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Nicolle Pangis: “Always ask people how they’re doing”

I do think there’s an increasing acknowledgment at the leadership level that a singular focus on profits to the detriment of everything else can hurt workers. It’s important to remember that behind the profits, behind the new products and technologies are people. If you build a positive workplace culture — where people are happy, empowered, […]

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I do think there’s an increasing acknowledgment at the leadership level that a singular focus on profits to the detriment of everything else can hurt workers. It’s important to remember that behind the profits, behind the new products and technologies are people. If you build a positive workplace culture — where people are happy, empowered, and most importantly can show up as themselves — the innovation, success and profits will follow.


Ihad the pleasure of interviewing Nicolle Pangis. As Ampersand CEO, Nicolle Pangis and her team are working to build a smarter, more effective television ecosystem by partnering with and empowering brands to seamlessly connect with audiences wherever and whenever they watch content.

Nicolle previously served as Global Chief Operating Officer at GroupM’s [m]PLATFORM where she was responsible for global product management, strategic partnerships and technology development across the largest media funding management organization in the world.

Prior to [m]PLATFORM, Nicolle was a central figure in the success of Xaxis, a pioneering programmatic digital media business, serving first as Global Chief Revenue Officer, followed by Global Chief Operating Office. During her tenure as CRO, Xaxis grew revenue to over one billion dollars. As Global COO she oversaw product and technology development, business operations, human resources and strategic partnerships. Key highlights include leading the audience data activation platform and launching the company’s machine learning technology. She also played an instrumental role in the sale of Open AdStream to AppNexus.

Prior to Xaxis, Pangis was the President of 24/7 Real Media where she led the company’s business in North America and Europe. Earlier at 24/7 she served in the roles of VP, SVP and EVP, Global Media and Technology Product Management, with responsibility for the overall health and growth of the global business. In these roles, she drove the evolution of one of the industry’s most significant publisher technology platforms and the development of the first global data management platform suite for agencies. She also led the deployment and integration of the joint venture partnership between WPP and Dentsu across Asia.

A recognized leader in the media industry, Nicolle is a member of the Ad Council Board of Directors and has been named to the Adweek 50 list, AdAge’s 40 Under 40, Business Insider’s 30 Most Powerful Women in Mobile, Crain’s 40 Under 40, Cynopsis’ Top Women in Media and Multichannel News’ Women to Watch. She has been honored as a Working Mother of the Year by both Working Mother Media and Advertising Women of New York. She is an active supporter of SOS Children’s Villages and Step Up Network, and an extremely proud Girl Scouts Brownie troop leader.

Nicolle received her bachelor’s degree in communication from Boston University and her MBA in strategic management and marketing from Rutgers University.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I graduated from college my initial plan was to get into video production. After I got my first paycheck, I quickly realized that if I wanted to pay off my student loans and have any disposable income in the foreseeable future I’d have to take a different path.

Knowing I was on the hunt for a new role, my cousin mentioned in passing that she thought ‘this digital advertising’ sector might be ‘a thing.’ This was 1999 and digital was very much the wild west of advertising with a lot of questions about whether it was going to go anywhere I ended up taking a job at company called 24/7 Real Media, which at the time was considered one of the industry leaders.

After the dot-com bubble burst, I left 24/7 (on good terms) to take a job at a technology start-up outside of advertising. I also went back to school at nights for my MBA. Four and a half years later, with my master’s complete, I returned to 24/7 a sales role, and shortly after moved into a more strategic operations position.

When 24/7 was purchased by global ad giant WPP in 2007, I was tasked with leading part of the business integration with our new owners, which was an incredible learning experience. Eventually, I worked my way up to become the president of 24/7 where I was tasked with pivoting the organization into an emerging area of the digital world called programmatic advertising.

When 24/7 merged with Xaxis, another programmatic pioneer and WPP-owned company, I became global chief revenue officer and then global COO where I managed technology development, product management, the data science team and human resources across more than 40 global markets My last position at WPP was as the COO of a several thousand person media, technology, data, product and analytics division that built media solutions and technology for our clients.

I decided to leave WPP at the end of 2017 and took five glorious months off. I spent the time taking my girls to and from school and thinking about what I wanted my next chapter — both career-wise and in life — to be. I realize it’s not an option for many people, but if possible, I highly encourage stepping away from time to time to assess what’s working and what isn’t. It’s very easy to get caught in the flywheel of momentum both personally and in business — even momentum that isn’t working for you.

When I got the call for the Ampersand (then called NCC Media) job, I had actually never heard of the company, despite it being a nearly two-billion-dollar business. In fact, when I started as CEO, I called it ‘the biggest TV company you’ve never heard of.’

The mission for me at Ampersand has been to take what had been a very traditional TV advertising company (we’re jointly owned by Comcast, Charter and Cox) into the advanced TV age. Essentially, bringing the capabilities and measurement of the digital ad world to TV.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Having worked exclusively on the digital side of the advertising world there was a little bit of culture shock coming over to the TV side of the business. For example, the dress code was very formal compared to what I was used to in digital, where I would regularly wear my Chuck Taylors and Gap jeans to work. So, on day three I sent out an All Staff note implementing a new, more flexible dress code (and eliciting more than a few cheers in the hallways).

Another thing that immediately stood out to me was how many file cabinets we had around the office. In my previous roles, we’d kept digital records for the most part, so it was like stepping back in time to see how much paper we had accumulated.

I made moving the company from physical filing to digital storage one of my earliest initiatives. To incent the team in making the transition, which really petrified a lot of people, we organized a competition to see who could find the oldest file in the office. The winner found a letter from 1989 outlining a potential partnership with AT&T, a company we still work with today.

We’ve taken the paperless theme even further since then. For example, we’ve done away with business cards, which I think mostly end up getting thrown out. Not only is there a benefit from an efficiency standpoint but you have the ecological benefits as well.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes. We recently launched a major new platform for audience-based TV advertising. What is audience-based TV advertising you ask? It’s simply ads that are more precisely matched to the viewers who are watching them rather than having all TV viewers seeing the same ad.

The new platform, which we’ve named the AND Platform, enables TV advertisers to plan, buy and measure their campaigns across traditional linear TV, streaming platforms (like Tubi and Pluto TV) and digital video all within a single, simple-to-use interface. The platform represents the single largest source of multi-screen TV inventory in the United States with reach across 85 million households and 120 cable networks. It’s a huge advance both for our company and for the TV industry.

Not only does the AND Platform benefit TV advertisers it will help improve the TV viewing experience for consumers — they’ll now see ads they are more likely to be interested in at more appropriate frequencies than they do today.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

I think work/life balance, or imbalance, really, has a lot to do with this. In far too many instances, workplace culture has evolved to a point where people feel, sometimes quite correctly, that if they’re not answering emails on the weekend or only taking a day here and there for vacation, they are perceived as “doing less.” And that this “doing less” translates to less opportunity for career advancement, so you end up with a business environment where people are living to work rather than working to live. It’s no wonder they’re unhappy.

While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, we’ve made a concerted effort at Ampersand to build a culture where we emphasize having a life beyond the office.

When the people who report directly to me are off, my ask of them is to stay off email entirely. Because many of them are uncomfortable about missing something, our agreement is that if something happens I believe they need to know, I will text them to connect with me. This way, they can really disconnect but know they aren’t missing anything that may actually be critical. The truth is, so few things are, despite our pretending the opposite.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

The short answer, of course, is that an unhappy workforce is going to impact all of these negatively. Not only are happy people more productive, they’re a lot more likely to come up with the great ideas that help move the company forward. While running everyone at 110% might juice business results in the short term, building sustainable success starts with people who are happy to come to work each day.

Since I became a manager, I’ve always said I want my team to skip to work every day. Despite it sounding corny, that’s literally how I say it. A happy and enthusiastic team leads to better workplace culture and better business results.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

Always ask people how they’re doing — It sounds simple, but it’s important for leaders to know how the people on their teams are doing. What’s going well? Where are the challenges?

This kind of ongoing dialogue not only provides a real-time sense of the business, it demonstrates to staff that you are truly invested in their success. It can also be incredibly helpful in identifying any potential problems on the horizon and addressing them before they get too big.

In addition to encouraging managers to have these conversations with their teams, we also do company-wide surveys to take employee temperature across the entire organization. This information helps us see what we are doing well and where we can be better.

Provide feedback — As a manager you need to be able to give feedback, even it’s an uncomfortable conversation. I am a huge believer in immediate feedback. Everyone has room for improvement, including CEOs. Creating an environment of real-time constructive feedback is more and more critical given the pace of business today.

I use our weekly team meeting with my direct reports to review our collective efforts on critical business items to discuss what we are doing well and where we need to refocus. If we did this once a quarter or once a year, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we have here at Ampersand over the last 20 months. Feedback is a gift — receive it as such.

Let people know it’s okay to disconnect — An unfortunate side effect of the smartphone revolution is that it’s now possible to be “on” 24/7. But while it’s possible, we know it is not healthy. It’s important for leaders to set the expectation that they value their employees’ lives outside of work as much (and arguably more) as in their efforts in the office.

I am very vocal about encouraging people to attend their kids’ school and sports events. Or if you have had a rough week, slip out to the gym midday, go take a walk, or slip out a bit early to meet a friend for a coffee of drink. And, it is always okay to stay offline when they get home so they can relax with their families and friends.

As a for instance, my team (and the board of directors that I report to) knows that I am out the door at 5pm every Tuesday for Girl Scout meetings for my two daughters. That time is fairly non-negotiable for me during the year. As a business leader, you can’t just say balance is important, you also have to show you mean it through your own actions.

Be open to ideas from anywhere — No one has a monopoly on good ideas. Encouraging everyone in the company to be thinking of new ways to move the business forward is a great way to give voice to perspectives outside of leadership, gets people more actively invested in their work and can turn up some really winning ideas. We’ve made meaningful changes based off of recommendations from people at all levels of the company.

Be authentic — It’s hard to be anyone other than who you are. More traditional leadership models were about never showing weakness. It’s a horrible model that we should never have adopted and has done a lot more harm than good. We are all people with strengths, weaknesses, and there is more fabric in each of our tapestries than meets the eye. I’m not saying share everything with everyone, but showing who you are, whatever that means, matters.

When I started at Ampersand, I was going through a divorce. I made a decision to share that fairly early in a bit of a Ted talk type of presentation I gave to the company when I first started, because to me it felt inauthentic for the team to trust me as their leader, but not show that a big puzzle piece of life was moving for me at the time and for them to hear it later. It’s amazing the doors sharing opens, and the connections you make with others when you do. A person’s ability to show weakness or imperfection should be thought of as a strength.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

I think change really starts with each individual leader, and I use that term loosely because I don’t mean just CEO’s-anyone who leads people or who has influence is a leader. While I can’t change U.S. workplace culture on my own, I can ensure that Ampersand takes an employee-centric approach, and we are working tirelessly to do that.

We have metrics for our leadership specifically around employee culture, and one of our written goals is to ensure that 100% of our employees know that Ampersand is invested in their career progress. It’s a bold goal, but one we take VERY seriously. The more leaders that do the same, the more the culture starts to shift.

I do think there’s an increasing acknowledgment at the leadership level that a singular focus on profits to the detriment of everything else can hurt workers. It’s important to remember that behind the profits, behind the new products and technologies are people. If you build a positive workplace culture — where people are happy, empowered, and most importantly can show up as themselves — the innovation, success and profits will follow.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

Transparent, inclusive and horizontal. When I joined Ampersand as CEO, I sent out an email to the entire company encouraging anyone to come to my office at any time (if they were at our NYC headquarters) or set up a phone call (for staff at our 15 other locations) to chat about anything they wanted to. If I am not in a meeting or on a work call, everyone knows my door is physically open.

Two of the people who took me up on the offer were a couple of our account coordinators. The first thing I asked them was, what would you do if you were me? It turns out they were spending a lot of time on a specific process within our workflow and said if we could find a way to automate it, it would save them loads of time in their day to spend on more strategic work. I looked into it and we were able to make the change. I sent a note once we developed the automation giving them a shout out — it’s important to celebrate wins.

When we were designing our new Bryant Park headquarters in New York — we moved in a few months ago — I made the decision to put all the offices at the interior of each floor rather than at the windows. This means that instead of the executives monopolizing the views and natural sunlight that you get from being closest to the windows, it’s the rest of the team that gets the best sun and views.

Extending the transparency theme, all of the offices have glass walls so the execs are visible and present to everyone around them.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Like most people, I have had a support system along the way, but if I had to point to one person, it is Jonathan Hsu who was previously global CFO, COO and then CEO of 24/7 Media and is currently at AT&T. More than anyone, he’s the person who helped me get to where I am today.

I initially met Jon at our company softball games and when he became global COO of 24/7, he pulled me out of the sales role I had been in to work for him directly. Despite my not having any international experience, one of the first assignments he gave me was running point on a joint venture we were launching in Asia with Dentsu. The second was to lead a major piece of the integration between WPP and 24/7 when we were bought in 2007. Both gave me a lot of exposure at a very early age. He later put me in charge of global product management for the company. I had no product background at the time. Years later I asked him why he would trust someone with no experience to do any of those things, and his response was, “Because I knew you could.” Talk about making a bet.

Jon pushed me out of my comfort zone on a daily basis but was always there to help when I needed it. I learned so much from him, from strategy to communication to leadership. The fact that he put so much faith in me while I was still very green is something that I will be eternally grateful for. Our friendship and his guidance and support continue to this day, more than a decade later.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I try to show my two daughters that giving back should be a key part of who they are as individuals. I am a troop leader for both of their Girl Scout troops, where we spend a lot of time talking about being good citizens of the world and working on projects that allow us to give back to others — for example making care boxes and baskets for those who are in need, or planting trees in our community.

As I mentioned earlier, Tuesday nights are Girl Scout nights, and teaching my daughters and the rest of the girls in my troop that putting others first is appropriate is something I take extremely seriously. I grew up in a very middle-class household without much disposable income, but I always remember my parents giving to our church, we always sponsored a child who needed help and gave to other charitable causes. My mother always made sure to talk about the importance of giving to others. These are values I am thankful my parents instilled in my brother and me. I’m proud to pay that forward.

I also support several charities and am on the Board of the Ad Council which does tremendous work bringing important topics to the world through public-service advertising.

Another group I’m a big supporter of is SOS Children’s Villages. The organization is the world’s largest nongovernmental organization dedicated to the care of orphaned and abandoned children. They do phenomenal work in caring, sheltering, empowering and acting as a voice for this very vulnerable population. It’s my great honor to support them.

On the business side, I spend time as a mentor or sounding board for a lot of my past and current colleagues, helping others navigate their career paths or challenging situations. Others have done and still do this for me, and it’s important we all support one another as we navigate business and life challenges.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Yes, I love the line from Alice in Wonderland when Alice says, “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

To me, the message is to learn something every day and never standstill. It’s never too late to take what you’ve learned and apply it to grow professionally or personally, to make a decision that will impact tomorrow that was different than a decision you made in the past. It’s too easy to stay on the flywheel of life that may not be working for you. It’s brave to change anything in your life that isn’t working. Be brave.

Good application to all things in life. Business and personal.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Equal pay and equal opportunity for all. It doesn’t exist right now, unfortunately, because our culture values certain traits in certain ways, around gender, color, tone of voice, stature. We need to blow that up because it’s taking too long for companies to get this right. I don’t want my daughters to have to work twice as hard as others for a job they earned or make less pay because they should be ‘appreciative of what they have.’ I talk about this all the time. It makes some uncomfortable, but we have to continue speaking out and speaking up.

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