The Networkers: Shelly Lazarus

Once named the fourth most powerful woman in business by Fortune, the chief executive and chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide has a style all her own, Rachel Gardner discovers.

Shelly Lazarus is everything you might expect from one of the most powerful and influential female figures in advertising, but she's also a few things you wouldn't.

First, there's the frog collection. Her Manhattan office is famously littered with them in various shapes and forms.

Not, perhaps, what you would expect of the chief executive and chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, a woman who has made Fortune's list of the 50 most powerful women in business on five consecutive occasions, once reaching number four.

A Columbia graduate, Lazarus succeeded Charlotte Beers as the chief executive of O&M Worldwide in 1996, having worked her way up the network over 25 years. In her capacity as the head of the world's eighth-largest agency network - with billings of $13.5 billion - she oversees 474 offices, spanning 120 countries, and a staff of 11,000.

Predictably, she is a well-practised, polished and supremely confident interviewee. Ever the corporate businesswoman, she expertly deflects unwelcome questions with a precise diction and exactly the right level of poise.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise when she candidly confesses to never planning very far ahead. "I have one of the lowest boredom thresholds in the world," she admits. "So the fact that I've stayed anywhere for 30 years is remarkable."

After relocating from the client side (she was a brand manager at Clairol), she was planning to stay just two years at O&M. After which her plan was simply "to get on with life". However, the nurturing yet professional culture of the network, set by its legendary founder, David Ogilvy, drew her in, evaporating any desire to leave.

Now, though, her latest five-year contract expires at the end of 2005.

Could Lazarus finally be contemplating life without O&M? Well, there is no heir-apparent waiting in the wings. If the rumours reverberating from within the agency are to be given any credence, this has become something of a contentious issue.

Lazarus, 57, evades the subject of her succession management plans by asserting that her maniacal commitment to equipping people with the desire to seize the next opportunity will produce a natural successor. Some reports suggest Brian Fetherstonhaugh, recently named as the head of OgilvyOne Worldwide, is in the running. However, Lazarus suggests that there are plenty of internal candidates with the talent to take over, and that no individual stands out from among them.

Without question, hers will be difficult shoes to fill. With one of the sharpest and shrewdest minds in the business, she has guided O&M through some distinctly troubled times.

One of the most arduous periods began three years ago when the agency, and Lazarus in particular, came in for criticism over the way the Office of National Drug Control Policy fall-out was handled.

The agency was eventually indicted of attempting to deceive the US Government - after a disgruntled ex-employee accused the agency of fraudulent billings on the $160-million-a-year account - and Lazarus' control over O&M's business practices was called into question.

Characteristically honest, she concedes: "We were naive. It is something that in retrospect would have been easy to fix, but we didn't. We did not prepare ourselves sufficiently for the rules and regulations. And they are very, very particular - they're not necessarily the way we work for big corporate clients. They have some idiosyncrasies of how they demand that timesheets be kept and things be accounted for that we didn't go to school on. It went against everything we stood for as a company and as a brand."

To her credit, the ONDCP renewed the agency's contract midway through the controversy. But tough lessons have been learned, with O&M subsequently spending countless hours training its staff in US federal government accounting.

As a patriotic New Yorker, it suits Lazarus that the city is the network's powerbase, accounting for a third of its total revenue. Quite fittingly, the city has been the stage for her greatest triumphs.

She turned around the fortunes of O&M North America, by securing the $50 million IBM account back in 1994, and was also instrumental in bringing the American Express business into the fold.

Her drive and determination were demonstrated when in 1992, just 11 months after losing the Amex business to Chiat Day, it was back with O&M.

And it was thanks to her relationship with the Amex boss, Lou Gerstner, and his marketing chief, Abby Kohnstamn, that O&M scooped IBM's business when the pair relocated.

Indeed, it is testament to Lazarus that, in his book Who Said Elephants Can't Dance, Gerstner describes Ogilvy's "e-business" campaign as one of the greatest marketing ideas he has ever been involved with.

An avid believer in organic development, she vociferously argues the merits of nurturing existing business over the competitive new-business pitch.

Her determination to cement relationships with senior clients while expanding the agency's business through existing contacts has been a key to the network's development under Lazarus.

"New business is simply not a productive use of time for me," she says.

"We can't expend too much effort working for current clients because they're our future. When you measure that against standing up against several agencies in a beauty contest to see who the prettiest girl is that afternoon, that doesn't hold a candle for me in terms of productive use of time and effort."

But she has found time in the past. In 2001, the agency picked up more than $700 million in new accounts - including the brief to launch AT&T's mobile brand. That year, the agency had the best new-business record in the US and was Advertising Age's agency of the year.

Since then, new business has trailed off. But effective business management hasn't: in 2003, its revenue inside the US increased by 17.7 per cent year on year - the largest change recorded by any of the world's top 25 agency brands.

Lazarus' positioning for Ogilvy is rooted firmly in her 360-degree branding philosophy. "I think we have an approach, a point of view about what we want to deliver for clients, which is 360-degree brand solutions," she says.

"The view is clear, the goal is clear, what I think we have to focus on for the next years is executions of the 360-degree promise, to bring remarkable ideas that will drive a client's business." IBM and Amex are two global clients that have bought the philosophy, and now form the backbone of the network. Ford, however, has resisted its charms and keeps its direct marketing with WPP's Wunderman.

Lazarus' five years running the agency's direct marketing arm in the US has undoubtedly left its impression on her. O&M behaves as a cohesive unit, where lines between the disciplines are blurred and the notion of working in silos is gradually being dissolved.

A client profit-and-loss measurement that bridges the disciplines has deflected attention away from the performance of individual units.

And in the UK, in a effort to deliver a seamless service to its clients, which once again starts and ends with the brand, the different Ogilvy outfits are all housed under one roof with graduates being recruited to the Ogilvy Group rather than the to the ad agency or OgilvyOne.

But London, in particular, has not been trouble-free for Lazarus. Before the interview, I am advised not to ask her about the recent controversy surrounding a leaked, unauthorised viral ad campaign for SportKa showing a cat being decapitated by a sunroof, from which Ford subsequently distanced itself.

Although she regularly makes the transatlantic trip to Canary Wharf, and has earned a reputation for being able to unify the troops, the grass-root details of the UK office are apparently a little out of her range.

And for whatever reason she is also not keen to dwell on the imminent departure of the EMEA chief executive and chairman of the Ogilvy Group UK, Mike Walsh, or the range of problems that rose to the surface both during and after the ousting of the group chairman, Paul Simons - the man hired by Lazarus but dismissed by Walsh.

His dismissal was a blow to the agency's morale, something some observers think will always be weak because of its Canary Wharf location. Succession management, led by the chief executive, Paul Jackson, has had a massive rebuilding job to do, but has enjoyed only limited success. The agency's new business has been patchy, an adjective that also describes its creative output.

But Lazarus is full of praise for London's recent creative efforts, most notably on Dove. She takes time to point out a framed cover of Time magazine, which has dedicated its front cover to the "real women" campaign and just happens to be leaning against the wall of the office where we are holding the interview.

The ads, which shun the use of stereotypically skinny models in favour of "real" women with curves, are being adapted and rolled out in other markets.

"I think the challenge we face, as we have these really long-term relationships with clients and years of stewarding brands, is how do you keep what's core to a brand but make sure it's fresh all the time?" she says.

"It's much easier to introduce a new brand. It's easier to take something that's broken and put it in a new place. What's hardest is taking something that's strong and good and keeping it fresh and relevant. That's what we've achieved with Dove. Our work is so consistent to the brand yet so fresh that it makes you reconsider it."

In India, too, there is a buzz of excitement gathering momentum around the agency's work, which Lazarus directly attributes to O&M India's group president and creative director, Piyush Pandy.

The first Asian president at this year's Cannes jury, Pandey is arguably at the forefront of a revolution.

His fresh approach - to create advertising inspired by the Indian culture, as opposed to mimicking Western ideas - has netted a pride of Cannes Lions.

However, Lazarus insists that awards, on their own, do not rank high on her agenda. Considering their value, she somewhat unsurprisingly returns to her unrelenting philosophy on brand building. "I think awards are the consequence of great work; I don't think they're the goal," she says. "So it's not important that an office wins awards, but it's important that the office's work is sparkling, innovative and drives the brand forward. And, if it is all those things, then it will win awards."