Wendy Lurrie: Knowledge and wisdom do not stand still. They advance or they retreat.

Time Out with… is the interview series for inspiring leaders throughout Dentsu Aegis Network. In this edition, we spoke with Wendy Lurrie, Managing Director of gyro New York, who was interviewed by Alyse Lorber, Global PR Manager of gyro.

Thanks for sitting down with me, Wendy. Can you give us a bit of background on yourself and your role at gyro?

I am the Managing Director of the New York office of gyro and also the Managing Director of gyro:human, which is our health care practice. I’ve spent my entire career in advertising, in one capacity or another. Most of the time I have been on the agency side and I’ve also worked at branding agencies, digital agencies, CRM agencies and integrated marketing agencies. I also worked client side where I was the head of marketing for a unit of Travelers Insurance, which gave me a taste of the other side. At one point, I also had my own marketing and strategy consultancy.

Tell us a little about how you got into the business.

So, there is a story there. I came into the job market in the 80’s, which was known to people at the time as the “go go 80’s.” It was all about making money. I had majored in English and companies weren’t exactly beating a path to my door to hire English majors. But I decided after trying commercial real estate when I first got out of college that I wanted to be in a field that had more to do with language, which was really one of my great loves. So I chose advertising and publishing and then I literally flipped a coin. Heads was advertising and tails was publishing, and advertising won. So that became a yearlong campaign to get my first job in the business, which was tough, at the time because at the time they were only hiring MBAs. It took time and it was also the middle of a recession. But eventually I got my first job in the business. While I was interviewing, I interviewed for an assistant account executive position at a large agency that was quite well known. The person I was interviewing with was very senior and said, “You’re great, I’d love to hire you. You can be one of our secretaries.” I said, “I am not interviewing for a secretarial spot. I had done that before.” Then he said, “Well, all of my girls start as secretaries. See that one there, she was from Barnard, see that one there she’s from Vassar. They all start out that way.” I remember saying at the tender age of 21, “Do all of your boys start in the mail room?” And there was silence and a pause and we continued with the interview. But that was an interesting introduction to the business. It turned out to be momentous, even though I didn’t know at the time that it was.

Do you have any regrets or things that you would do over in your career?

Absolutely. I think if you get to this point in your career and don’t have regrets, you are not living the examined life. I have a lot of regrets. There were opportunities that I should have taken that I didn’t. There are also opportunities that I shouldn’t have taken that I did take. I took a role at one point because I made the same mistake that I warned everybody else about. Instead of running toward a great opportunity, I ran away from a frustrating situation and returned to an agency I had previously left, thinking that it would be like going home. I didn’t do the due diligence for the new opportunity and ask the right questions. I didn’t take to heart Thomas Wolfe’s lesson that “you can’t go home again.” But I learned it the hard way.

I learned a lot of things from that experience — always be prepared, always do your due diligence, know what you’re walking into and be willing to admit when you made a mistake. And I tell this to people because I learned it the hard way. Like Teddy Roosevelt said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

You can reverse, you can retreat, and you can change your mind and that’s ok. This business is particularly receptive to that. But you need to learn from every experience, and apply those learnings. Then nothing is wasted.

We talk a lot about gender issues in advertising. How are you working to foster a culture of gender inclusiveness and diversity at gyro?

I think it’s interesting that we are still talking about gender issues, but the reason we continue talking about them is because they are unresolved. The situation is still unsatisfying. I think for a long time, advertising has been known as a field that was notably not hospitable to women and people from diverse backgrounds. There was a lot of focus on that and I think we made progress, but we took our eye off the ball in this industry. The statistics show that we have actually backslid; we have fewer women in boardrooms, fewer women in the C-suite. I personally consider it my responsibility to create a better environment for people from all backgrounds. Someone gave me a chance, and I owe that chance to others. The work we do requires that we understand audiences of diverse backgrounds and that demands a diversity of ideas, of perspectives, of experience — and to do that we need diversity in every form. I think it’s a battle we have to fight every single day. I was the first woman in leadership at the New York office of gyro, which gave me the opportunity to infuse the agency with a different style of communication and leadership.

Women work in different ways than men: we are collaborative, we are consensus-driven, we care about how people think and feel. That doesn’t make us indecisive. When we’re strong it doesn’t mean we are shrill. When we are thoughtful it doesn’t mean we’re indecisive, and when we are considerate it doesn’t mean that we are soft. I think those are misconceptions that really relate to differences in communication and leadership styles that we will always have to work on. But I think everything I do has been shaped by my experiences as a woman in an industry that was hospitable at different points in my career. But that is something that we always have to fight for.

Do you think these misconceptions translate into your personal life as well?

I think it could. I know for me, becoming a mom made me better at everything. When I became a mom with my first son, Matt, I went back to work in four months. I didn’t have an economic choice and it was brutal. I cried when I left for the office in the morning every single day for the first three months. But it forced me to re-think my priorities. It forced me to cut out anything that was extraneous. It’s more chaos than it is controlled. For me, the kids made me better at work because I learned patience. Work made me a better mother because I was engaged in my career and what I do, so I wanted to show them that you could get a significant sense of accomplishment for what you did for a living. Work isn’t just a paycheck; it’s your craft and every craftsperson takes pride in what they do. I also wanted them to see that it’s important not to be a spectator in your own life, but that you need to add to the world, no matter what your field is.

What is your biggest piece of advice from both a work and life perspective for young women coming up in their careers?

When I was a general manager at FCB, I interviewed a young woman for an account management job and in the first five minutes we knew it wasn’t the right fit. I said that I didn’t think this role was quite right for her — and she agreed — but I offered to spend the time together to talk and answer questions. And she had one. She said, “I could use some advice and I don’t know who to ask. I have little kids and I’m looking for a new role, but I need some flexibility and I don’t know how to ask. How do you ask a question like, ‘Is it ok if I leave early if I need to?’ or ‘Can I work flexibly?’” I answered, “You know I have thought about this a lot. I think the answer is that you don’t ask, you just tell.”

I realized over the years, having had little kids, working at home for part of the time, making all kinds of deals, that men don’t ask. We as women ask for permission, and we also ask for forgiveness. We ask if things are ok and we apologize for everything. Men don’t; they either declare that it is so or act as if it is so. So what I said to her is that I worked from home one day a week for 12 years after my daughter was born. I did that for four different jobs. The first time I went and did it after I got a new job, and I was terrified of asking. I looked around me and saw that men didn’t do that. They actually didn’t ask. So when I was at the next job and this was the arrangement that I wanted, I didn’t ask. I said, “This is how I work.” My advice to young women is to decide who you want to be, how you want to work and be that. Don’t ask for permission.

What’s one thing that your coworkers would be surprised to learn about you?

Well, they know that I bake which is usually the biggest surprise. I love to bake and I stress bake, but they already know that. I think what people here would be most surprised by is how emotional I am and how deeply I feel things and that I cry. It’s important for people to know that just because you’re strong, it doesn’t follow that you don’t feel, and fret, and fear. Just like everyone else there’s anxiety; there’s an impostor syndrome. I’m not immune — nobody is.

You have given a lot of great advice to young women, and women in general, coming up in their careers. How are you ensuring that everyone is receiving the support that they need? How are you creating an environment that fosters the growth of women, diversity and people of color?

I think we start by listening. Everybody has the right to be heard and sometimes that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the people who are the loudest and make the most noise are the only ones who are heard. It’s often the people who don’t speak who need to be heard. It’s people who are less comfortable, who are coming from different backgrounds, and I think we have to create opportunities — whether it’s through one-on-ones or small group meetings, or even book clubs, people need to be heard. Being heard doesn’t mean that what you ask for will always be given, but it means your opinion was worth listening to.

We started conducting surveys at gyro about a year ago, including our first-ever culture survey. We did it not only to gauge what was going on around the agency since both my creative partner and I were new in our roles, but also to establish a set of benchmarks so we could learn what in the culture needed to be addressed. We surveyed about 15 different areas of culture and actually landed on four areas that everyone told us they wanted to focus on. So we listened to the people here and we gave them the opportunity in the survey to speak up. We also have an open door policy, in that we have no doors.

Do you feel as though the work environment you’ve grown up in has helped shaped the type of person you are today?

You know how people say things happen for a reason? I don’t believe it. I think a lot of things happen for no reason at all. But what I do believe is that every experience has value. No matter how rough something is, it teaches you something. It’s our responsibility to take learnings from those experiences. I have learned just as much from bad bosses as good bosses. Rough situations versus easy ones. What’s most important is to garner the learning and use it to make you better for the next time. That’s what I actually believe: there is value in every single experience.

In fact, I was talking to a young man the other day who has been in finance for five years and he’s thinking about making a switch, but he thinks leaving finance would be kind of a capitulation. It would mean he wasted five years of his life and time he spent in college studying for that. I disagreed with him, because any skills you learn in any field have transferable elements for other fields. Everything has value. One of the things that I encourage, even with my own kids, is to be engaged, be involved in social justice, learn, read, and experiment. We need to constantly broaden our minds, constantly create new opportunities for us to learn and to become better humans, not just better advertising people.

What does it take to be good in this business?

There is a story I love that I kind of co-opted. Andrés Segovia — the famous Spanish guitarist — was conscripted into the army when he was young and he couldn’t take his guitar with him. But he didn’t want to lose his skills, so while he was in the army he created a series of drills for himself to practice until he could get back to a guitar. Years later when he was released from the army and was reunited with his guitar, he found he was actually a better player. He said about the experience that technique either advances or retreats, it never stands still. I think the same is true for knowledge. You have to constantly work to expand your circle of knowledge. Knowledge and wisdom do not stand still. They advance or they retreat.

I always recommend constant learning and relentless curiosity, and learning everything about our clients’ businesses and environments. And read, read, read!

Tell us about your upbringing and how it has helped you become the person that you are today.

You bring your experiences wherever you go and there are a lot of things in my upbringing that helped shaped me one way or another. My dad was a professor of hearing and speech. Our hearing was constantly tested and our speech was constantly challenged. One thing that is true about my family, and I still see it today, is that we are a family of storytellers. I noticed this when my brother got married and brought his new wife to our first family gathering. She said at our family dinners, “You all tell stories. In my home we debate, but you all tell stories.” It was true, and it actually made me think about the way we are as a family and how we value stories. My family is so geared towards storytelling and so inured to great storytelling that whoever tells the best story gets the floor. You can be the 80-year-old or you can be the five-year-old. Everyone gets a chance as long as they can tell a story. That was the way we communicated with each other; it was also the way we validated each other. It became kind of the currency of our family: the quality of your storytelling.

Do you think that’s translated into how you work with your clients?

Our business is storytelling. We all know the science behind it: it’s the best way to learn. I think human beings are natural storytellers. Before we had things, we had oral history and everything was told in the form of stories. It’s a great way to learn and understand what our clients are going through. It’s a great way to dimensionalize an idea. When we do what we do well, it’s because we are good at storytelling. People don’t buy brands, they buy into brands because they buy an idea.

I remember one of my funniest experiences using storytelling in a new business pitch. I was part of a pitch for a large toy company at an agency where we already had the business, but were looking for additional business and I was the direct marketing person. The CRM person and I could have used all of the boards and all of the slides showing the direct marketing programs and what they could do with analytics, but I told them a story instead. The story was about how every house that has children also has a monster that eats up their toys and destroys their fun. Turns out, the monster is a vacuum cleaner, which gobbles up the little pieces of toys and games. The idea behind the story was to convince this client to create a business of replacement parts for toys, which I couldn’t have done with charts and graphs. It was a better story.

What do you think it means to fail?

I think if you’re going to tell people who you manage that it’s ok to fail, you have to mean it. It means you don’t fire people when they make mistakes. You give them the support they need; you give them the confidence to make decisions. It’s the same with my kids. I can’t stop them from making mistakes. I can watch them make mistakes and wish there was a way to stop them, but I have to let them do that. I think the same is true at work. I got better because I was given chances. I didn’t make the most of every chance and some ended up in flames. Some of them worked out well because I had the opportunity. Part of what we try to accomplish here is to create an environment where people know that other people have their backs. One of the things that we say to each other before we make a major presentation is that we will not let you fall, we’ll be there to catch you. And we mean it. Being in a high-stress situation like a major client presentation can be very overwhelming. The fear of public speaking is often greater than the fear of death according to numerous surveys, so we recognize the need to support each other.

Tell us, what are you currently reading right now?

I am reading one book and browsing several others. The one I am reading is Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. It takes place during the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union. I theoretically read it in high school, although I don’t have any memory of reading it. In this current environment, I am reading it more as a how-to than as a piece of literature. It’s fascinating. I am also looking forward to reading Zadie Smith’s new book, Swing Time.

And what are you watching?

My favorite TV show coming back for a new season is “The Americans.” It’s fantastic. It’s about Soviet spies who are planted in the U.S. and are literally unrecognizable as anything but U.S. citizens. It’s kind of particularly salient now. It’s always been interesting, but it’s never been more relevant than it is right now.

Thank you so much Wendy!