Abi Evans: Empathetic leaders, regardless of rank, are more effective than managers who primarily rely on authority.
Time Out with… is the interview series for inspiring leaders throughout Dentsu Aegis Network. In this edition, we spoke with Abi Evans, Managing Director of US Business Development, mcgarrybowen, who was interviewed by Megan Madaris, Associate Director of Communications, Dentsu Aegis Network.
I’d love to get a snapshot of your background first. How long have you been here? What brought you here? And how did you get into the business and get started?
Funny enough, I never planned on getting into advertising. I have always been fascinated by American politics, and I went to college intending to go to law school and pursue a career in policy afterwards. Just as I was about to take my LSAT, I decided that I wanted to change course and pursue business. Marketing felt like a natural fit because it allowed me to shift from marketing people (candidates) to products.
Out of college and in the depth of the Great Recession, I moved to New York and began my career at Condé Nast. After a family emergency brought me home to Miami, I decided to venture into the ad world and haven’t looked back. I started at a regional agency in Account Management, and then quickly got the opportunity to move to Crispin Porter + Bogusky, where I worked for almost six years. During that time, I got my MBA at Kellogg (Northwestern) in Chicago before moving back to New York last year.
Very cool. So did you do your MBA through a remote program?
No, I traveled to Chicago every Saturday for two years.
Those years I lived on the road roughly 80% of my time between work and school, and then when I finished my degree, I was ready for a new challenge. I had worked too hard and learned too much for everything to remain in equilibirum. That’s when my husband and I decided that we were up for a big relocation, and likely to New York. I was not expecting to be in business development or at a creative agency, but here I am — and loving it.
What about new business really worked for you, what drew you in and keeps you excited about it?
I love that business development is different each and every day, and I love working through our agency sales process as it shifts from prospecting to contract negotiation. Although I have a background in Account Management, I quickly realized that I love being close to frontline revenue generation and the business of the creative business. I really enjoy the challenge of working with a number of different clients (often simultaneously!) to see where we can add value and help build their business by building their brand.
What did you go to school for at Emory?
I started (and finished) as a Political Science major, and ultimately did a thesis on globalization and its impact on human behavior and attitudes.
But funny enough, at the end of my freshman year I decided to take on a second major in Business, which ended up shifting my whole career path…when honestly I was just looking for a way to stay in college longer!
What is one career-defining moment for you so far?
There have been a few of them, but I would say that my recent move back to New York would be the most defining career move for me thus far. At that point, I made a deliberate decision to leave my comfort zone. That was really my “Lean In” moment.
So you like Sheryl?
That’s an understatement — just ask my teams! Candidly, Lean In has been a really influential book in my life, and it’s helped me make some really tough decisions that I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to make otherwise.
I actually give a copy of the book to members of my team, male or female, when they first start in an effort to help them think strategically about their own careers and better understand my beliefs about leadership and the concept of work/life balance — difficult things to do when working in New Business! It has generated some really interesting (and fruitful) conversations.
Can you share an example of any challenges you’ve had at work and how you’ve moved past them, whether it be moving to a new position or just typical new business things in general?
I think that any change is hard, and I certainly learned that last year when I first came to mcgarrybowen. Stepping into an established team was both exciting and challenging, because I immediately had to case out what was working and what needed to change in order to evolve our business development practices, and of course, win new business!
I feel incredibly fortunate to have come to an agency like mcgarrybowen where I am surrounded by not only incredibly talented professionals, but genuinely great people. They helped me navigate this transition, and funny enough, I learned the power of our agency archteype of the “Gentleman Rebel” really quickly. I truly identify with it as a leader. The concept of “Gentleman Rebel” is about respecting assets but also challenging convention. It advocates for leaving successful aspects of a brand or business intact, while also accepting the responsibility to push things forward and evolve with the times. And I think that accomplishing this on a human level requires a lot of emotional intelligence and self awareness — traits I work hard to constantly acknlowedge and improve upon in my own life.
Do you think that being in a new business role has been good for collaboration across the network, and have you been able to leverage that to work with other agencies in a positive way?
What’s interesting about business development is that it usually centers around a fairly small team within an agency, but to be successful, it requires a lot of collaboration with the rest of the disciplines within the firm. As a team, we might lead a pitch effort, but we are not the account people/strategists/creatives that actually make the product we sell. We’re literally asking everybody to do an extra job on top of their day jobs each and every day. Sometimes I joke that we’re professional cattle herders.
And importantly, that mindset transfers to working at the holding company level. As a new business person, you have to be inherently collaborative to be effective. And I think that knowing when to pull in the right in-network partners is a natural extension of what we do every day at the agency level. It involves a lot of relationship building, teamwork, and partnership, as well as a deep commitment to finding mutually beneficial outcomes. I’ve found that if you can be a good partner, either at the agency level or the network level, you’ll be a lot more successful in the long run because it will give you a broader purview to pull in new capabilities, vantage points, and ideas.
What do you think makes a good leader?
Empathy. The ability to actually understand others is an incredible and necessary trait. I am not a big believer in “command and control” management, and think that empathetic leaders, regardless of rank, are more effective than managers who primarily rely on authority.
How do you continue to stay engaged at work?
For me, I’m engaged as long as I’m learning. And that takes a few different shapes.
My role in business development allows me to constantly learn about new busineses, categories, and macro trends. That’s something I truly love about my chosen path.
And at the times when I feel that my day job is a little humdrum, I’ll seek out growth outside of my role, whether its networking or learning a new skill or area of the industry. Lucky for me, the DAN network, and specifically its emphasis on collaboration, has been a huge source of learning for me over the past year. Since we’re a collection of specialists, I find that there’s always something new happening at the other agencies in the network, and often times, getting to know my sister agency counterparts helps further both my personal and professional development.
What is one thing your coworkers would be surprised to learn about you?
I think that my coworkers would describe me as an open book, actually. Although those who are just getting to know me find my obsession with politics a little surprising. I am a complete political junkie — CNN is always open in my browser!
I am also an aspiring tennis player. I use the word “aspiring” here because I haven’t actually done anything to pursue this ambition, but I swear I’m going to one of these days!
How do you keep the creative spark alive?
For me, it is really important to keep reading and discovering. Some days it’s just reading articles off of Facebook or LinkedIn, and whenever possible, I love to attend events like the ANAs, Advertising Week, Cannes, CES, and even our DAN Summits — I’m always the nerd actually listening to the lectures! Having exposure to broader trends and worldviews is really important to me, and it keeps me inspired even on the toughest of days.
What is a typical weekend look like for you?
Weekends are for vegging out and recovery. Work weeks can get really hectic, so the truth is, I like my weekends to be relaxed. I make an effort to do social things with my husband and our friends and spend quality time with the other love of my life, my dog, Toby. Nothing too special — sleep, eat, Soul Cycle, Whole Foods. Repeat.
Oh, and whenever possible, I LOVE to travel.
Nice. Do you have any superstitions or good luck charms leading up to a big pitch?
I’m incredibly superstitious, but it’s not really in a ritualistic sense. I refuse to speculate on the outcome of a pitch or important proposal (because I’m ALWAYS wrong!), but I don’t have any items of clothing or anything that I have to wear on a pitch day. Those days I’m usually just lucky to put my shoes on the correct feet.
What is your biggest piece of advice from both a work and life perspective for young women coming up in their career?
I would encourage young women (and anyone, really!) to think about what success means to them. I find that when you love what you do, work is not a chore, but instead, it becomes a meaningful part of your life. So my best advice would be to find something that doesn’t feel like work, and then look for an incredible group of leaders and colleagues to surround yourself with who will support you as work and life expand and contract around each other.
Bonus piece of advice: build a board of directors to help you navigate through the challenges of work (and life). I use “board of directors” here diliberately (thanks to Laura Chavoen for teaching me this term!) because it mandates that you find a collection of people to provide different perspectives and vantage points on your challenges and opportunities. The experience of being a mentor and a mentee have been absolutely transformational for me, and I think that building these relationships with others is not only personally fulfilling, but also professionally advantageous.