Queen for a day: what would Nielsen’s Connie Xu change about the industry if she was in charge?

If you were in charge of the advertising industry how would you run things? In the latest issue of The Drum, seven women told guest-editor Cindy Gallop how they would tackle the issues holding the industry back if they ruled the roost. Connie Xu, VP client services at Nielsen, reveals what she'd do.

Marie Antoinette may be notorious for declaring “let them eat cake”, but if I were queen for a day, albeit in an entirely different context on the island of Manhattan, I might say the same thing.

Don’t behead me yet; hear me out.

Antoinette came to France from Austria as part of a political arrangement. Throughout her life, even as Queen, she was regarded with extreme suspicion by the French for being an outsider.

I confess I felt similarly when I entered the world of branding with an MBA and years of experience in management consulting. I wasn’t accustomed to agency work culture. It was ultimately my work samples, and neither my background nor my image, that helped me break into the industry. I instantly fell in love with the work. I saw opportunities for change, both in developing creative briefs and in the organisational strategy of the agency itself.

The response to my outspoken approach was mixed – some said improvements

were on their way, but implementation would be tricky; others insisted I earn my stripes. One evening, over drinks, a seasoned designer told me: “This business is like a cake. We work on the frosting and you’re too focused on the cake batter itself.” There it was – reality.

I didn’t know every type of frosting – all the decorations. To be honest, I felt that being too immersed in the abundance of creative already in existence could backfire. To me, true creativity involves breaking away from the status quo. What I knew for certain was that I was creating one delectable cake. Successful brands are holistic – perfecting both the batter, or the core of the brand, and the frosting, or its glossier image.

To create the perfect cake recipe, one must take into account the specific situation at hand. In any case, as queen, there are three laws that I would enforce.In any case, as queen, there are three laws that I would enforce.

1. In the Kingdom of Manhattan, or London for that matter, all it takes is one quick stroll around the block to witness the multilingual, global world in which we live.

Hire and retain a workforce that reflects this consumer reality and integrate multicultural strategies into the core of your business instead of treating this as a separate effort. This will enable us to bake diversity into brand strategy and develop authentic creative that resonates with today’s consumers.

2. To develop an optimal work environment with skilled, innovative chefs, reward the actions that you wish to materialise in your organisation. To steer away from politics, change performance reviews from an individual ranking system to a team-oriented approach.

Set metrics and promote those that have a proven record of collaborating, sharing knowledge, and helping others grow. Reinforce these values by holding 360 reviews with equal input from management, direct reports, and teammates.

3. Master pastry chefs may have a speciality but also have the experience of baking and frosting a variety of delightful treats. Pinpoint organisational silos and break these down by having your experts work a day in an entirely different role. I’m not saying a quantitative research analyst is just as skilled at determining the creative, visual identity of a brand, but what I am proposing is to have your analyst sit side-by-side and work with the design team and vice-versa.

The infusion of new perspectives will enable teams to gain a better understanding of each other as well as develop a holistic view of our business. To create mouth-watering recipes, the inner workings of how we manage our people, the processes or intentional lack thereof, and the technology we use to support our business must align with the outputs (products, services, experiences and how we market them). There is a natural tension between the artists and the suits (creative v business brief; creative v market research). I propose breaking down these barriers as one cannot exist without the other.

As queen, I say “let them ALL eat cake”.

This interview was originally published in the 1 October edition of The Drum, edited by Cindy Gallop and available to buy in The Drum Store.

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