The World: 'Nice-but-tough' Hill vows to make 4As relevant

The next head of the American Association of Advertising Agencies is on a mission to shake up the group, Ann Cooper says.

Ask Nancy Hill, the American Association of Advertising Agencies' incoming president and chief executive, about her proudest achievement and she recalls a reporter's recent comment that, in years of covering the industry, Hill was the only ad executive he had encountered about whom people refused to say anything negative.

"And I said: 'Good. I've done my job then'," Hill says. "Because that's what I want from my career. If you can be honest and straightforward with people, and deal with them in the way you want to be dealt with, it's a win-win situation. I've been told it doesn't happen very often in this industry."

Colleagues echo such warm and fuzzy sentiments. "She is a natural leader, absolutely charming and very statesmanlike," Mark Wnek, the chairman and chief creative officer of Lowe North America, where Hill spent a 15-month stint as chief executive, says. "No-one has a better grasp of the new world of communications we're facing than she does."

John Osborn, her ex-boss and the chief executive of BBDO New York, where Hill headed the Visa account, agrees: "She is a terrific fit for two reasons: she is quite savvy about emerging media and its importance in today's marketing mix. Then there's her appreciation of the human quotient - she is good at mentoring and career development. And those are the kind of skills the advertising industry needs most."

All of which might cause some sceptics to question whether Hill is tough enough to lead a clubby, 91-year-old organisation trying to regain relevance, remake its outdated management conference and stay on top of new media in a rapidly changing ad environment criticised for its lack of diversity.

"Oh, I'm very tough," she responds. "I was a competitive swimmer for 18 years and you can't grow up in that environment without being tough. I also did new business for years, for which you have to be very tough."

Wnek concurs: "Nancy is every bit tough enough. She can be as shrill and to the point as she needs to be. She just found her perfect vocation - they couldn't have made a better choice. Nancy is a classic chief executive in that she needs a certain amount of infrastructure to bring out the best in her, and she'll have that at the 4As."

In addition to being tough, Hill is also being tapped for her experience of running multinational and national accounts, and her expertise in new media and digital. "I've done everything from top to bottom on both the East and West coasts, at large and small, independent and network agencies," she says. "This gives me a unique perspective on the challenges and issues that agencies face. I am not saying I have all the answers, but I have a broad perspective in that regard."

First on Hill's "to do" list is to talk to all the people she does not yet know. "Initially, it is more of a listening curve," she says. "The main objective is making sure the organisation remains relevant and matters to its constituency. Part of that is being someone who can bring all of the conversations together, as well as dealing with them on an individual basis."

The biggest challenge, Hill explains, is ensuring every move the association makes sends a signal that it is headed in the right direction. "The management conference is like a lightning rod," she says. "In the past few years, the conference has erred by having agency heads give one presentation after the other, going on about their companies. We can't do that any more. We have to look outside the industry for inspiration and aspiration."

From Hill's perspective, the trade body is already making positive moves. On the digital side, for example, she says she was pleasantly surprised to see numerous initiatives already under way. "In the digital space you have 20 different disciplines - gaming, social networking, search-engine optimisation etc. Some agencies do all those things, some don't. We have to get better at understanding that."

On the hot topic of corporate social responsibility, Hill argues: "We need to get better at engaging the agencies that specifically focus on this." Then there is the D word: diversity. "Diversity continues to be an issue for the industry," Hill asserts. "Beyond the programmes we already have in place, such as the minority internships and scholarships at the portfolio schools, we are having discussions with universities to help us better help our member organisations. They are the ones that do the hiring. All we can do is help facilitate discussion and resources."

There are many things for which the association does not get credit, Hill claims. "Such as financial services and educational programmes, as well as the conferences, which are very well attended, even if people are questioning them," she says. "The aim is to have the 4As being considered the 'must-have' advocate for every agency, and the first place they turn to. I want them to feel they really need to belong to this organisation."

Hill also stresses the global nature of the group. "It's not just an American organisation. The internet facilitates global conversation. Whether our members are in St Louis, New York or Los Angeles, they are still dealing with global issues," she says. "We can't be myopic and just be American. For example, we've always had a good relationship with the IPA. Learning about what is going on with the IPA and other organisations enables the 4As to stay current for its members globally as well as domestically."

And do not mention the G word: gender. To Hill, the first female to head the trade body, gender is simply not an issue. "It's less about what I bring from a gender standpoint than what I bring from a background standpoint," she says.