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Women Of The C-Suite: “Master the art of the unapologetic no” With Jennifer Zimmerman, of mcgarrybowen

“Mastering the art of the unapologetic no.” I have a whole presentation on it. Simply put, honor your commitments without the need to…


“Mastering the art of the unapologetic no.” I have a whole presentation on it. Simply put, honor your commitments without the need to explain the details surrounding them. You’re either available or not available. No one needs to know the details of your schedule or your work/life balancing act. My famous “ketchup lady” story: When my son was in elementary school, he asked if I could be the “ketchup lady.” After asking what a “ketchup lady” is — apparently, she is the class mom who dispenses ketchup during lunchtime (seriously) — I committed to “ketchup lady” duties the following Friday. During the week, a client meeting popped up on my calendar for that same Friday. I declined, saying I had a commitment. The senior client called and asked if I could move it — apparently, I was needed in the meeting. I explained that I was unavailable. He asked why. I said I was the “ketchup lady.” After explaining to him what a “ketchup lady” was, I added, “I know you value me for keeping my commitments.” The meeting got rescheduled to accommodate me. To this day, he still (warmly) refers to me as the “ketchup lady.” And I learned that if you really need to be there, things can be moved; otherwise, you probably really didn’t need to be there.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Zimmerman, Global and U.S. Chief Strategy Officer at mcgarrybowen. As mcgarrybowen’s first female executive, Jennifer Zimmerman has been a driving force at the advertising agency since its inception in 2002, contributing to its recognition as a three-time “Agency of the Year.” Clients and colleagues credit much of the agency’s momentum to the strategic framework that Jennifer created and actively champions. Jennifer’s winning strategic narratives have put the agency on an impressive new business tear, winning accounts with Clorox, Hallmark, American Express, Subway, Verizon and Hershey’s, all in the past 18 months. Every step of the way, she has been a mentor and advocate, not only for female empowerment, but for talent diversity and inclusion across the board. Jennifer truly believes we must create a culture that fosters open discussion and engagement and provides equal opportunities for everyone to do their best work as well as be rewarded for their efforts.


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

I was an English major at Wesleyan University with a minor in British Romantic Poetry and Spanish Poetry. My father used to tease me that I’d be the most well-read person in the unemployment line. I couldn’t see myself doing a classic “corporate job.” For me, advertising was like writing a great English paper. Everyone has the same source material. There are obvious well-trod themes. But the most inspired papers find what’s not obvious and make an irresistibly persuasive, well-supported argument. Little did I know that my liberal arts schooling would tee me up beautifully for a 30+ year career in planning and strategic selling.

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

mcgarrybowen has had a history of extraordinary success in our 16 years. And we’ve been on an impressive roll the last three years. However, 2015 was a really tough year. We lost two big pieces of business. I think there’s something very freeing about suffering a setback like that. It’s when your greatest fears come to pass and you realize you’re still standing. That’s when you appreciate that you’re stronger and more resilient than you think. You stop managing to prevent something from happening and you start managing to make something happen. It has made all the different in our recent turnaround — and in my own approach to problem solving.

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?

The biggest mistake when I first assumed an executive role was trying to make everyone happy. We were working on a reorganization when I was the acting CEO of the NY office. I was convinced that if I just put in the time to explain to everyone what the changes were, why we were making them and how it would impact them personally, that everything would go down smoothly. I must have spent 40 hours of one-on-one time with all different folks. But when we announced the changes, people were still griping. I guess that’s human nature. You can make everyone feel heard; but you can never make everyone happy. That’s an important lesson.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I honestly believe what makes mcgarrybowen stand out is the chemistry and camaraderie of our leadership team. I think advertising is about ideas — of course, you need to have inspired thinking. It’s also about alchemy; how a team works together and with clients to craft and shape ideas. I love my colleagues. Truly. How many people can say that about their workmates?

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

We are working on a comprehensive diversity and inclusion strategy for the agency. I think we are pretty far ahead when it comes to female leadership roles — but there’s always more to do. It’s our goal that the agency leadership team looks more like the general population. We (like everyone) have some more work to do on that front.

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

Don’t be afraid to let your life and personality come out at work. My life as a working mom; my experiences with my husband; cocktails with my girlfriends; dinner with my mom; shopping at Stop and Shop — all of these aspects of my real life have inspired countless insights. The same way we bring work home with us, I bring real life to work. I encourage other leaders to do the same.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

I think the most important thing about large teams is clarity of vision and clarity of feedback. People need to be crystal clear on the ask — and how they’re tracking against that. I always counsel people giving feedback to large teams to start with the macro and then provide detailed feedback: “We’re in a really good place,” or “I think we missed the mark here” and then provide detailed feedback. People need to know the context before they start hearing the details.

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

I’ve had a series of spectacular bosses throughout my career — both male and female. Each has readily given me the opportunities, the headroom and the recognition that so many other women have had to fight for. I think I’m very lucky in that regard. I have to say, though, the person I owe my current success to is Gordon Bowen. He has empowered me with a huge role since the earliest days of mcgarrybowen; has granted me unparalleled access to senior clients and amazing brands; and always offers unwavering support for my thinking and ideas. He is also the person I’ve had the longest continuous relationship with outside of my 30-year marriage. Next year is my sweet 16 working with Gordon and it’s been one of the most rewarding professional relationships of my career.


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

I have a grown daughter and son who have tremendous pride in their “badass” mother and see strong women in business as the norm. I guess that’s some goodness.

What is your “Leadership Lessons Learned From My Experience” 

“Mastering the art of the unapologetic no.” I have a whole presentation on it. Simply put, honor your commitments without the need to explain the details surrounding them. You’re either available or not available. No one needs to know the details of your schedule or your work/life balancing act. My famous “ketchup lady” story: When my son was in elementary school, he asked if I could be the “ketchup lady.” After asking what a “ketchup lady” is — apparently, she is the class mom who dispenses ketchup during lunchtime (seriously) — I committed to “ketchup lady” duties the following Friday. During the week, a client meeting popped up on my calendar for that same Friday. I declined, saying I had a commitment. The senior client called and asked if I could move it — apparently, I was needed in the meeting. I explained that I was unavailable. He asked why. I said I was the “ketchup lady.” After explaining to him what a “ketchup lady” was, I added, “I know you value me for keeping my commitments.” The meeting got rescheduled to accommodate me. To this day, he still (warmly) refers to me as the “ketchup lady.” And I learned that if you really need to be there, things can be moved; otherwise, you probably really didn’t need to be there.

Thank you so much for joining us!

Originally published at medium.com

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