‘Think about how you define success’: Beyond the Brief featuring Donna Wiederkehr, Dentsu Aegis

Donna Wiederkehr, Americas CMO, Dentsu Aegis

You could never tell Dentsu Aegis’ Americas CMO Donna Wiederkehr the sky’s the limit: at age 14, she was a pilot, flying for her dad’s hot air balloon company — solo.

Being able to see the what the world is up to from that high up, more literally back then, a little more figuratively now as she oversees growth for the network’s 23-plus agencies in 30 countries across the Americas. As part of their leadership team, she’s helped deliver over $7 billion in wins for the network. But delivering big wins isn’t new to her either, by age 18, she was closing her own business deals.

What’s kept this high-flying exec grounded is her “life’s work”: for over a decade, Wiederkehr has been helping care for a community of 28 orphans in Rwanda. Three times a year, she visits and contributes to the New Hope Homes family. She is also home to 5 top ranking students from Rwanda who now attend college in the US. Among her colleagues, this has affectionately earned Wiederkehr the title of “Rwanda Donna”. Through all the accolades and honors she’s accumulated over the years, this passion and love for her family abroad is something she takes with utmost pride and humility.

From the colleagues she surrounds herself with, her strong, beautiful family in America and Rwanda, and her own passion for an industry she was born for, Wiederkehr lives an inspired life, a life well-lived beyond the brief.

What keeps you sane in this industry? What keeps you driven to do great work?

The thing that keeps me sane is my 'life's work' outside of my professional career. My passion for the past 11+ years is helping care for 28 orphans in Rwanda. I am with them three times a year so they keep me grounded and grateful. It's also my privilege to serve as an American mom to five wonderfully talented young adults from Rwanda as they attend college in the US. They are home with me on breaks and we have a treasured collection of family and friends who have created a beautiful community for them here. Thus, Rwanda— and these kids —have captured my heart.

It's all connected, because the more great work our team does enables me to have more career success, and that in turn helps me make a difference in the lives of these kids.

It's an inextricable link AND a great motivator.

What makes you excited about going to work every day?

It sounds cliche, but it's real; I am inspired every day by the people on our team and their laser focus on helping our clients innovate the way they build their brands. Every group says they are collaborative, but there is something really special about it here. I love this industry. I love everything about it and I've never had more fun than I have had working with the Dentsu Aegis team around the world.

When did you know you wanted to be in advertising?

It never really was a conscious choice. For me it was just like breathing — of course I would be in advertising. I grew up in the business, just a different view of it than most who say they are born into it. My dad is one of the first ten hot-air balloonists in the US. A true pioneer. Ballooning ultimately turned into his full time job. He built an academy to train pilots and a scaled promotion business. We had a large fleet of balloons traveling around the US and some global markets promoting lots of big brands. From a young age I grew up thinking about targets, media, PR, creative and messaging strategies in the context of client objectives. As a pilot for one of my dad's biggest clients, I felt the responsibility of building a strong plan, delivering on our promises and helping our clients succeed. Same as today. And of course, I still live out of a suitcase.

Where is your happy place/space?

A Rwandan sunrise on top of a mountain just outside of newhopehomes.org. The kids and I climb it at least few times on each of my visits. We leave the house before dawn and then sit together at the top of it watching the sun come up. The view is absolutely breathtaking. After the sun rises we each take turns naming the things we are grateful for in our lives. Next is a five minute period of silence that gets reset if anyone giggles or laughs, so as you can imagine, five minutes usually turns into twenty.

As I look across the rolling hills and simplicity around me with people in the villages going to fetch water or heading to a field to begin to turn the soil, I am overwhelmed with awe and respect. It also helps me remember that there is a vast difference between what we want and what we need. These people, with very simple lives and very few material possessions are some of the happiest people on the earth — and in that, yes, there is indeed a lesson.

What is the most spontaneous thing you’ve done lately — or ever?

My parents and I used to take a spontaneous holiday every year. They would fly on a United pass — my sister is a Captain — and I would use my frequent flyer miles from all my business travel. We randomly selected a geography, checked flight avails and booked. It was usually just a few days notice. The key was there should be no planning. No reading of tour guide must do's. We just discovered as we went. There was such freedom in a sense of discovery free of 'to do' lists. The contrast was a great annual reset to my career’s daily life filled with proactive planning.

What life advice do you give others?

Think about how you define success.

Is it career success based on achievements, titles, income? Material success based on how much you can accumulate? Physical health to sustain a quality life or compete in some sports/passion? Spiritual health based on your beliefs? Giving back — to your family, community or someone in need?

Whatever it is, really think about it and and be intentional about what you need to do to achieve it. Then, hold yourself accountable.

To celebrate its 100th Anniversary, the 4A’s has partnered with us at The Drum to pull back the curtain and look at an industry full of problem solvers, creative types and analytical minds. But what keeps them going once the briefs are written, the campaigns executed, and the pitches won (or lost)? We’re interviewing 100 people at 4A’s member agencies — across all disciplines, levels, regions, and agency types — to get a glimpse into what drives them at work and what fuels them in life.

See the industry pros we're featuring here.

To pitch someone from a 4A's member agency for Beyond the Brief, please complete this linked form.

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