You don’t have to do this alone. As a woman determined to “make it,” I fought hard to be independent and strong. But looking back I realize I didn’t have to do it alone, and I didn’t. I had mentors and colleagues to support me along the way. Surround yourself with people who lift you up and who you can lean on.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maggie O’Neill.
Maggie O’Neill is the Chief Client Officer, at Peppercomm where she provides agency-wide communications and brand experience support to the agency’s expanding portfolio of clients. From Fortune 500 consumer companies to start-up technology brands, she specializes in crafting compelling brand stories that reach target audiences at critical points in their path to engagement. She is a graduate of New York University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Maggie! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I was always drawn to writing and storytelling so went to NYU for journalism. There was not really a PR major at that time. During school I had a job at a small PR agency with one of my greatest champions and mentors. Thanks to that stint, I was hooked on PR and ended up getting a job back at that agency four years later. I started in entertainment PR which in your 20’s is amazing. I was also bartending the entire time, which is the best prep work for this business. Any restaurant job teaches you to pivot quickly, understand your audience and work for your money. Anyway, from entertainment I went to technology (dotcom boom) and then I landed at Peppercomm.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
There are so many, but I think navigating this pandemic and the unrest of 2020 has been the most interesting. Or maybe I just can’t remember anything before it at this point. I started at Peppercomm on 9/11 and rode the wave of change with the dotcom bust and the 2008 recession, but nothing could have prepared us for what we have faced in 2020. The pandemic has made us all much more aware of personal situations, more empathetic and more patient. Well at least I think it has. It has challenged us in a way we never expected and lasted longer than any other event that we have managed through. Its complexity and everchanging direction has forced us to all be a bit more nimble and scrappy. It sounds like an ad, but even though we are all apart it has in many ways brought us closer to clients, teams, the business, etc.,
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?
Well, it wasn’t funny at the time, but I certainly learned my lesson. As a rising PR person, I always tried to solve a problem myself. Something I still support, but I also learned to know when to ask for help. I had made a critical error sending a product detail to a reporter before it was released. I negotiated with the media person to keep it under wraps until it was released. When someone else scooped us, that reporter called my client. And they called my boss and had a few choice words for me. It all blew up and I left my boss in a bad position because she had no idea what I had done. So not so funny, but I learned to collaborate more and lean on senior counsel when it is needed.
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 first boss in PR ended up being my biggest champion and mentor. I was pretty much on my own at an early age and he stepped in to support my decisions and provide me guidance. The advice he gave me was priceless and we remain close to this day. His own children have achieved unmatched success and celebrity status, and yet he tells me I am one of his greatest achievements. It always helps to have someone believe in you. I remember when I was struggling financially, he gave me some of the sagest advice ever. He said, “money will always come.” He advised me to stick to my path and believe I could do it. And he was right. It’s the strangest thing, but he was right.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
The first answer is not enough. That said, I do try to get some exercise in before I start the day, it clears the head and I know I will never get to it end of day. For a critical day, decision, etc., I usually talk myself through it and remind myself that “you have been here before and gotten through.” I also find, even in the times of Zoom meetings and athleisure trends, that wearing an outfit I feel confident in can go a long way. One of my most stressful days was when I had to fire a colleague and friend. We had worked together for over a decade and while I knew the rationale was right, I still had trouble with it. I talked myself through the scenario and prepped like I would any tough meeting. And I talked to people outside the situation whose input I valued to keep my head on straight. But at the end of the day, it was my underlying belief that we would survive this. Having that mantra in mind got me through the meeting. And we did, and she and I are back working together. I think taking the time to listen to your gut and talk yourself through it is critical. And maybe a glass of wine afterwards!
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Diversity of all kinds is not only the right thing to do, but it is in the best interest of our people, and our business. It is diversity that make us better people and opens our eyes up to different experiences, points of view and direction. For us diversity is not and can never be just a checklist. As a mid-sized agency in a less than diverse industry, we need to actively seek out and embrace diversity. It increases the stories we are able to tell and the perspectives we are able to bring. And in the business that I’m in, storytelling is everything.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I think this is an ongoing effort. You have to be willing to accept that maybe you can do better and take stock of what you’ve been doing and how you can move forward. We have so much to learn here. As a woman I have seen how the tides can turn (not that we are done), and we must turn the tides for everyone who is not treated equitably.
We’ve recently joined the Diversity Action Alliance, which is an organization dedicated to ensuring we increase our diversity, which in turn will impact the communications industry overall. This is our way of keeping ourselves accountable and increasing the voices that will be heard and able to tell their stories in this industry. But we have much more to do.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. 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?
I think it is most about having skin in the game. Each decision, big and small affects the larger organization. It is up to us to lead by example, to try to inspire and to always have our eye on tomorrow. It’s not that the work is much different, but the weight of it is what changes.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think people think we don’t do the actual work anymore. The founder of our company left a big agency for just that reason, and as a scrappy 25-year old start-up, that belief of doing the work regardless of level is a part of our DNA. Another myth I think exists is that people think we make decisions rashly. But in fact the angst and planning behind each decision is long and arduous. I am sure there are more, but no one tells me what they are.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I think women — well some women — have a harder time speaking their mind in business, negotiating salaries and such. Also, the issues of sexual harassment and the concept of the Boys Club still exist. It is not what it was when I was starting out, but its there. A powerful woman is still looked at as a bit of a shrew, while her male counterpart is just powerful. Also — particularly in the US — the inequality when it comes to maternity vs paternity remains an issue.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I don’t know if I had a real perception of what my job would be. I guess I thought it would be more different as I was promoted, but so much remains the same. As an executive in a creative field, there is definitely more math to think about, but it’s still just about the work getting done. I do think the diversity of my work is a difference. Today I have more stakeholders to think about and care for. I need to give each equal time and attention.
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? Can you explain what you mean?
Resilience is key, and a pretty thick skin. And the buck stops with you in a client service organization. Understanding what that means and always stepping up is critical. As for the type of person who may not relish the role, I think very creative people may have a hard time. It is more process and order, than a real craft or passion. There are amazing times for creativity, and I love those opportunities, but being a process person is important.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Believe in yourself but know you always have a lot to learn. And with that in mind, don’t be afraid to ask for help and collaborate. Nothing is more powerful than working together, succeeding together and even failing together. Each makes us stronger in its own way.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I think overall, I try to do good and do the right thing. I volunteer and mentor, I give back and support initiatives that do the same. But I am not sure I would say it’s enough. I often look for more to do to make the world a better place, something bigger. But it often does not happen. That said, I think if we can all just be truly kind and watch each other’s backs, we are doing something.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- This too shall pass. I see young women and men today so paralyzed and fearful by the state of the world. But knowing what I know today, I wish someone told me that the barriers and chaos I went through would pass someday, somehow.
- You don’t know it all. This is critical. Learning is an amazing gift and thinking that you are done learning is the most stifling of beliefs. I think when I got out of school, I had that feeling like I was finally done. But now I know I was just getting started.
- Get more sleep. I burned the candle at both ends for many years, and wish I had taken a bit more of a pause (even if I wasn’t actually sleeping).
- You don’t have to do this alone. As a women determined to “make it,” I fought hard to be independent and strong. But looking back I realize I didn’t have to do it alone, and I didn’t. I had mentors and colleagues to support me along the way. Surround yourself with people who lift you up and who you can lean on.
- Don’t rush it. When starting your career its always about the next hurdle — the promotion, the raise, the new job. I think savoring the present and the experience along the way makes for a much better journey than constantly looking ahead at what’s next. It’s great to be motivated, but not at the cost of losing out on the moments.
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.
Helping young girls believe in themselves and showing them a light at the end of the tunnel would be where I would like to make an impact. Showing these young women diversity of thought, opportunity and a path. As mentioned, having someone believe in me was — and is — the greatest motivator. I would like to do that for girls who think they have no one.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I mentioned this earlier, but it was oddly “Money will always come.” The simple belief allowed me to focus less on financial gain — or even money to put gas in my car — and more on my end goal. It took an element of stress off me which was much needed. Not believing this can hold you back.
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
I would have to go with Michelle Obama. I am sure she gets a lot of votes, but the work she is doing for women around the world is unprecedented. I would love to hear what motivates her each and every day. And of course, her insights into the political arena today would we priceless.