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Robin Leemann Donovan: “You have to embrace risk”

In bureaucracy, there are no absolutes. Running a company brings you face-to-face with bureaucracy from many different government agencies. Companies hire attorneys and accountants because bureaucracy is complex and often requires interpretation. What no one tells you until you are running a company is that bureaucrats change the rules all the time. Sometimes, you can […]

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In bureaucracy, there are no absolutes. Running a company brings you face-to-face with bureaucracy from many different government agencies. Companies hire attorneys and accountants because bureaucracy is complex and often requires interpretation. What no one tells you until you are running a company is that bureaucrats change the rules all the time. Sometimes, you can look up the same rule in two different, yet official, references and they contradict each other completely. When that happens, you need either a lawyer or an accountant, or both, to argue that the interpretation you want is the one that should be followed. Dealing with bureaucracy requires a great deal of luck — some would say intuition. We had a case being reviewed and there was a hearing scheduled. I asked my attorney if I should go. I was told that it made no difference unless I had something I wanted to say. After two years of answering and re-answering questions, I didn’t really have anything else to say, but I decided to go just to see the process. When our case was called up to the docket, I was told if I hadn’t been there, they would have tabled the decision. I was lucky — that time. And we won!


I had the pleasure to interview Robin Leemann Donovan. Robin was born and raised in New Jersey but lived and worked in Connecticut for a number of years before moving to Nebraska in 1999. Starting her career as a high school English teacher, Donovan moved into advertising in the early ’80s and became a VP Media Director working on brands like Duracell, Stanley Tools, IBM, Visa and Merck Pharmaceutical. In 1999, she accepted a job offer from Bozell in Omaha, Neb. In late 2001, she and three colleagues purchased Bozell from its New York-based parent company. Today, she is president and co-owner of Bozell. Donovan is also the author of the blog, Menologues, a humorous yet informative look at the trials and tribulations of menopause by someone who’s been there. Menologues has been republished on two commercial sites: Vibrant Nation and Alltop, and has won regional honors for social media at the AMA Pinnacles and PRSA Paper Anvil awards. Her first book in the Donna Leigh Mystery series: Is It Still Murder Even If She Was A Bitch? won an AMA Pinnacle award. Her second and third books are: I Didn’t Kill Her, But That May Have Been Shortsighted, and I Don’t Know Why They Killed Him He Wasn’t Really That Annoying. She has served on the boards of the Omaha Children’s Museum and the YMCA of Greater Omaha, and as chairman of the Alzheimer’s Association Midlands Chapter board for two years, serving a total of six years on the board. She is currently on the Friends of Kicks for a Cure board, an organization that raises funds for breast and ovarian cancer through soccer tournaments. Donovan lives with her husband and two bulldogs — Frank and Sadie (Sweet Pea).


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I started as a high school English teacher in an extremely political school system in Connecticut. After a few years, I was getting weary of all the unnecessary turmoil. I knew I needed a change but didn’t know where to begin. And then, the Hartford Courant ran a story about this very cool ad agency in Farmington, CT. I figured I’d call and convince them to hire me as a writer since my degree was in English. They did hire me, but as a media coordinator. I spent four years there and the next 14 years running media departments in agencies in the Northeast. Then, out of the blue, I was recruited to Omaha and into the wonderful TrueNorth family, which was ultimately acquired by The Interpublic Group of Companies (IPG) a few years later. Once part of IPG, four of the Omaha managers joined forces and bought back the Omaha Profit Center. Together, we brought Bozell back to its roots. It was both enervating and terrifying, and many of those experiences provided fertile ground for my other career, writing murder mysteries.

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

Our retail hardware client was struggling to attract men ages 18–24. With the approach of Halloween, we decided to pitch them on a zombie campaign for their Midwestern stores. They loved the idea, so we created a multi-faceted social media campaign in which people were buying hardware products to protect themselves from zombie attacks. We had films of zombies invading the stores and we faked news stories in which zombies were holding protests in their parking lots. Our goal was to give the Midwestern stores a welcome boost in awareness, never expecting the onslaught of attention that caused the campaign to go viral. We were overwhelmed with responses from as far away as China and France. Grandmotherly types were appearing in stores across the nation asking for “brain pins” for the grand kids. It was a tsunami of attention that was incredible. And at about the time we were casting for our zombie actors, we received a call from a TV producer at Studio Lambert in L.A. who said he wanted us to participate in a new show they were creating on AMC.

We figured they had mistaken us for the global company that we were before the buyback. When I phoned the producer and explained that we were no longer a global organization and were now independent, he assured me that they knew exactly who we were and said we had been recommended for their new ad agency show Pitch — a one-hour reality show that would pit two agencies against each other for a specific client’s business, showing the pitch process from start to finish. Although we realized the many potential risks involved, we agreed to participate in their inaugural (in fact, only) season and the studio execs arrived in droves to take over the whole agency for two weeks. Our first visit was from the show’s producer who arrived at our door to scope us out in person. I was summoned to greet him. As I approached, I noticed a man leaning against the wall. He appeared to be consumed by hysterical laughter. I waited, in horror. I could only imagine what would cause this reaction. Finally, he rallied enough to speak, “they asked me if I was a zombie.” Oh, good lord, today was the day we were scheduled to interview actors for the zombie roles. Talk about bad timing. How could I make him see that this was not just some cheap hoax we were pulling for his sake, but when I opened my mouth to explain that this was our normal course of business, he waved me off wiping the tears from his eyes, “I know, that’s what makes it funny.” It was the damnedest thing.

Starring in Pitch was a fascinating but grueling experience culminating in a major presentation in New York, and thankfully we won. Our competitor was a worthy opponent from the West Coast. Two solid weeks of filming from morning till night was edited down to about 20 minutes’ worth of broadcast time for each ad agency — but it was enough to capture the attention of the country.

The results of our zombie campaign made it necessary to create a repeat performance. We structured a rebuttal campaign where the zombies got a chance to defend themselves — and patch themselves up with duct tape.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

We were on a new business call with the procurement officer of a Fortune 500 company. The woman threw me a curveball when she started by saying “Oh, I see from your website that you write murder mysteries, I’m so excited.” After a moment of bewildered hesitation, we chatted a bit about my murder mysteries, moving on to have a wonderful call regarding her business needs. A week or so later, she emailed our account person telling her that, while they would want to work with us in the future, they were going to handle this project in house. I knew our account person was feeling discouraged, so I figured I’d give her a laugh to cheer her up. I responded to the note she had forwarded me with “The hell with her then, she’s not getting a free book.” A few minutes later I walked by her desk and she said, “you do know you hit ‘reply all’ on that email — right?”

I was mortified. I wrote the procurement officer a letter of apology and admitted that my comment was in very poor taste. She wrote a lovely and gracious response absolving me of my stupid blunder. And no, she never did give us any business.

“Nothing good ever happens from hitting reply all!” (that’s on the mug on my desk now).

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

At first, my male partners were clamoring for the position and my female partner and I were indifferent to the need for any titles. It wasn’t until after both of our male partners had been bought out that we began to realize how many people put so much importance on what to call you. So, Kim [Mickelsen, CEO] and I acquiesced — we drew our c-suite titles out of a hat. We both still balk at the level of deference those lofty titles afford us just based on title alone.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

You have to look at the best-case and worst-case scenario — and have plans for handling both. You have to ask the tough questions that no one wants to face and force them to think through various possibilities — some extremely unpleasant. Sometimes struggling to articulate the impact of various financial decisions without de-motivating the whole team. You have to knowingly be the bad guy whenever necessary.

You have to make the hard decisions. For the past two years, we’ve been able to give our staff the week between Christmas and New Year’s as bonus time off. This past year I could see from projections that the workload was being pushed to the end of the year and we could not afford to have the whole staff out during that time. People were already starting to book flights and I had to crush all of their plans. But god bless them, they were phenomenal. They held their complaints and successfully tackled an enormous workload. Their positive attitude throughout that whole week made me extremely proud, but it also made me wonder how much I have in common with Ebenezer Scrooge.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

When we get a chance to do something nice for staff members, whether it’s time off, a raise or bonus or even just a well-deserved compliment, and especially when they send the loveliest notes of appreciation. Some of them are so touching it makes you feel as though you’ve had a positive impact on someone’s life. That’s when you’re reminded of why you took this whole thing on in the first place.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

A few years ago, I read an article about the number one problem that plagues CEOs. I was fascinated to learn it is the unrelenting feeling that you’re not doing enough. The truth of it was jarring, the one person who should be accomplishing the most, invariably feels as though they’re accomplishing too little. And I can relate to it.

As an employee of ad agencies over the years, I never doubted my value or my contribution to the companies and their clients. I knew I was good at what I did, and I knew they were lucky to have me. Once in the c-suite, it was a different story. It’s not fun to play god with the lives of others, especially others you care about a great deal. It is very humbling to know that a mistake or a bad decision you make could cost these people — your “family” — their livelihood.

I used to look at the people featured on the cover of Forbes and Fortune and think “these guys have really made it.” But, after owning a company, I now see them and think “I wonder what’s keeping you up at night — it must be huge.”

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

Before residing in the c-suite I observed that there was a certain level of comradery within those ranks. I always thought it was a result of their exalted position and their exalted opinion of themselves. I have now come to realize that the comradery I witnessed was more based on the common knowledge of the difficulties inherent in a position that forces you to play god with the lives of others. With great power comes great responsibility, and it can be a burden that weighs heavily.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

After our two initial male partners had departed and we realized shunning titles was useless, things changed dramatically. Until we stepped up and claimed those titles, we had one man after the other declare their willingness to step into the role — never a woman. Once we made our titles “official” all of the jockeying for position just stopped. It also doesn’t hurt that we now have a more enlightened group of men on our team.

Women don’t tend to step up and tell the world that we are leaders, and that can send the erroneous message that we don’t feel adequate to lead. When we don’t step up, we shouldn’t complain that there are men more than willing to push us aside and take the lead.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I am not a lawyer, nor am I a CPA, yet I find myself buried in contracts and balance sheets. Very often I am the decision-maker on when to bring in the lawyers and CPAs and I’m constantly striving to communicate with them as productively as possible to manage outcomes and expenses.

I do meet with every manager every week at the very least. The meetings vary from week to week, but that personal connection and open communication is absolutely critical in order to understand the changing needs of clients and staff. That is more abundantly clear as each week goes by, and that is often my favorite part of the job.

I suppose I used to think a leadership role entailed sitting at the helm of fascinating meetings and waxing philosophic on the topic at hand. That’s kind of funny now.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

I have a friend whose business partner quit to take an ordinary job. They had a very successful company and I asked him why his partner would prefer to walk away from such a successful business. He said, “I’m worth $9 million, he doesn’t have the wherewithal to be worth $9 million.”

I didn’t understand his answer. I do now.

The responsibility and uncertainty that accompanies playing in those risk-laden waters carry burdens that not everyone can withstand. We’ve seen a number of partners come and go. I think it can be boiled down to an old cliché: “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” — or don’t get in in the first place.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be humble, but don’t confuse humility with timidity.

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?

My friend and neighbor was an executive in a global insurance agency when I was in my first ad agency job. I called her one night to tell her I was disappointed and frustrated with my bosses. One of the women in my department had left to have a baby and they had decided to hire a replacement. There it was. They were not even going to consider me for the job — they would look to the outside for her replacement. After I finished my whiny diatribe, my friend offered her advice: “get in there and tell them you want the job.” “No way, I can’t do that, they’ve already decided.” But she would not hear my excuses. She said, “I want you to call me tomorrow and tell me how your conversation went.” The next day I asked to speak with my boss. I made my case for getting the promotion and hiring someone to take over my duties. Once I’d made my case, my boss’ face broke into a huge grin. “I was wondering if you were ever going to ask.” I got the job.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

One of our founders, Morris Jacobs, always said, “You must pay rent for the space you occupy on this earth.” And we have always lived by that creed. With the advent of corporate consciousness over recent years, we have revised our company vision to reflect our support for Conscious Capitalism. Our current vision is to empower those who aspire to change the world. We are fortunate enough to have a group of clients that are actively engaged in bettering our community and well beyond that, our entire world. We are honored to work with and serve them in their respective missions. And as a bonus, we get to feel good about ourselves.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. That there are those who will assume that as “the boss” you will find additional ways to compensate yourself financially, even at the expense of other necessities for your company. When we first bought thecompany back from IPG, we had to budget for a great number of things, like our own accounting department and accounting software. Prior to the purchase, IPG had handled all of that for us. I was speaking to our creative director and he said, “I have a lot of equipment I’d like to buy, and I know a few guys left there’s a ton of money just sitting there.” Then he stumbled a bit before he said, “Oh, I guess you’re just going to keep that money for yourself, right?” I nearly died. I asked him if he had any idea of the cost of an entire staff of accounting people and accounting software. It never dawned on him that we would not individually be getting an extra dime for quite some time, especially not the owners.
  2. That consultants cannot be expected to know everything, even within their own field. In the early years, I assumed my professional consultants would think every issue through and evaluate every possibility on a given challenge. If, after the fact, I found that a key point had been missed, I was stunned. How could they have missed something that important? I now realize that when you’re working with a consultant, you have to determine where their expertise lies, and where they are making educated guesses. And if you need to bring in a specialist for a particular area — it will be worth it in the long run. The most dangerous are the ones who don’t openly admit where they are lacking. I work with an excellent employment attorney, but she recently advised that I find an immigration attorney for a particular situation. That kind of advice is invaluable, but can be infrequent.
  3. That you can never be “off.” Any professional must always behave in a way that is consistent with their personal brand as well as the brand of the company where they work, but when you’re in the c-suite, the magnifying glass is focused on you. People at an event love to report back to their comrades any little perceived flaw in your armor. I was at a meeting with my business partner quite a few years ago. I made a statement and she very politely pointed out that she did not agree. I then pointed out why her comment did not convince me. All very polite and civil — a conversation. We later heard back that someone across the table had told his coworkers that the two owners of Bozell were battling and would likely split up the company. Ironically, he’s long gone, and the two of us are still here and still partners.
  4. You have to embrace risk — but choose your risk carefully. Startups are always a risk. Years ago, we thought that having a stake in a successful startup could turn us into the next Warren Buffet. One spice company taught us a very different lesson. We agreed to take a small percentage of the company for creating and promoting their new brand. It was a dream account. The founder was very smart, and the company grew rapidly. We celebrated each victory with enormous pride. Once they reached an impressive level of distribution within the U.S., our client was approached by a large multinational interested in buying the company. We knew that our stock would be sold at a fraction of the price of what we had hoped to get if our client had stayed the course. It was a lesson well learned, and these days our compensation for startups is structured very differently.
  5. In bureaucracy, there are no absolutes. Running a company brings you face-to-face with bureaucracy from many different government agencies. Companies hire attorneys and accountants because bureaucracy is complex and often requires interpretation. What no one tells you until you are running a company is that bureaucrats change the rules all the time. Sometimes, you can look up the same rule in two different, yet official, references and they contradict each other completely. When that happens, you need either a lawyer or an accountant, or both, to argue that the interpretation you want is the one that should be followed. Dealing with bureaucracy requires a great deal of luck — some would say intuition. We had a case being reviewed and there was a hearing scheduled. I asked my attorney if I should go. I was told that it made no difference unless I had something I wanted to say. After two years of answering and re-answering questions, I didn’t really have anything else to say, but I decided to go just to see the process. When our case was called up to the docket, I was told if I hadn’t been there, they would have tabled the decision. I was lucky — that time. And we won!

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

There is already a movement that perfectly embodies my passion. Working with Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, I get to see the amazing and necessary conservation that is already being done for the benefit of all animals and, ultimately, the benefit of the entire planet. And their efforts are in conjunction with other organizations in various locations that are all striving together to make the world safer and more welcoming for all beings. I could not think of a cause that would do more good for the greatest number of people. The more broad-reaching this effort becomes, the faster the impact will be felt around the world.

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

“Just when you sit back with confidence and know that you’ve got it all figured out — the ceiling caves in.”

Early in my career, I actually had moments when I would feel overconfident, I guess you could chalk it up to youth. It never failed though, the minute I felt ready to sit back and kick my feet up and feel as though I was killing it, some disaster would occur and knock all the wind out of my sails. After enough of these experiences, I realized I was not meant to be an overconfident windbag. That knowledge has kept me extremely humble.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Warren Buffet — even with all of his greatness he has mastered humility — he is the best example of a business professional. And, he’s right up the street here in Omaha!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.


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