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“Always be three steps ahead”: Beyond the Brief featuring Val DiFebo, Deutsch

Val DiFebo, Deutsch NY CEO

Bronx natives have put their stamp on all aspects of culture for decades now: think Al Pacino, Jennifer Lopez, Ralph Lauren. If Deutsch NY CEO Val DiFebo isn’t on this list of icons from the “boogie down”, she very well should.

DiFebo started her tenure at Deutsch in 1992 and quickly became one of the agency’s cornerstones as the entire industry adapted to a nascent digital era. Five years into her time there, and she was named a partner and director of the full-service shop’s account management department.

Fast forward to this year, her 25th at Deutsch (and 8th in her current role) and the powerhouse exec has seen standout work come out of her agency from Taco Bell, Angel Soft, and PNC Bank especially. Culturally, DiFebo has ensured that half of all the agency’s leadership is made up of women, still a misnomer in an industry trying to tackle diversity issues of all kinds.

Outside the agency, the star exec has been featured in The New York Timesand Fortune — and has appeared on multiple episodes of The Apprentice. DiFebo has previously received honors from the Advertising Women of New York, (now rebranded as She Runs It) and Business Journal, and this year, the Italian Welfare League has named her their 2017 Woman of the Year. Under her leadership, Deutsch doesn’t just rack up its share of advertising awards, but honors from the Coalition for the Homeless, Live Out Loud, the Advertising Educational Foundation and MAIP for corporate leadership and service. Though she no longer lives north of Manhattan (she’s now in Queens with her family), so much of her true-to-Bronx upbringing, blue-collar heritage and straight-forward approach still remains.

DiFebo celebrates 25 years at Deutsch this year, and as she prepares her agency for the next quarter-century, we congratulate her on two and a half decades of living beyond the brief.

The toughest conversation you had with a client?

Hands down it was when I fired a client. The business was with a sexy, coveted brand that creatives dream of working on, and it was highly profitable for the agency.

But, the client? A rude micro-manager who stifled creativity and amused himself by humiliating his managers and our team. He made a sport out of making every interaction uncomfortable. His micro-managing tendencies were notorious and he was destructive to the creative process.

I took a serious look at how his behavior impacted our people, created unnecessary distress and made the creative product suffer. When I fired him, he didn’t believe that we would walk away from the business. But we did, and in hindsight it was also one of the easiest decisions I ever had with a client because it was the right thing to do for my people, and our business.

The toughest conversation you had with a boss?

It was about money, specifically addressing the topic of equal pay — for myself. I felt that I wasn’t being compensated fairly, and needed to understand why so I could fix it, or consider a change. The risk was the possibility of being told that my work was adequate, but not exceptional.

After addressing the situation and providing tangible evidence of my contributions, I got feedback and the raise. Addressing the topic of equal pay is still as difficult today as it was years ago. But, raising awareness to discrepancies and having the confidence to talk about the value you bring to the table is one way to get closer to pay equity.

What’s your favorite thing about your hometown? What (in)tangible thing have you taken from there?

I am from the Bronx — raised in a tight knit family with three sisters. My parents were of Italian descent, and we were a blue-collar, hard-working family in a real New York neighborhood. I got my street smarts from growing up in the Bronx; be aware of everything going on, read body language, and always be three steps ahead of the other person.

Additionally, my parents were extremely straight-forward. So, when you’ve got something on your mind, don’t sugarcoat it. Tell me what you’ve got to say and we’ll get there faster.

What non-advertising things do you draw inspiration from?

I love the theater. Everything about it inspires me.

What starts as a blank canvas, through talent, dedication and the collaboration of actors, designers, directors, etc. a story is brought to life. Each person brings their interpretation, specific nuances, to the table.

Additionally, being part of the audience is inspiring and participatory, for a couple of hours we share, witness and contemplate an event that may be beautiful, funny, moving or thought provoking.

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.

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