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The featured speaker was Kristen Cavallo, first female CEO of The Martin Agency. The moderator was Vann Graves, first African-American director of the Brandcenter. Alternately sparking ideas off each other during a fast-moving Q&A session, they offered new insights into advertising, diversity and creativity at the Fall Investors Circle event.

“Do not waste a good crisis.” Cavallo claims this was the most valuable advice she received from good clients last year. Within a single day, the agency had lost its CEO, CCO, COO/President on the heels of a sexual harassment crisis. Partly because she assumed her new leadership position so suddenly, Cavallo says she felt a great sense of urgency. “I chose Karen as a partner and Chief Creative Officer. We then doubled the number of women on our Executive Leadership. Next, we eliminated the pay gap. The day we did that, it felt like Christmas. We need to continue to be hungry for change. My biggest fear is that we revert back to past behavior and not push boundaries.”

“Emphasize what we have in common.” In these divisive times, Cavallo says the advertising industry can do a great deal to help the national feeling of angst. “Our gift is storytelling,” she declares. “Clients don’t like politics, but today, it’s all politics – even football. So, we can remind people how we’re better together.” Cavallo’s brain is already applying her theory. “Richmond can help the nation heal. There is a national conversation about racial equality. We were the Capital of the Confederacy. I think we should become the Capital of Reconciliation. Only we can do that.” 

“Brands should start conversations.”  That’s how Cavallo thinks advertising can prevent people from simply reinforcing their own long-held beliefs. “Advertising talks about being disruptive, but consumers don’t want that. They don’t like change. So, we have to create something so entertaining, so surprising, that people will talk about it and pass it along. You not only determine what you stand for, but importantly – what you stand against.” Then, using both, you spark a dialogue. Brands like Oreo, Geico, Dove and Patagonia have done it well.

“I yearn to work with ambitious people, not specific categories.” While most agencies would rather have a luxury car client than a butter client, Cavallo says, “brands are a distraction. That’s weird because I build brands for a living, but we choose our clients by the people who build the brand. Not based on the brand itself.” For instance, Domino’s and Pizza Hut both make the same product, but the former is on the rise and the latter is on the decline. The difference is management’s process and trust in creativity. “You need people who believe creativity can solve business problems, who are willing to impact conversations, because the most talked about brands grow twice as fast.”

“You are the media.” If TV is dying and newspapers are dying, what – Cavallo was asked – is the next phase of advertising? “Just because it doesn’t run on TV, doesn’t mean people don’t hear the story. Human beings are the number one media channel in the world,” she says. “We want to put content in your hands that is so compelling – whether on a table or on your phone – you feel motivated to share it and talk about it.’

“Women need to throw their hat in the ring.” Cavallo, who was a statistics major in college, pointed out that today, only 25 of the Fortune 500 companies are led by women. She also noted that if one out of four job applicants is either a female or a racial minority, that person has a 0% probability of landing the job. “So, at Martin, we are now being more intentional,” she says. “We’re trying to change the mix of gender and race in all our interviews.” But the fact remains that despite the odds, more women need to step forward and become their own advocates. “Men and women have the same reservations about leadership, but men still throw their hat in the ring. The definition of bravery in a professional setting has been set by men,” she said. “Now is the time for female bravery.”

“Bring your whole self — be an interesting person.”  Students in the audience suddenly sat up straighter when Cavallo was asked what Martin looked for in hiring. And the answer was unequivocal:  remarkable people. “Travel, write, volunteer, dive, climb mountains,” says Cavallo (who has done all those activities herself). ‘Learn how to be persuasive. Selling is not a dirty word. Skills are easily replaceable. I want to see how you live life, what makes you unique.”

Taking a cue from Cavallo, chief development officer Shannon Duvall closed the evening with her own pet sell: the value of VCU. And fresh from another thought-provoking Investors Circle program, the audience seemed to agree.

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