How DigitasLBi chief was inspired to become a true leader

10.27.15

The transition from doer to leader can be challenging. For adman Tony Weisman, it was a career crisis.

Weisman spent his first 19 years in advertising climbing the ranks at Leo Burnett, and in 2002 he became chief marketing officer at DraftFCB (now FCB). In 2007, he joined digital agency Digitas as president of its North-West region overseeing its Chicago, Boston, Detroit and San Francisco offices. Six years later, the agency merged with its digital sibling shop, LBi, after which Weisman became North American CEO of DigitasLBi.

Now his mission is to prove that it’s more than a digital agency. “We are the next generation and a new kind of lead agency,” he said.

Weisman explains the early “aha!” lesson that helped him become a true leader and the mistake he made about people who are good at managing up.

Q: What are the most significant accomplishments you’ve made as a leader?

A: We have been named a Best Place to Work three years in a row by Advertising Age. We are a LinkedIn Most InDemand Employer. Among these, I’m most proud of the MAIP Agency of the Year, which is the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ multicultural advertising intern program.

We’re a Best Place to Work for LGBT Equality by the Human Rights Campaign. We’re a Top 50 company for Executive Women for the National Association of Female Executives. Things like that are among the things I’m proudest of because those feel like signposts that what we’re trying to do is working.

The goals I’ve set to achieve are really about the environment where we can attract and retain great people. The environment is everything. We’re a culture that rewards brains and guts, and we’re a safe place to take risk and we prize innovation.

Q. Your parent company, Paris-based Publicis Groupe, last week posted weak quarterly earnings after a “surprising” number of clients reportedly canceled ad campaigns. How do you lead during such times?

A. Our clients for the most part are doing pretty well. In general, what we do tends to be seen as a variable expense and is frequently cut to make a quarter.

I always tell the team that this is an opportunity because what our client is saying to us is that there’s something very unsettling. It’s where you train people that now is the moment to go bring the client an idea that will help propel their business. Now is the moment to bring them something new.

We tell them, “There’s a very simple way to talk to your client: ‘Here’s what you asked for and then here’s what you need.’”

Q. What’s the most difficult challenge you’ve faced as a leader and how did you address it?

A. Failures for me as a leader have been about not having the right, trust-based relationship generally with a client and/or peer. It was those moments where I just cratered and fell apart because I felt like I had to do everything myself and things had to be done the way I used to do them. I would de-motivate people or slow work down or be obsessed by the to-do to list.

The “aha” for me was that my job was to inspire others, to give them all the credit and to respect the fact that they were going to do things in ways that were different and sometimes more effective. That was the crisis in my career, that pivot from doing to inspiring.

Now every quarter I meet with all of our new or mid-career managers. I tell them, “You have been promoted because of what you are capable of doing, and the rest of your career is going to be about how you inspire other people to do. What people really want is inspiration, coaching, advice and support. When you can inspire people and give them the credit and let the spotlight shine on them, then all that glory comes back and reflects on you.”

Q. What people or authors do you follow for leadership lessons?

A. I am a die-hard, life-long Cubs fan. I love what Joe Maddon does as a leader. His motto he wears on a T-shirt, which is “Do simple better.” I think that is so powerful because he realizes that as a leader his job is to help those players — many of them are very young athletes and so there are a lot of parallels since I have an organization that is predominantly young adults — to help them understand what is simple. How do I simplify my life, my workload, to get really at the essence of what we and what our clients want and to just do that better? I love that philosophy.

Another is David Brooks. The most recent book he wrote is “The Road to Character.” It’s wonderful. I read everything he writes. He is a key analytical mind, and he tends to see situations in each case from a distinctive angle.

Q. What lesson did you learn the hard way about leadership?

A. I got snowed early on in my career by people who would convince me of their value because of the way they “worked me.” Some people are adept at managing up. I would go to bat for somebody or try to get them promoted because of how they interacted with me. I’d come to find out after the fact that the client didn’t trust them or their peers didn’t respect them.

I realized the way I missed it is I was looking at the wrong things. I started to realize that among the most important ways to value people is how their colleagues feel about them, not how I felt about them.

With my senior people, I make it very clear that I will value you proportionately to how much your colleagues value you. I look for how they talk about you, how they build meetings around your availability. I look for ideas that you gave them that I don’t know came from you but that I ultimately figure out that it came from you.

Q. What’s the biggest leadership cliché that isn’t true?

A. One of the things I focus on in coaching sessions is that leadership is learned. It’s not that you’re born with it. I hear this a lot, “She makes it look so easy.” The takeaway is that it comes naturally to her.

When it looks easy, you tend to forget the time and effort that the individual put into it. That includes having values and goals, mentors, resources and studying, etc. Anybody can do it if you study, learn from your mistakes and have role models.

As originally featured on the Chicago Tribune

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.