Shelly Lazarus: In the Digital World, Brands Are More Important Than Ever
October 15, 2019 by
This article first appeared in the INTA Bulletin and was reprinted with permission from the International Trademark Association.
Shelly Lazarus, Chairman Emeritus of Ogilvy, has spent years spearheading campaigns and championing the many brands she has represented. She has been named one of the world’s most powerful women in business numerous times by such publications as Forbes and Fortune. Here, Ms. Lazarus shares insight on her career, the world of advertising, and what it means to build value for brands with the International Trademark Association (INTA). She will be the featured speaker at the Association’s 2019 Leadership Meeting, which will take place November 19–22, in Austin, Texas, USA.
What inspired you to pursue a career in advertising?
This is a particularly pivotal question for me because my whole career has been driven by the fact that I fell in love with a discipline and an industry—and everything else happened because of that.
I went to college at a time when women didn’t really have careers very much in business. And I was invited to attend a half-day seminar given by Advertising Women of New York about careers in advertising. It had never occurred to me that there was any sort of an art or science behind advertising! So I went to the four-hour session and I was completely mesmerized. I loved the idea that when you see an advertisement there’s a strategy behind it, and that there is a set of assumptions about what people think and what you’re trying to get them to believe. I was a psychology major, so the whole idea of stimulus and response was something I found absolutely fascinating. So I was in love.
I entered Columbia Business school about five days after I graduated from college—and once again, I fell in love with marketing and advertising. You had to take required courses, and when I took my first marketing course, I loved that too.
When I graduated and took my first job, I was on the client side working for Clairol. Once again, I found I just loved it. One day, I got a call from a headhunter saying that Ogilvy was looking for an account person who knew something about hair, as they had a shampoo brand that was being launched. I thought I’d stay for a few years, and then I’d leave and do something else. And I never left.
I fell in love with the art and science of it at the beginning. I found it to be a great intellectual puzzle. But what I also discovered when I got to the agency was the amazing, brilliant, and creative people. It was all about words and music, and film and pictures. I was surrounded by people who thought about solving problems in ways that never occurred to me. It never felt like work to me. It was just fun. It was fun to think with them; and to bring clients ideas and say, “I think we’ve solved it.”
In what ways do you see yourself as a role model for women in today’s business world?
I never considered myself a role model. That’s something that happens here and there along the way. I think what I did show women was that you can fit into your life everything that you love.
I was never afraid to let people know what my priorities were. I would sometimes see women sneaking out to the school play or the teacher conference, or the pediatrician appointment. I always walked straight down the center of the office. I was just doing what I needed to do. And the truth is, all these years later, there was not one time in my whole career when anybody questioned where I was going or how I was spending my time. I just got it done. If there is anything I would tell women, it would be that. Set your priorities. Don’t hide them. Live them. And then deliver beyond what anybody expects.
It’s also about making good choices. You have to figure out what you’re not going to do. You have to decide what’s not important so you can get rid of all the stuff that gets in the way and you can focus on things that are important.
Research suggests that today’s young consumers expect brands to stand for something. If so, what advice would you give to a brand looking to assume this responsibility?
I do think that brands are more important than ever. I was in a meeting the other day when someone stood up and said, “Brands have much less meaning now in a digital world.” I would disagree. I think brands are infinitely more important as we experience things digitally, and online; it becomes increasingly important.
With so much choice and availability, it becomes increasingly important that brands define themselves in a way that lets people make choices based on what they know about these brands. When you have a sea of 100 choices, there’s almost no way to edit, or to arrive at a group of things that you want to consider, without brands. So I think brands are more important than ever!
In terms of young people, I think they are much more attuned, and want to know who the good guys and the bad guys are, and they will make these judgements. So it’s no longer just about the functionality of a product or service. It has more to do with the values, the ethics, and the points of view of the makers of those products and services. And if you don’t share them with those audiences, they will deduce them without you. And these judgments won’t necessarily be correctly based on fact. But they will make those judgments. So it behooves anyone who’s talking to younger audiences to make sure that their audiences know and understand the company’s values, beliefs, ethos, points of view, and the role of the company in society. All of these things are increasingly important.
I like to quote Jeremy Bullmore, who was the creative director of J. Walter Thompson, who said, “People build brands the way birds build nests—from scraps and straws they chance upon.” So every little bit adds up to what the brand is. And people are paying more and more attention to those societal bits. And the younger you are, the bigger the impact. Young people will not accept the idea that you have to accept things as they are. They want to change things for the better.
In what ways are issues relating to intellectual property (IP) and trademarks relevant to the work you do, and to Ogilvy? Have you seen this change over time?
I think these issues are a corollary of the increasing importance and value of brands. I believe that a brand is the single most valuable asset that any organization has. There is nothing that comes close to it. So you have to pay increased attention to protecting it.
I always say the CEO must protect the brand. That is his or her responsibility. At the end of the day, the CEO has to be the brand owner and he or she has to be the protector. And so much of IP and trademarking has to do with that protection.
As I mentioned earlier, people are paying attention to the actions of a company. If other actors take your IP and start to suggest that they have some connection to your brand—but you have no control over their actions or their ethics—you are all of a sudden in a heap of trouble as an organization. I think this has become more intense over time, and that people today see how significant this is.
The other thing that’s changed enormously is that we now can see everything immediately. With today’s technology, if someone is encroaching on a brand’s equity in another country we can see it right away. So the work that IP professionals are engaged in is more important than ever and will be more so increasingly as time goes on.
What advice would you give to young professionals entering the world of brands and advertising today?
You need to understand how important brands are, and how far-reaching. I think there are too many people who equate brands with advertising. That’s much too narrow. The truth is that everything you do affects the brand (hopefully, in a positive way).
I love to talk to people who are doing startups, because you can, and should, use a brand as an organizing principle. When you’re founding a company and you’re starting out, you have a point of view about what you’re bringing to the world. That impacts who you hire, the space you take, your website, the way you answer the telephone, who you choose as your customers, who your partners are—every little bit of that adds up to the brand. And anyone who wants to work in this area has to understand how far-reaching the concept of a brand is.
There are some businesses that understand this brilliantly. For example, I love to go into a W Hotel. Everything they have is branded. Down to the little coasters under the glasses. Or the Virgin Atlantic lounge in the airport, where everything has a distinct quality. These are instances where you see such a profound understanding of brand, and such a broad application of it. That’s when it becomes so powerful. And if you’re going to play this game, that’s the way you should play it.
How do you foresee the profession changing over the next decade?
The core stays the same. There are so many different ways of communicating now, and ways of getting out your point of view and sharing it and building it and modifying it. So the means of dissemination has changed dramatically. But the core, which is finding the essence, the DNA of a brand, understanding what drives it, what differentiates it, what makes it unique—that is more important than ever.
I hear people continuously talking about technology. Sure it’s great, because once you get a great idea, there are a thousand ways you can disseminate it. There are a thousand ways to share it. But if you don’t have an idea in the first place, it doesn’t matter how many ways there are to send it out. So I think the essence of what we do, the value of an idea, I think that will never change.