The curious case of Lori Senecal

CP+B's first global CEO is a powerful woman in an industry desperate for more. So why isn't she being celebrated?

Campaign US' Annual Morale Survey has once again revealed that leadership is the No. 1 most-cited cause of low employee morale. All this week, as part of our first-ever Leadership Report, we're exploring the issue through the eyes of those who live it every day.

The advertising industry tends to prefer big personalities. "If you can’t advertise yourself, what hope do you have of being able to advertise anything else?" said David Ogilvy, who liked to distinguish himself by showing up to black-tie events in a kilt.

How, then, to explain the success of Lori Senecal? A self-described "shy introvert" whose only notable affects are a steely countenance and her all-black wardrobe ("not true," says her publicist, Katie Kempner, "sometimes she wears navy blue"), this blue-eyed Canadian has become MDC Partners’ go-to change agent for agencies in need of globalization, or a little adult supervision.

Over the past eight years, she was appointed global CEO atop two of MDC’s most prized shops; a successful run at KBS led to her current post overseeing the growth of CP+B. She was also granted an extra title when she became the first president and CEO of MDC’s Partner Network. 

Senecal is earning a reputation for being brought into agencies during critical transition periods, when they need not only a globalization strategy, but a path for evolution from creative darlings defined by iconoclastic founders into efficient, future-facing businesses. 

Her management style is certainly up for debate. Yet it’s hard to argue that Senecal is actively helping Crispin, once the hottest agency in the land that five years ago risked a rapid cooling, find relevance and stay intriguing to marketers. She is also an effective promoter of women: She recently elevated four female creatives at Crispin, is speaking at the 3% Conference in November and—according to Karen Kaiser, VP of national advertising for Domino's Pizza—has been quietly working to bring together a group of female marketing executives in L.A. to see how they might bolster one another's careers.

At a time when the industry has become hyper-focused on celebrating female leaders, one would expect Senecal to be universally lauded. But that’s far from the case. The truth is she’s a complicated character who doesn’t fit the mold of your typical back-slapping CEO. In interviews with more than a dozen of Senecal’s current and former colleagues, a portrait emerged—or is it a caricature?—of a leader single-mindedly focused on process and profitability, often at the expense of tact or humanity, leaving in her wake a legion of seething detractors.

Sitting in the library at the Crosby Street hotel in SoHo, her go-to NYC meeting spot, Senecal acknowledges her struggles with shyness, and suggests that a less-flashy approach may seem refreshing to clients. "I think today, chemistry and authenticity are super important things," she says. "Maybe there’s a role for someone who is pretty down to earth and authentic and straightforward. I’m able to talk about things without a lot of flash."

Indeed, Kaiser praises Senecal for bringing a cool temperament and steady hand to the sometimes-chaotic Crispin, which has been Domino's creative AOR in the US for eight years. "I think she brings a very interesting, calm attitude. She's very even-keeled," she says. "She's a little bit soft-spoken and yet, she has this really big job and is a very powerful businesswoman."

But that same steady, methodical approach can be a liability in cultures more accustomed to leaders who emote.

"When she came in, she basically changed the whole culture to be more corporate, more like a big agency, overnight. And some of us were treated horribly," says Charles Pinkerton, an ex-president of Media Kitchen, the former media arm of KBS.

A regular complaint about Senecal relates to a seemingly unsentimental approach to dismissing agency staff. There are also concerns of nepotism, sparked by the repeated appearance of her husband, Bill Grogan, to take control of business from people she has moved aside.

To her supporters, she is the victim of unfair criticisms rooted in gender disparities, such as whether she smiles enough or communicates the nurturing vibe unfairly expected of female executives. "I feel like it’s a little of that Hillary Clinton syndrome," says Danielle Whelan, EVP and managing director of CPB Boulder.

"There’s something about a woman in a leadership position and behaving in a certain way that’s OK for a man and not a woman." — Danielle Whelan, managing director, CP+B Boulder

"There’s something about a woman in a leadership position and behaving in a certain way that’s OK for a man and not a woman."

"If a man is steely, he would not be criticized," adds Whelan.

Scott Kauffman, CEO and chairman of MDC, calls her a rare find, and considers her a critical player in his efforts to turn MDC's network of creative misfits into a disciplined, sustainable business.

"Running a global ad network is not a trivial job, and the skillset required to create a vision, galvanize a team and make it work across the physical globe is not easy to find," he says. "She has proven that she has a talent for putting the focus back on why an agency exists."

Leaps and Bounds
The fourth daughter of a schoolteacher and a retail-worker-turned-shop-owner, Senecal says she was raised in a highly competitive environment and learned to fight for attention practically from birth. "I felt an urge early on to break away from the pack and pursue my own path," she wrote in an email.

As a shy child, breaking away meant competitive gymnastics, a sport focused on individual achievement at which she excelled, eventually becoming a coach. Unsure of her career ambitions, Senecal enrolled in Montreal’s McGill University as a business major, and soon took an interest in marketing. After graduation, though she knew almost nothing about media buying or planning, she moved to Toronto to work on the Ford account in the media department of now-defunct agency Vickers & Benson.

Agency life immediately pushed her outside her comfort zone, forcing her to develop social and performing skills she did not naturally possess. Suddenly having to face large-group settings proved scary (and still are a bit of an Achilles heel)."I had to learn how to speak to audiences of 1,000 people at dealer conferences," Senecal says. "Being an introvert, a lot of situations can seem a bit overwhelming, and so it’s important to embrace that and realize it’s a learning experience."

"My first one-on-one with her, she didn’t even say, ‘Hello I’m Lori Senecal, this is what I’m here to do. She just started with, ‘Who should go?’" — a former CP+B executive

"If you go in the direction of your fear," she adds, "chances are you’re going to grow and become more confident and better for it."

Senecal’s key to overcoming shyness was constant preparation, leading her colleagues to believe she had management potential. Soon, they were suggesting she change career tracks. "I took a really strategic approach to the media-planning recommendations that I was doing, and they said, ‘You probably want to be in account management,’" she says.

From there, she moved to Interpublic Group’s McCann Erickson Toronto, where she became the Canadian lead on the Coca-Cola account. At the time, Grogan, her future husband, was leading Coke for McCann in the US, and the two crossed paths at global summits. In 1998, after the Toronto president encouraged Senecal to take on bigger goals, she moved to McCann’s New York office, where she and Grogan reconnected. The two were married in 2003.

In New York, Senecal earned a reputation as an innovator. In 2003, she launched a young-adult marketing unit called TAG Ideation, and eventually became worldwide lead on the Coke account. Within three years, she had become president of the New York office.

Entrepreneurial Tendencies
In 2009, Miles Nadal, MDC co-founder and then-CEO, came calling, and lured her to Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, whose founders, Jon Bond and Richard Kirshenbaum, were in the final year of their earn-outs. Though the founders were in talks with another successor, Nadal insisted Senecal was right for the job and arranged for them all to meet, says a source familiar with the transition.

Nadal, who could not be reached for comment, was charmed by Senecal, sources said, and spoke glowingly of her at the time. "She will not only enhance the effectiveness and reputation of Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners," he told AdAge, "but will also enhance the reputation of MDC Partners as the home for executives with strong entrepreneurial tendencies who want to take their entrepreneurial wheels for a spin." In the same article, an MDC spokesman boasted that Senecal was found not through a formal search, but a "serendipitous kind of meeting."

Senecal’s ability to score a name on the door of a legendary New York agency was met with surprise in the industry. Senecal came aboard as president, partner and CEO of KBP—now renamed Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal & Partners—and was tasked with globalizing the company and bringing it into the digital age.

"I was there to be the next-generation leadership," she says. "The ambition was to take what was essentially a fairly local New York agency and build a global footprint, and also mold a lot of modern capabilities into it because at the time it had been more focused on advertising."

The Reinvention of KBS
According to Guy Hayward, KBS’ current global CEO, Senecal "saved" the agency. Before she arrived, "clients and talent were leaving on a weekly basis," he says, and agency capabilities were too mired in tradition. "She performed heroics by changing the focus to social, to digital and content, and completely turned around client retention."

Though many longtime KBS employees are quick to criticize Senecal for upending the agency’s culture, few dispute that the company was floundering when she arrived, particularly after the July 2009 loss of the $275 million Wendy’s account.

"Organizationally it was a shit show," says one former executive, "but it had great, hardworking people. It was run like a family business, where once you were in, you were in. Richard and Jon had your back. There were politics, but they didn’t get dirty."

There is plenty to suggest Senecal helped steer KBS into the second phase of its existence. She opened offices in Toronto, Montreal, London and Shanghai through a combination of MDC mergers, acquisitions and regional hires, ultimately growing staff from 250 to 900 people, per an MDC source.

In 2010, to further push the agency outside US borders, she created the role of global CMO, and hired her husband, Grogan, for the job. However, neither KBS nor MDC chose to publicize the hire at the time, fueling accusations of nepotism once it was reported in the press.

Senecal added new capabilities beyond traditional advertising, including a trading desk within Media Kitchen, which, according to two former executives, was making 72% margins and helped prop up the agency even as the core business struggled.

Though she is, by her own admission, not a natural presenter, she did oversee one game-changing win, when BMW named KBS its North American creative AOR in 2011. The $160 million account instantly became the agency’s biggest and was hailed as a vindication for a company that had spent years unsuccessfully chasing automotive accounts.

During her tenure, from 2009 to 2014, excluding acquisitions, gross revenue at the agency roughly doubled, according to an MDC source.

But her relentless focus on preparation and procedure rubbed a lot of legacy staff the wrong way. For example, Sunday afternoon new-business meetings in the agency’s downtown New York office became a regular occurrence, and pleas to hold them in the morning or evening so employees could spend time with their families went unheeded, sources say.

MDC gave Senecal a veritable blank check to upgrade staff, agency sources say, and dismissals of well-regarded agency executives became commonplace. Such was MDC’s zeal to bring in new talent that McCann filed suit against the company, saying it had illegally poached Senecal and other key talent. Indeed, within weeks of Senecal’s arrival at KBS, several McCann employees also turned up at the agency, including Faris Yakob, McCann’s chief technology strategist and David Jenkins, McCann’s chief brand growth innovation officer, both with hefty salary increases. The suit was settled within days, with no money changing hands and no admission of wrongdoing. 

But one personnel change—the firing of chief digital officer Steve Thibodeau, formerly the president of digital unit Dotglu—still stings for many KBS veterans.

No One Is Indispensable
If the BMW win was big for Senecal, it was a triumph for Thibodeau, who had first won KBS a spot on BMW’s roster as digital AOR in 2005. Kirshenbaum, in his 2011 book, "Mad Boy: Beyond Mad Men: Tales from the Mad, Mad World of Advertising," said the primary reason BMW executives chose KBS as its digital shop was that they were "impressed" with Thibodeau and Dotglu.

"Steve had a very close relationship with the client, and he really grew that business," says Pinkerton, the former president of Media Kitchen. Thibodeau declined to comment.

Senecal and Thibodeau clashed, in part because Senecal did not approve of his cozy relationship with a client that had become critical to the agency, sources say. "She has this belief that we can’t have anybody who’s not expendable," says one former KBS employee.

Sources recall how Senecal took steps to wedge herself between Thibodeau and BMW, at one point presenting to the client during the Cannes Lions festival without Thibodeau’s knowledge. Thibodeau, who was not invited to Cannes that year, only learned about the meeting as it was happening.

Soon, Senecal had asked Grogan to take over the BMW account and tried moving Thibodeau to a holding-company position. "Lori appointed Bill to run the BMW business and told Steve that he was now going to be working for MDC," says Pinkerton.

Shortly after, Thibodeau was asked to leave.

Senecal initially declined to discuss Thibodeau. But later said in an email: "When the mission is transformation, that journey is not necessarily right for everyone. Change is hard, and inevitably restructuring and personnel changes are necessary. No decisions are ever taken lightly."

Today, Thibodeau continues to consult with BMW through his new company, Wide Open. And although KBS has recently lost portions of the automaker’s business (MDC sister company Gale has taken CRM, Laundry Service nabbed social and the client’s website account is currently under review) the agency remains BMW’s North American AOR.

Looking at the agency now, those who worked under Senecal can’t seem to agree whether it’s better than ever or a shell of its former self. Co-founder Bond says he appreciates the challenge that faced Senecal when she took over, but stops short of praising her results. "It’s very difficult to migrate an agency to a new generation," he says. "The agency was, I think, at its height in the 2000s, and it’s hard to migrate to new leadership when the culture is built in certain things. It has a low success rate."

Deja Crispin
In early 2015, Crispin was, in many ways, facing the same challenges that KBS had been in 2009. Communication among offices was poor, and the creative product was inconsistent from region to region, says Chuck Porter, the agency’s co-founder and chairman. Porter largely blamed himself for the agency’s troubles, saying his laissez-faire approach to organization and management had begun to catch up with him. 

"My attitude has always been, 'Don't manage people, leave them alone," says Porter. "That's fine if there's 60 of you, but it's not fine if there are 700 of you."

More urgently, the agency had recently won the global Infiniti business from Omnicom’s TBWA, putting pressure on Crispin to expand its footprint, particularly in Asia.

In 2014, Senecal had left KBS to become president and CEO of MDC’s Partner Network, a newly created role that made her an advisor to all the holding company’s agencies. Given the challenges facing Crispin, Porter and Nadal—who would soon step down amidst an ongoing US Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into his expenses—decided Senecal was the obvious choice to become Crispin’s first-ever global CEO.

Today, Porter calls Senecal "a management and organizational genius" who has brought much-needed focus to the agency. "She understands the value of consistent and constant communication with the leadership of the agency, and she knows how to create procedures to make that happen," he says. "I don’t know how to do any of that stuff."

Such is Senecal's dedication to her new gig that she moved to Boulder, CO, for the first year, to be closer to the agency's largest office. More recently, she has moved to Santa Monica, to work out of Crispin's LA office, even as her husband has remained in New York. "Occasionally we'll find ourselves in the same city, but I think we both had global jobs for about the past decade," she says. "It's kind of the drill we're used to."

In her first 18 months, Senecal has given the agency a jolt, especially on the new-business circuit. CP+B has won the global creative accounts for American Airlines and PayPal, and more recently picked up the Jose Cuervo creative account that her alma mater McCann resigned earlier this year. She’s growing Crispin’s footprint, too. This fall, Crispin opened an 18-person Beijing office, bringing the network’s total number of outposts to 10.  

So far, the changes seem to be making an impact. Agency revenue was up 21% from October 2015 to October 2016, according to an MDC source.

"If you go in the direction of your fear, chances are you're going to grow and become more confident and better for it," — Lori Senecal, global CEO of CP+B.

But as with KBS, Senecal’s sometimes charm-free approach to agency reinvention isn't always appreciated. "My first one-on-one with her, she didn’t even say, ‘Hello I’m Lori Senecal, this is what I’m here to do,’" says a former Crispin executive. "She just started with, ‘Who should go?’"

"It was very much a McKinsey consultant’s entry into what was the Mecca of creative agencies," the former colleague says.

Indeed, in Senecal’s short tenure, she has overseen the departure of many well-regarded agency executives, including ECD Evan Fry, chief strategy officer Jason De Turris, COO Mike Saunter, president Steve Eric and partner Jeff Steinhour. In July, six core members of the agency’s Domino’s account team left to start their own agency.

And once again, Senecal has brought in her husband, Grogan, to manage one of the agency’s top accounts.

Just months after Senecal took the top Crispin job, Grogan was elevated to MDC’s president of global brands—a newly formed position "designed to support agencies and clients across the network, an MDC spokesperson told AgencySpy at the time. Though spokespeople for Crispin and MDC reportedly assured AgencySpy that Grogan would not affect leadership on the Infiniti business, within a year of Senecal’s arrival, two key members of the client’s Hong Kong account team—De Turris and Fiona Connel—were gone, and Grogan was effectively appointed lead on the account, sources say. Neither DeTurris nor Connel replied to requests for comment.

Asked about Grogan’s involvement with the account, Senecal initially demurs, saying "I’m always uncomfortable speaking for other people," before acknowledging that Grogan is "part-time on Infiniti." In a follow-up email, she says: "MDC asked Bill to assume a role at the holding company with a focus on developing global business across MDC network agencies. As such, Bill became involved with the Infiniti brand, and has come to play an important part on that business." He is no longer working on the BMW account at KBS, she says.

Asked why De Turris and other formerly valued Crispin executives were shown the door, one former executive says, "I believe what happened is everyone at the top who would have had loyalty to Andrew had to be removed."

The Unkindest Cut
The Andrew in question, of course, is Andrew Keller, the widely admired Crispin creative-turned-CEO who left the agency six months after Senecal arrived. Keller’s departure came to represent a low point in Senecal’s career after she appeared to blithely dismiss his contributions in an interview with Adweek. "In looking at agency roles, we asked, 'Are they directly contributing to [the creation of a more modern agency]?'" she said in the article. "If not, let's get rid of them."

The comment set off a fierce wave of criticism, claiming Senecal had heartlessly tossed aside—and then publically dissed—one of the people who’d made Crispin great. Porter eventually wrote a letter to Adweek defending Senecal, insisting her quote had been taken out of context.

The incident is one of Senecal’s least-favorite topics, and she expresses regret over how it played out. "It was a mutual decision that it was a great time for Andrew to pursue something new," she says, "so it was unfortunate that in the press it didn’t come across that way." Keller, now global creative director of Facebook, declined requests to comment for this article.

For a different executive, the comment might have been more easily dismissed as a miscommunication. But for many people, Senecal’s words about Keller were consistent with their personal experiences of her, making it difficult to believe she was misquoted.

"I’ll never forget watching Lori announcing Andrew’s departure," says one employee, describing the meeting in the agency’s Boulder lobby, broadcast to all agency offices, in which Senecal and Porter announced Keller’s exit. "She was so matter-of-fact about it. I started texting everyone and they were just in shock."

Others remember the scene differently. "My recollection of that meeting was a lot more appreciative and thoughtful than what some others have maybe expressed," says Whelan, managing director of Cripin’s Boulder office. "Her personality can come off a little bit like it’s cold, but she’s really not." After the Adweek story ran, Whelan said she saw a side of Senecal that most employees aren’t privy to. "I think that she was way more emotional than I expected her to be in that situation," she said. "Almost tearful."

People Over Process
There are countless pitfalls when trying to pivot an agency toward a more steady, profitable future. For a brand like Crispin, which became one of the industry’s most influential creative forces by acting less like a business than a pirate ship, the real danger may be losing the soul of the place, sacrificing the artistic spark for steady growth and shareholder value.

If that happens, it’s a good bet that Senecal, the all-black suit sent down from corporate, will bear much of the blame. And she is aware that by succeeding, she could be blamed for the agency’s spiritual failure.

"We can't just create another global network that's the same as all the others," — Lori Senecal, global CEO of CP+B.

"We can’t just create another global network that’s the same as all the others," she says, her voice growing uncharacteristically bold. "Often when you scale and grow, things like hierarchy and process can get in the way of creativity, and that’s why we wanted this to be much more people over process."

It’s an odd quote coming from Senecal, whose flair for process is legendary even among her critics. But spend enough time in her orbit, and it becomes clear that her lack of people skills isn’t rooted in a lack of sensitivity. She is keenly aware of her critics, and even admits to reading hateful comments about herself online—wincing slightly at the memory. For a woman who’s trained herself since childhood to "go in the direction of your fear," those voices, like so many others, may register as just one more obstacle to push through.

"Everyone has critics, and when you take on the responsibility of a leadership job, that’s part of the job," she says. "You have to just keep moving forward and run your own race."

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