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Omnicom’s Ro Kalonaros: ‘Agencies must be moral compass in age of AI’

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By Sam Bradley, Journalist

May 31, 2023 | 8 min read

The global director of content and culture was recently named Young Professional of the Year by the Ad Club of New York. Here she explains how to prove the value of agency culture and why the corporate ladder no longer exists.

Ro Kalonaros

Ro Kalonaros has been named Young Professional of the Year by the NY Ad Club / Omnicom

Ro Kalonaros has seen a lot of change in her career. After starting in magazine publishing as it struggled to rapidly digitize, she shifted into advertising and found herself working to ensure Omnicom’s corporate cultural policies were fit to function in an era of remote work and lockdown.

Now, the Ad Club of New York’s Young Professional of the Year – and Omnicom’s global director for growth and experience – is figuring out how to manage the anxieties of her colleagues as they watch the introduction of AI roll out across the industry.

“Think there’s a lot that we can’t control. And there’s a lot that’s uncertain,” she says. But in the absence of regulation or solid industry conventions, “it’s up to us to be a moral compass. That’s equal parts exciting and terrifying.”

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Culture, she says, can provide a safety net for staff within an organization as large as Omnicom. It can also make the organization itself more resilient in times of stress; relevant, given the strain that pitching for new business can place on staff.

“Having a culture and having a way for people to connect is helpful in those high-stress situations; it encourages empathy between people, people have a little bit of a better understanding of the way one another work, and [reinforces] that we’re all in this together.”

A strong internal culture, Kalonaros argues, enables the frankness needed for a flexible work environment to function. “It creates an environment where you can come forward and say ‘I can’t deal with this right now’, ‘I have a family issue going on’, or ‘I'm feeling burnt out.’ That dialogue is so important. The client demands are never gonna go away, but it’s the way that we can relate to one another, to meet those in a way that’s healthy, that we can control.”

One of Kalonaros’s biggest achievements in her time at Omnicom has been the creation of Hive, an internal knowledge-sharing platform available to every agency across its networks. “We have 160+ agencies around the world, around 72,000 employees who benefit from getting to know what the others are doing.”

Hive ties together the work of the various employee resources groups and training programs across the company. Inspired by the way Omnicom’s digital and design leads at agencies were collaborating across borders and org charts, Kalonaros’s team redesigned their earlier knowledge platform.

The pandemic saw the project come into its own, she says. “Our CEO sent a message to all our employees that pointed to Hive as a place where people could go as a resource, and it almost crashed the site. People were banging pots and pans out of their windows and it was a realization that people need each other, and need community.”

Three years on, the internal site has around 40,000 active users – well over half of Omnicom’s entire staff base – and the weekly newsletters sent to Kalonaros’s colleagues have respectable open rates of 28%. It’s a system people use.

Measuring the impact of that kind of work – rather than just providing resources and walking away – is something Kalonaros has been focused on throughout her career. “I’ve had to learn a lot about testing and iterating and measurement and tangible ROI. [The results] of a lot of what I do are anecdotal; it’s what gets into a client deck or who reads an article. I want to get granular and into the details of how people use Hive, trace back those journeys.”

Kalonaros’s career hasn’t followed a straight line. “I’ve just kept going to different opportunities that allowed me to use my brain in interesting ways. It’s harder the climb the corporate ladder now,” she says. “You have to follow the opportunities and what’s interesting to you, where things are going. The industry is moving so quickly and our business needs are changing, our client needs are changing and our consumers’ needs are changing.”

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Kalonaros’s time in publishing taught her to keep multiple plates spinning. As well as spearheading Hive, she created and hosts the holding company’s internal podcast series.

“I wanted to tell stories, though I think I didn’t know the advertising industry existed. But that’s what our industry is really about,“ she says, Especially because at the time that I entered the publishing industry, it was during the big pivot to digital. We didn’t have a lot of resources.“

“The digital team was tiny. I was doing all of my social posts, I was doing all of my own branded content. And so it was really like, kind of getting another a whole, like, four different jobs one. It ended up being a very good segue.”

“I want to keep creating new roles and continue to find a way to like sit at the intersection of culture and creativity and technology,” she says. It’s rare for talent outside the traditional creative or account management tracks to lead an agency, but not impossible. Would she be up for the challenge, down the line?

“One of the networks could be in the future,” she says. In the meantime though, Kalonaros says: “I don’t want to lose the practitioner in me. That’s where the rubber meets the road.

“In terms of leadership, I never want to lose the practitioner, I never want to lose the doer and the maker. The tricky part of growing in your career is balancing the business and the leadership with the craft.”

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