Alexandra von Plato, CEO of Publicis Health, the global health-care communications network, describes how the advertising business is evolving. It’s no longer confined to pure advertising. It’s now about providing services, ranging from consulting to predictive analytics that help customers meet consumers’ needs even before they become aware of them.
The work is also becoming more collaborative. Von Plato says she and her colleagues spend a lot of time figuring how to leverage not only the 750 people in the Wanamaker Building in Philadelphia but also the company’s 5,000 staffers spread worldwide and the 80,000 employees of its parent, Publicis Groupe.
“We’re always trying to cross-pollinate,” says von Plato, who lives in Gladwyne with her husband and three children, and often begins her day checking in with U.K.-based colleagues. So a health-care client gets the benefit of insight from financial services, skin products, automotive, and even packaged goods.
What does it mean to you to be Publicis Health’s first female CEO?
A lot of women that I have seen in my career have waited to be recognized and were not aggressive about getting recognition for themselves. They waited to get promotions, because they thought if they worked really hard, somebody is going to see that and that will get rewarded. The message that I try to always give the young women who work for me is: “Well, first of all, I’ve asked for every job I’ve ever gotten. And that’s not unfeminine, and it’s not unattractive and we shouldn’t care about any of those things.” I think we still to this day as a society hold women to a standard that is about being deferential and being more concerned and in service of others. You could still be in service to others and grow your career.
You also came out of the creative side of the business. How significant is that?
There are two glass ceilings in business. There was the glass ceiling of being a woman and there was the glass ceiling of being a creative. I don’t have an MBA. I stood up in front of my team in January when they announced me as CEO, I said “I just want to admit to everybody once and for all that so it’s out there. I matriculated for my MFA but I never finished.” I respect people who have those credentials. I work with amazing people who have those skills.
I was complaining about some aspect of the business to one of my former CEOs, and he said, “What are you complaining about? Why don’t you become president.” I said, “I can’t become president. I don’t have an MBA.” He said, “Alex, you don’t need an MBA, you need a good finance guy.” And I got a good finance guy. I took it literally.
What kind of people are you hiring?
Every kind. We have a polyglot-adhocracy. I like people who come from design and from science and from digital and from fine art and from journalism and some people who have MBAs, some people are accountants. But the best rooms I’m in are rooms that have a little bit of all those people and they’re all happy to be in each other’s company.
How would you describe your management style?
One is my job is to have ideas but it’s also to have other people develop their ideas. My job is to listen to your idea and help you develop it and not to get you to do my idea. Because I’ve learned as the creative director, it is the kiss of death with a team to say, “Here’s my idea. I want you to bring it back to me by 5 o’clock tomorrow.” You can’t get people to do it. It’s most important to me that someone who comes in to pitch me has the courage of their conviction, believes in their idea, and can defend it, and can stand up to getting holes poked in it and can enjoy the process of critique which is also what a creative person is used to.
The happiest people are the most generous people. They’re not the people who have the most. What really is a constituent of human well-being isn’t an accumulation of power and wealth. It’s how you can spread yourself around and be generous. And be considerate and help other people accomplish things. And make yourself available. It could be exhausting, but it is a way to be successful.
What do you read?
I also have been talking to my team a lot about Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams. It’s a military man’s business book. The whole idea of decentralizing power and pushing accountability and authority down to the front line. As I have a big organization now with a lot of really talented people in it, I suspect there’s even more talented people that are buried and I think our job is to uncover as much of that capability as possible.
There was a [recent] article in the Times: Why is Silicon Valley all men? And they built this profile that said the best programmers are antisocial. They’re isolated. They just turned out to be a certain kind of guy. And now they realize that is not what makes the best programmers. People who feed off each other’s ideas and want to be in each other’s company and want to be in a collaborative environment, they make great programmers, too, and they might be better. And it set the course for an entire industry for multiple decades and then it’s this brick-to-forehead moment, that we were wrong and we’ve kept all these people out.
(Responses have been edited for clarity.)