It’s rare to find an advertising executive that’s spent their entire career at the same agency.
But that’s how Dianne Wilkins' story has played out so far. The CEO of Critical Mass, who is stepping down from her 14-year tenure and 23-year run at the agency to become chairman, joined the agency just two years after it launched in the late 90s as a managing director based in Stockholm. She quickly moved up the ranks as a senior executive at headquarters in Calgary, and was named CEO by the time she turned 35.
“It feels sometimes like I've been here since birth,” she told Campaign US. “I was growing up with the industry.”
So it was with nostalgia when in early March, Wilkins announced she was stepping back from the agency at the end of 2020 and passing the reins to longtime president Chris Gokiert, her partner for 23-years.
“There's nothing specific driving the timing,” Wilkins said. “I turned 50 a little while ago, and I went through this whole, ‘Am I going to do the same thing my whole life, or is there something else in me? If there is, I better get going before I'm too far gone to do it.’”
Under Wilkins’ tenure, Critical Mass grew from 25 people in Canada to more than 900 employees around the globe, picking up clients including Nissan, Marriott and the United Nations. Wilkins led the agency through a majority acquisition by Omnicom in 2014, which has held a minority stake in the agency since 1999. At the time she announced her departure, Critical Mass had experienced two consecutive years of double-digit growth.
But running the agency wasn’t always easy. About halfway through Wilkins’ tenure as CEO, Critical Mass started to get watered down in an effort to compete with digital heavyweights in the U.S. market. Trying to be everything to everyone, it started to lose its way, she reflected.
At a company offsite, Wilkins and her team realized that the agency would be better off embracing its outsider status and Canadian roots — or as she calls it, a “humbleness and insecurity about who we are and where we came from.”
“There's a temptation in this business in particular to want to be like whoever is at the top of the game,” Wilkins said. “But along the line we realized, that is what makes us special. It’s a big part of what makes us great.”
A year of transition and crisis
That scrappy, underdog spirit has kept the agency stable during the COVID-19 crisis, where clients in different verticals have performed better or worse, creating a “whipsaw of revenues” for the agency, Wilkins said. Critical Mass made it through the year without any layoffs or furloughs, and with top line revenue flat from the year prior.
“Given everything we went through, flat feels like a win, for sure,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins announced her departure on March 4, just a week before the world shut down in response to the pandemic. While she may have reconsidered her exit in different circumstances, she was confident in Gokiert and the leadership team, who had been developing the transition plan with her for the past five years.
“Chris has been doing this with me for 23 years,” she added. “He can certainly do things his own way, but it's not going to be a radical departure from what we've built together.”
Still, the pandemic and its abrupt shift to working from home forced all-hands-on-deck from leadership through the year. Wilkins emphasized balance and stability for clients and employees alike, which are “inextricably linked in the agency business,” she said.
“We led with trust,” she said. “You need to manage your own individual health needs. Let's accommodate and cut everybody slack.”
Confidence and culture
While Wilkins grew up “playing golf with all of the boys,” she recognized as she moved up in her career she was one of the only women in the room.
That led her to join a networking group with female executives in the industry, where she could bounce ideas and get perspective from other senior women. Wilkins was also a founding member of Omni Women, a group of senior female execs at Omnicom across 50 offices.
“There was a kinship or camaraderie of, there aren't that many of us, so we better stick together,” she said.
Throughout her career, Wilkins made a point to coach young women and introduce them to networks of their own. She even hung a sign in her office eight years ago that said, “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
“I realized one of the biggest things I had was the ability to connect people to each other and build confidence in other women,” she said. “We better have each other's backs.”
That support extends through the agency’s culture. People at Critical Mass, including Wilkins herself, “stick around for ten to 20 years,” she said, a rare display of longevity in an industry where people bounce around a lot.
“If you can find that environment that fits you, that's the secret sauce,” she added.