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Why FCB Chicago and Shannon McFarland Are ‘Never Finished’


FCB Chicago’s CTO on FCB’s talent strategy, what employees are looking for post-great resignation and unlocking leaders’ understanding, writes LBB’s Ben Conway

Why FCB Chicago and Shannon McFarland Are ‘Never Finished’

“The energy of FCB is undeniable,” says Shannon McFarland, FCB Chicago’s newly appointed chief talent officer. Starting her new role in July, she has already set ambitious targets for the future of the agency’s employer/employee dynamic - all revolving around a primary goal of making ‘FCB-ers’ “net better off” for being part of the organisation.

Whether it be “digging into recruiting, focusing on a learning and development initiative, or partnering with a departmental leader on organisational design”, the CTO has her sights set on working with the other senior leaders to promote a trusting, inclusive and purpose-driven environment for creativity to flourish within. Shannon says that FCB Chicago’s refusal to work in siloes and its belief that “culture strengthens our creativity” has resulted in the success of the agency, which has won the Cannes’ North American Agency of the Year four years running.

Speaking to LBB’s Ben Conway, she discusses her career journey so far, “ensuring employees have endless opportunities to learn and grow”, and how FCB’s ‘Never Finished’ philosophy is implemented at all levels of the agency to meet the needs and expectations of a new generation of employees and leaders.

LBB> What creative inspired you growing up and how did you enter the industry?

Shannon> I was always drawn to creative you could interact with, whether it was through music/jingles or a character of some sort. I’d sing along with the commercials and spend my mornings focused on the back of a cereal box. There was something about engaging with the creative content that made me feel a connection.

[At college] I studied public communications, human relations and marketing; it wasn’t until after I graduated and moved to Chicago that advertising became a focus for me. It took me about 18 months to ‘break in’ to the industry — and it only happened because my roommate came home one day and said she got a job at Leo Burnett. Instead of congratulating her, I said, ‘You have to get me one too!’ Luckily, she didn’t hold that against me, and I started at Leo Burnett a month later.  

LBB> What’s the most important lesson/piece of advice you received early on in your career? How does it influence you and your work today?

Shannon> There is more than one way to solve a problem — and if you don’t know how to solve it — take time and let it marinate. Using the time you have; it could be two minutes, two days, or two weeks, the answer will come to you. Unlocking that realisation immediately improved my partnerships with leaders across the board. The relationships shifted from transactional to strategic partnerships.  

LBB> Can you elaborate on your main responsibilities as CTO and your day-to-day duties? How do you cooperate with FCB Chicago’s president, Kelly Graves, to achieve FCB Chicago’s strategic vision?

Shannon> My main responsibility as the CTO is to evolve the employee experience. Day-to-day, that could mean digging into recruiting, focusing on a learning and development initiative, or partnering with a departmental leader on organisational design. Holistically, it means ensuring that FCB is creating an inclusive environment and connecting with employees in a way that goes beyond the day-to-day responsibilities of their job — and showing them how their contributions are making a bigger impact at the agency. 

I’m very lucky to partner with Kelly Graves. What I love about Kelly is that she can quickly and easily put herself in the employees’ shoes and look at things from their perspective. She doesn’t bend on her expectations of employees, but she focuses on developing both the people and the business. 

LBB> What are some of your main goals with the agency and how do these differ from your previous positions at rEvolution, Leo Burnett and others?

Shannon> My biggest priority is to ensure that employees feel ‘net better off’ for having worked at FCB. Your employer is one of the largest relationships in your life — and for that relationship to be successful, both parties must contribute. From FCB’s side, we focus on ensuring employees have endless opportunities to learn and grow.

I’ve been very fortunate to have great business partners in every company I’ve worked for, but the energy of FCB is undeniable. It is one of the industry’s largest start-ups, and it’s what drew me in during the interview process. The leadership team is deeply engaged and wants to partner with the talent team to build programming to develop its people and push the business forward. This energy is what inspires me. The team here is larger, and the scale is bigger, but the heart of what I do remains the same. How I go about it will be different and, in that sense, since this is the largest team I’ve led, it will be a larger leadership role. 

During my time at rEvolution, we had 24% growth in a 10-month period, and that was outside of an acquisition we closed during that same time frame. This brought me much deeper into recruiting than I had been before. This was also during the ‘great resignation’... so it was a good time for me to understand the current landscape of the candidates and why they were making decisions to leave their current companies in search of something new. It’s helped me stay in tune with the marketplace and the employee mindset in general. 

LBB> Inclusivity is a big topic in the industry right now – how do you plan on fostering an inclusive environment? How does an agency go beyond promises and words to make an actual difference?

Shannon> Trust is the foundation that builds the most inclusive environments. If there is trust in the employee/manager relationship, then people will feel safe to be open about their needs and people will want to support each other. This relationship dynamic will be a focus area of mine because it’s the front door of the employee experience. 

I’m fortunate to have a partner in Marc Wilson, FCB’s executive director of strategic inclusion. I believe FCB goes beyond what most companies do in this space.  Of course, we have many initiatives focused on the workforce and the workplace - ensuring that we not only have diverse perspectives and experiences represented in our people, but that we also have an environment that gives these perspectives a bigger voice. 

But what makes FCB truly unique is that we look at inclusivity as a lever that plays a critical role in the work we create — so much so that we have built a priority process called ‘Upstream Inclusion’.

LBB> You say that FCB’s ‘Never Finished’ mantra aligns with your personal philosophy – can you elaborate on this for us? How will it influence your tenure at FCB Chicago?

Shannon> I’m learning every day. I’m always asking myself ‘What did I learn from that?’ or ‘What can I do better?’. I’m a permanent work-in-progress — I’m ‘Never Finished’.

For me, the ‘Never Finished’ mantra will be at the core of everything I do at FCB. It’s my anchor. I believe in it, fundamentally. It is important to ensure that the culture of the organisation believes in it too. As we continue to grow and hire new FCB-ers, we will work to ensure that this is part of their core too — and focus on sustaining this mindset at every level. 

LBB> How do you, as a CTO, influence an organisation’s culture? How does leadership instil certain core values from the top down? Does it all start with the hiring process?

Shannon> In my experience, people look to the chief talent officer as a barometer of leadership and trust in an organisation. If they can relate to and trust the person in this role, it gives them a solid connection to the organisation. Words matter, but actions speak louder. For leaders to ensure that the core values are being lived up to, they need to remain engaged, sit in meetings where their teams are collaborating and have tough conversations when people aren’t living up to the values. 

The hiring process is important, but it’s more about the teams making the hiring decisions. Do they have a solid understanding of the core tenets of FCB? Are they embodying them, can they identify them in others?

LBB> FCB is currently Cannes’ North American Agency of the Year for the fourth year in a row. What does an agency have to do - from a talent POV - to be on that level? And why are FCB so successful globally and locally in Chicago?

Shannon> Creativity is at the core of everything we do at FCB. We don’t focus on winning awards – we focus on doing great work for our clients. We believe that creativity is an economic multiplier; it builds brands and businesses. We believe creating an inclusive culture strengthens our creativity. We also don’t believe that one department is creative - the agency is creative. Each of our client teams sits as a whole unit; they’re not departmentally siloed. In my experience, this is a different approach to creative and it’s what sets FCB apart. 

LBB> After 20 years in the industry, you must have seen a lot of changes. What stands out as some truly significant moments/changes? And what is the industry currently crying out for?

Shannon> It’s so interesting to look back on how the world worked when I started over 20 years ago. Sometimes you’re aware of changes when they are happening — other times, you wake up and you think, ‘huh, I’m working off my phone at home’ or you’re collaborating with colleagues in India in real-time. People who’ve entered the workforce in the last 10 years would say, ‘of course you are!’ But it wasn’t like that when I started out. 

Now, employees expect flexibility. They expect the ability to have multiple experiences at once, with side hustles being the norm — and they expect employers to not only understand it, but support it. Luckily, the advertising industry has been ahead of the curve on that. FCB encourages curiosity and celebrates side hustles. To me, the area that is screaming the loudest now is health and wellness. It’s critical that people feel they have the space and resources to focus on their health. 


LBB> What is talent in the industry looking for right now? With so many people resigning and switching jobs in the industry, what is attracting the top talent? How do you implement that?

Shannon> Companies that are attracting the top talent are focused on meeting employees’ needs holistically. It’s no longer a transactional relationship — pay for service. Broadly speaking, today’s talent is driven by purpose, they need to feel that they are making a positive impact in the world and that their work has value. They also need to feel safe, both psychologically and physically, as well as feeling connected to the people around them. When done correctly, it can have a significant impact on the employee’s happiness and productivity. 

Implementation requires commitment and engagement from everyone at every level. Most people interact with the same 20 or so colleagues each week, so it’s those subcommunities that are having the greatest impact on whether the employee feels valued, engaged and supported. I go back to the concept that what works for one person or team doesn’t always work for the next, so it requires attention and nuance from the leaders of each team. Unlocking that understanding in leaders is the most critical component for success, retention and engagement.

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FCB Chicago, Tue, 16 Aug 2022 16:06:00 GMT