meeting after meeting; and the global network and group of companies were enormous, it was a very different environment to what I had been used to.
Newnham: So when you joined Ogilvy, how far into your role there did you set up the Labs or was it immediate?
Yershon: No It evolved over time - so I was there in 2000 and the actual physical lab was set up in 2007. Before that, I was tasked with digital transformation to bring them into the 21st century - to move them from an analogue world into a digital world.
Newnham: And how was that received? Were they dragged into it or willing to go?
Yershon: Management wanted it so therefore it had to be implemented. Luckily, I have always had incredible buy-in from CEO level so always had people that understood the need for change.
Newham: So what did the lab do when it first set up and how did it evolve?
Yershon: It was very clear when I first got there in 2000 that things were changing and moving very quickly with technology, especially the job that I was there to do which was digital transformation, really moving them from analogue to digital. I digitized all their archives going back to the 50s.
And then I worked on modernising press ads so did work with TAG, Steven Parish and The Mill and we just started to understand partnerships much more in terms of how to make things bigger, better, stronger, faster. We couldn't do it all ourselves so therefore the notion of making money doing everything in-house was starting to look difficult.
I also started to see that there was something out there called Facebook that people were beta testing so I just started to send emails around saying, "Guys there's something called Facebook you need to pay attention to" and some would email back saying "Stop spamming me with all these things." In the early days people were like what’s it got to do with us? And so it started to become very clear that there were these things sprouting up like social gaming, mobile and NFC, RFID and so much more. My thoughts were "Oh my God, there's just so much."
Initially I thought I was running an edit facility but soon started to understand that content was incredibly relevant and it was becoming digital so I then started to do digital delivery, getting rid of the tapes and couriers. But people don't like change so I would have people screaming at me saying "Where’s my tape? You're going to make me miss my air date" so really we were on the cusp of everything changing, implementing change is not easy or for the faint-hearted.
It was a painful process but actually this is where my book may be helpful. When someone within a company is affecting change, it’s really painful and that's why the lab (Ogilvy Labs) came about and which is what allowed me to move away from the edit facility. It was needed, to see what was happening from the outside and bring it into the group.
The chairman at the time - Paul O’Donnell - and Mike Dobbs saw what I was doing with the edit facilities. When they were thinking about doing labs around the world, they asked me if I would like to be part of a team of about 5 people who were looking to put together labs in different countries so that’s how it started. They said there's no budget and that’s where I then said well that’s OK, if I’ve been given approval to do this, I’ll just make it happen (Dave Trott wrote this piece on Nicole - "We don't need more thinkers, we need more doers").
Newnham: So it sounds like you have always had champions but what adversity besides budget, did you have to overcome? Did you find there was ever any issue with the fact you were a woman doing this job?
Yershon: Yes, I only ever had one issue in my whole working career of being a woman and that was in the early days at Ogilvy when I was running the edit facility. I was becoming a pain by saying "Listen, no one's going to watch your 30 second ad" and "Let's future-proof the agency and understand that all types of video content is going to be enormous." They wanted to get someone else in and I said "Why are you doing this? I can run this. There is no one one who can run this better than me." And the guy at the time said "You’re too emotional for the job" so I went up, very close to his face, and said, "I think you are confusing emotion with passion, I’m the most logical person you have ever met." And I didn’t speak to him again.
People find change difficult and uncomfortable. You know what it's like when you’ve got to do an update of your iOS in your settings and you get that reminder and you know it’s a pain isn’t it? Yet after a couple of weeks, you forget what the old iOS was like. So when you are effecting change at the level I was, no one wants it, so what you do is do it anyway and deal with the consequences after. It’s a case of asking for forgiveness, not permission.
Newnham: Who was less supportive of change - clients or co-workers?
Yershon: It was just anyone who wasn’t open minded. There was a really lovely blog post by Seth Godin about ‘Hunters and Farmers’ and that made me understand that there's a difference between those that get it and those who don't.
I realised that people are just doing the best they can and that there are two types of people and the people that I was needing to engage with were not the ones that were not my tribe, they weren’t hunters and so I stopped worrying. So that blog post was a revelation to me. I get it so that's when I say you have got to stop trying to bang your head against a brick wall and exhaust yourself, when it’s just never going to happen. Don’t try and convert them, they have a different role to play in the company, both are relevant but in the role I cover with innovation, I initially need the hunters
I’ve been reading lots on emotional intelligence by Dr Travis Bradberry - it is so true and it was then that I started to really understand about emotional intelligence and not IQ. Yet I find many leaders are frightened to say "I don’t know" because most look at your weaknesses and and say "This is what you need to work on" rather than looking at your strengths and saying "You’re amazing at that, keep going. We’ll find someone else within your organisation that are good at your weakness." Which is the same as at school where they constantly look at your weaknesses and basically tell you you're not talented rather than focus on your strengths
Newnham: So true. So what’s next for you? What are you up to now?
Yershon: I’m consulting with small brand agencies, innovation agencies, large media agencies like Havas and clients directly like Unilever, Tesco innovation workshops, putting on a big VR show which will continue that kind of lab day theme and that’s for 10,000 people in April at the Business Design Centre. There is another one planned around AI in January 2018.
I’m publishing a book and I judge Innovation awards and still speak at lots of events around the world, talking about anything from women in tech or how to affect changes within large organisation to entrepreneurship, future talent and the Rough Diamond programme.
Newnham: If there was any advice you would give yourself at the start of your career, what would it be?
Yershon: Believe in yourself. Believe that no matter how many people say no. Trust your intuition and your instincts. It is so easy, especially as a woman, to feel "Maybe I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong" but you’ve got to trust your instincts and you only trust them if you have a strong sense of self.
I understand that life isn't perfect and I teach my kids that you learn from your mistakes, it's OK to mess up. I feel some people try to make others feel that everything is perfect and try stop hassle from happening. Kids and adults need to live through that and feel what it feels like to fuck up, to learn from it so it doesn't happen again. If we stop them from doing that and if you are too frightened to let someone know that your kid got pissed and was in the gutter somewhere, and you try and gloss it over then punish them so it never happens again, well of course it’s going to keep happening - instead, film them pissed in the gutter, then show them "Oh this is what your friend saw" and let them feel what it feels like.
Newnham: Finally, can you talk about you leaving Ogilvy Labs at all?
Yershon: Yes, I can be very honest because I walked without signing anything - again, that was due to a strong sense of self. I couldn't go for the rest of my life living a lie, saying I wanted to set up my own company because then I would have to believe in my lie and that’s just not who I am so I said I’ll leave with nothing and I did.
Newnham: So were they trying to give you money to silence you?
Yershon: Yes, they were looking to do their own announcement pay and I think maybe, in their eyes, they thought that was better for me but the announcement wasn't the truth.The old school way of doing things was different, now people have social media to tell their own story, there was never any animosity, just the truth.
Newnham: Wow, and how much warning did they give you?
Yershon: Three weeks, after 17 years of working at Ogilvy. That was sad but I had amazing global learning from my time there so I look at the benefit.
Newnham: That’s awful.
Yershon: But I don’t blame Ogvily. I think it’s the same in any large corporate structure, whether it be banks or anything, you get frogmarched out with just your stuff in a box. What happened to me is no different to what happens to a lot of people in that culture which is why you have that lovely Simon Sinek talk about millennials.
Newnham: Well you’re out of there now. Now you can do whatever you want whenever you want.
Yershon: Yeah and I truly believe, it’s how you get over these things. It happens to everyone, it’s called life. There's a benefit that you just need to deal. You go through the pain initially and then you start to come through it.
Newnham: How do you feel about it now (six months later)?
Yershon: You keep moving forward because if you're not moving forward, you are standing still..
I think the main thing is that I’m not feeling negative about Ogilvy - I’m just talking the truth. In fact, I feel like I got 17 years of benefit and I would not be in the position I am in now if I had not been there so it’s definitely not something to feel negative about.