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5 minutes with...

5 Minutes with… Lynn Power

J. Walter Thompson New York CEO on the three-year turnaround of a struggling office and why agencies need to be more nimble than ever right now

5 Minutes with… Lynn Power

J. Walter Thompson is the oldest and arguably most famous advertising agency in the world. But three years ago, its flagship New York office was struggling and in need of change, a metaphorical kick up the back side. Enter Lynn Power as its new CEO after an eight-year stint as President at Arnold New York. In those three years Lynn has implemented a whole new management team, firmed up relationships with current clients, won new ones and, most importantly, improved the level of creativity that the agency puts out. 

LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with Lynn at Cannes Lions, where the agency came home with four Golds for its work with Black Lives Matter plus four Silvers and three Bronzes for other clients, including Northwell Health, one that she’s really rather fond of right now. Find out why… 


LBB> How did you get into the ad industry? Was it always the plan or more a happy accident? 

LP> I did not study advertising, but then again I am quite old! Back then people didn’t really study advertising! I had a double major in English and criminal justice and I planned to join the FBI or the NSA. I applied in 1989 and got a letter back saying, ‘the good news is that you made it through the background check and tests, the bad news is that we have a hiring freeze’. So I was on some kind of list and they said they’d get back to me in six months. I didn’t really want to wait around to find out I was ‘maybe’ still on this list. So I met up with a recruiter and she decided she liked me and said, ‘you’re going to get this job today and you’re going to work in advertising’. So she sent me to an interview at a small agency in Chicago called Jack Levy and they hired me on the spot as a receptionist. I liked it, I got promoted to accounts and before I knew it, here I am. 


LBB> Which advice do you wish you’d had when you started out?

LP> This is something that I actually tell younger people myself: the industry is a blend of art and science. You almost always assume that there’s an expert that knows more than you, but then you realise that you actually are the expert. So, I would have liked to have been more confident in putting points of view out there and people need to realise that their opinion is valid. Especially now, the opinions of millennials and gen Z - although those terms are a little overused - are completely valid too. We are all consumers and see work that we like - and that’s meaningful. 


LBB> You’ve been with JWT New York for just over three years now - what were your aims when starting out? 

LP> The agency clearly needed a bit of help. What was appealing to me was that it’s a brand everyone knows, it’s the oldest advertising agency in the world, it’s super iconic, but it was struggling. 

So, it was a turnaround situation which I find appealing. I knew I could come in and reboot. For me it was about focusing on the right people, elevating the quality of our work, changing the way we do things, solidifying our client relationships and launching a new business pipeline. I think we’ve made a lot of traction on all of those things. It’s taken me three years, but we’re now in a position where the New York management team are all newer than me. It’s been fantastic to bring those people in because I think that everyone is now on the same page, growing in the same direction - but it’s taken a long time to get to this point. 


LBB> As a leader of a creative company, what do you see as the key to getting the best out of people? 

LP> I talk about myself as more of a player-coach - I’m not the sort of coach that just sits on the sidelines. I love to get stuck in because I feel as though that helps me understand the dynamics of what’s going in. I’m also a big believer in empowering people to do what they need to do and letting them find their voice. And that voice might not be the same as others but it’s more about giving them room to express themselves. 

We also got rid of a lot of the hierarchy which has really helped, plus I don’t have an admin assistant. For me that really helps because there’s no barrier between people and me. They don’t have to go through someone that’s a guardian of my calendar - if it’s important enough to talk to me, then they can do it. It also helps because I think by not having an admin, people think twice before coming to talk to me. People come to me when it’s really needed. 


LBB> I wanted to talk to you about diversity - JWT had its troubles last year. How are you encouraging diversity within the New York office? 

LP> I think it’s great that the conversations are happening because the industry is not where it needs to be - and we all know that. My attitude is that it’s not a silver bullet - there’s not one thing that you can do and it’s going to solve all of the diversity problems within the industry. So you have to try lots of things and see what sticks. It’s important not to just open up recruiting more, which obviously will bring in people with diversity of education, backgrounds - we just hired someone that was a handbag entrepreneur. But also it’s about making it easier for those people to be successful. Our industry is tough, we seem to eat our young sometimes. People come in and we just expect them to figure things out. I think we’ve had to take a step back and, especially as we’re bringing more diverse people in, be aware of the issues and challenges they may face and communicating really clearly what the expectations are. It takes more work but it’s also more gratifying. 


LBB> I read a quote from you around that time that said “recognising a moment of change is always a moment of fragility, but also a moment of excitement and seizing an opportunity”, which I thought was really smart and level headed. Can you just elaborate on what you mean by that and how it has impacted your actions since?

LP> The reality is that there’s change everywhere right now. We’re in somewhat unprecedented times with our clients going through their own issues and trying to figure out how they reboot their own business and get growth again. There’s been a lot of discussion about the future state of the agency, what the model will look like, if they’ll even survive - but now is the perfect time to lean into that change and do the things that we think need to do. And not all of them are going to work. So try some things, see what works, move on, and fill the void of thought leadership that our clients really need. If we don’t give them those answers as ad agencies then the consulting firms are going to come in and do that for us. 


LBB> I was actually going to ask you about the agency model and how you see its future… 

LP> We’re in a situation today where we need some flexibility in the model, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. Some clients need different things to others. But what I’m seeing as an overall trend is a desire for more cohesiveness and integration for clients and doing things in a simpler way. They want to spend less time policing the model and having us administer it. Figuring out ways to put it together, while still moving it forward and making it simpler is easier said than done, so we’re trying to connect creativity, data and content. If you can make those three stick together, that’s where I feel you get some traction. 


LBB> Which pieces of recent work out of JWT NY are you particularly proud of and why? 

LP> One of my very favourite clients is Northwell Health, their CMO Ramon Soto is fantastic and very visionary. We picked up the business almost two years ago and worked with them on a big rebrand last January. Previously - and if you’re not from New York you wouldn’t know this - they were called North Shore LIJ. It consisted of 22 hospitals in the north-east area, and they went through a big rebranding effort because they were buying different hospitals and capabilities, and the branding was really all over the place. So they consolidated everything under Northwell Health and we created the first piece of work to announce that name. After that we began working on bigger brand experience type of ideas. 

There’s the amazing ‘Fin’ campaign where we developed the amphibious prosthetic leg. We also won a Bronze at Cannes for what we called ‘The Connected Room’, which involved making the patient experience in the hospital room better by allowing people to essentially upload or integrate pictures of their loved ones into digital frames in the room. The cool thing is that for a client of that size - a regional hospital - to have two breakthrough initiatives recognised at Cannes really says something about who they are, what they value and the type of work that we’re able to do. And the exciting thing is that they just want more!