Entrepreneurial Ad-Lady – Interview with Karen Riordan, President SmithGifford

Yes, there really is an entire wall of toilet paper rolls behind Karen Riordan in the picture you see next to this post. The TP wall – standing between the doors of the women’s and men’s bathrooms – is only one of many interesting aspects of SmithGifford’s offices, where Karen took over as President of the top-ten D.C. ad agency in 2011, after a 26 year career in which she held just about every agency position there is and ended up running the D.C. office of one of the largest agencies in the business – Arnold Worldwide. Far from the corporate slick hallways of Arnold and other big agencies, SmithGifford’s offices are a tastefully funky mishmash of every size desk, rug and dog you can imagine. Nestled alongside a window installation company in Falls Church, Virginia, the entrepreneurial agency occupies two open spaces in a tiny converted warehouse across from an auto repair shop. This ain’t your grandpa’s Mad Men Ad Agency.

And Karen loves it this way. “I exist in a moveable feast,” she says happily. At SmithGifford, where she leads 19 employees, she gets to spend more of her time and energy in the work than she did at Arnold, helping clients and developing staff. Unlike her big agency leadership experience where most of her day was spent in administration, now the paperwork is down to two hours a day (well, a night – after her ten year old daughter goes to bed). “There are tremendous advantages of being 19 people, the best one being that the whole culture is extremely family oriented. We can have pajama parties. We can have bring-your-dog-to-work day.” To demonstrate this point, SmithGifford celebrated Leap Day this year in the spirit of the day’s original Roman roots, togas and all. “We will be having grapes,” Karen declared before the event, smiling broadly.

Passionate About Diversity and Advertising

Talking to Karen even for a few minutes, her passion for diversity – of everything – comes through clearly. She appreciates the diversity of client work she has had over her career, including leading household brands like Volkswagen, Staples, Royal Caribbean International, Amtrak, John Hancock, Inova, Washington Gas, USA Today, Bahamas Tourism and Blue Cross & Blue Shield. She loves the diversity of the D.C. area where the people in every industry – including and especially advertising – bring a rich variety of cultures, ethnicities, lifestyles, and educational experiences to their work. Karen also views gender, race, religion and sexual orientation diversity as contributing to this dynamic mix in a meaningful way.

In her professional volunteer work as well, sitting on the boards of the D.C. AdClub, The Washington Board of Trade and Arlington’s Artisphere, Karen is a strong proponent of diversity as principle leaders should pursue in order to access the best talent there is. The results of open-minded recruiting, she says, are clear in the tremendous influx of talented and amazing women into the marketing, communications and advertising industries over the last twenty years.

When Karen first started her career in 1985 women in marketing were most commonly found in public relations, and it was unusual to find a female copywriter. Even though at some agencies women are still working their way into copywriting, SmithGifford is proud that some of their copywriters are women and Karen stands firm in her support of them. When a client recently asked for a childless woman to be removed from an ad project targeting mothers, Karen refused, noting that her staff was professionally capable of understanding the product and market. “There’s probably 50 men on Madison Avenue who made their living selling Kotex,” she told me. The client acquiesced to her point.

She is equally passionate about the advertising industry. While she rejects the idea that advertisers create culture, viewing advertisers as reflecting social norms and preferences back like a mirror, she takes pride in the fact that ad agencies can help their clients step up to important values. When Arnold Worldwide went “green,” she says, their clients took notice. She also believes that advertising has the ability to help the broader culture shape its view of women. “Let’s not forget what David Ogilvy said years ago when someone was demeaning the target market. He said, ‘the target audience is not stupid. She is your wife.’”

A Strong Leader

Karen has deliberately honed her leadership style and values over the years. She believes she is living proof of a woman’s ability to master a variety of leadership styles along the continuum between decisive and collaborative. She thoroughly loves her job and the great variety of business challenges she has to step up to, attributing much of her success to “flexing my leadership style back and forth all day long. [I like] being the bad cop like in the financial contract conversation I’ll have this afternoon, and then sitting down to do a six-month review and mentoring session with a junior account person. I’m a strong personality and command and control is my natural style. I like to gather a lot of information very quickly and say ‘This is it!’ ‘Let’s go!’ ‘Move out the troops!’ I’ve also loved developing a more nurturing, mentoring style because my favorite part of the job is hiring young people and teaching them the ropes. In this business we have so many type A’s it really takes both styles to get things done. I’ve had to learn to know when it’s time to talk and when it’s time to decide.”

She acknowledged that because her default style is more command-and-control she’s had to practice discipline in learning to be more collaborative. A recent case in point is that she’s found being with a smaller firm that the clients often look to her for creative advice. After 26 years in the business, she has a lot of input to provide, but she’s noticed that if she puts her thoughts out first, many of the junior people in the room won’t offer up theirs. Her new approach is to turn the question over to the youngest people in the room first and weigh in with her own thoughts last. This brings out a richer conversation from her staff, all of which benefits the client.

Karen is also passionate about developing the next generation and she takes her responsibilities as a role model very seriously, noting that when you’re in leadership people attach meaning to your words you can’t even imagine. In advertising, she notes, talent is everything and if you’re not creating an environment where people thrive, if you’re not working to help them develop their talents, then you’re not leading. She recently sat down with an applicant right out of college – before the interview – to tell her she wouldn’t be interviewing the young lady despite a stellar resume. The young woman was stunned to learn that her interview attire – a tube top, short skirt and 3 inch heels – were inappropriate for the firm. Karen helped her manage the tears and sent her on her way. She also gave the young woman a second chance when she reapplied after researching appropriate interview dress.

Despite periodically misfiring on dress codes, however, she admires the younger generation’s connectedness to the news cycle and drive. “Sometimes I wonder if they’re having enough fun,” she says, noting how seriously they take their career goals. She also works to help her staff maintain perspective in the face of frantic deadlines where they have to “be brilliant in three days” and keep the daily to do list under control at the same time. When she was working in Boston, she mandated that her account team take a daily walk to the Public Garden and primal scream if they needed to, so they didn’t get so frustrated that it impaired client relations.

She is grateful to some of her mentors who helped her achieve career success and sees mentoring and guiding as a big part of her job. She counts her dad as one of her first mentors. After being turned down for an agency position right out of school, she was offered a receptionist position at the firm. The receptionist desk was vacant because its previous occupant had gotten the job Karen didn’t. When she told her dad about the opportunity, he guffed a bit at paying for college so she could be a receptionist (who still can’t touch-type, by the way) and then advised her to have the firm include in her offer letter the opportunity to interview for internal jobs after 3 months. Karen made the request with trepidation but is so glad she did. Nine weeks later she interviewed – and got – her first advertising job. Thanks, Dad!

 Evidence of The Woman Effect

Karen is proud of the way women have become such strong leaders in the advertising industry. She sees evidence of The Woman Effect in her work every day as combined teams of women and men work on client projects and bring strengths of both genders to the fore. Asked what particular strengths she sees in the women working for her, Karen identifies a hard to see, but critical, asset in the communications industry. “[Women have] the ability to listen to what the clients are really asking for. Their most important skill is the ability to read between the lines, hear what the client didn’t say out loud, and have the courage to let it be a little uncomfortable.” This ability to listen and elicit deeper discussion offers the client the opportunity to say what’s really on their minds. Karen is very proud that the women at SmithGifford are willing to ask the tough questions and live with a little discomfort because she believes it’s strengthening their client relationships.

She also recognizes The Woman Effect in herself. At a recent client meeting a man on her team responded to the client’s questions with too many “I” statements, inadvertently taking credit for the work of two junior staff members. The client was happy but Karen noticed her staff members physically slump as he talked. Later, privately, she made him aware of the impact of his words. He was surprised, apologized and took it upon himself to be more mindful of this tendency in the future. No one knows if a man in her position would have noticed or handled that situation in the same way, but Karen is sure her feminine sensitivity to the staff’s nonverbal signals helped her coach her colleague and strengthen her company culture through that interaction.

Since she enjoys interviewing so much, in closing the interview I asked Karen what advice she has for women and men, young and old, looking for their next career opportunity. “Stay curious,” she said. “I think that’s the secret to a life well lived and definitely a secret to success in marketing and advertising. If you’re not inherently curious and don’t care about what the competition is doing, that’s a little scary to me. When I ask candidates what books they’re reading, I like to hear that they loved some crazy story or play. It tells me they might find some out-of-left-field, high-value article to share with the client. Those can be wow moments for clients.”

I think Karen has wowed a lot of clients in her day.

End Notes: Karen is a member of the InPower Women’s Advisory Board. To learn more about the benefits of flexible leadership styles Karen has become proficient with, read this Stanford study in our Research Index.

Are you, or do you know, an INpowered woman we should consider for an interview? Power isn't always about title. Contact us to propose an interviewee and subject. (Not sure you or they are INpowered? Get smart on the 5 Principles of InPowerment.)

This post originally appeared on InPower Women.