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Ad Council

Meet the 40 Over 40 honoree: Lisa Sherman

Lisa Sherman is President and CEO of Ad Council.

How did you feel when you saw your name on Campaign’s 40 Over 40 list?

There were so many people on the list who inspire me personally. To be named alongside them was truly an honor.

Sum up your journey to where you are now in fewer than five words?

Prioritizing purpose, creating change. 

Three qualities you need to be successful and achieve longevity in the creative industries?

1. Take risks even if it’s scary. After years in a corporate role, I launched my own company, and ultimately had to close it down—but I learned so much. It created opportunities that led me to where I am today, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that.

2. Find a culture where you can bring your full self to work every day. During my early years in the corporate closet, I wasn’t able to do that. Only later, when I finally came out, I realized how much energy it had taken to hide who I was, and I began to do my best work.

3. Stay humble, lead with your heart and follow the golden rule. 

Worst thing about the crazy last few months? Any silver linings?

The last few months have exacerbated so many critical, difficult, systemic inequities, and brought them into a brighter light—the silver lining, for me, has been to see how people are responding.

At the Ad Council, we have gotten to see the industry at its best. At the onset of the pandemic, we recognized that scale and speed were imperative for science and fact-based public education, and we had so many partners raise their hands and say, simply, “How can I help?” The coalition we convened was the largest and most significant in our 75-year history. 

Best use of creativity you’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic?

So much changed, so quickly, that the industry had to get creative in all ways—from rethinking every aspect of the workday to moving events online. It’s been inspiring to see how people have been able to adapt in all aspects.

In terms of our campaign work, it has also been interesting to see the way gaming and virtual spaces have brought young people together at such a difficult time. The opportunities we’ve had to create integrations inside these digital environments—our “Seize the Awkward” mental health awareness T-shirt inside Guild Wars 2, our virtual Ruth B. concert inside Minecraft for “She Can STEM”—have been really important learning opportunities for us.

What needs to happen to make the industry truly diverse?

Diversity is so much more than a box to be checked, and it can’t be treated like an inconvenient chore to be handled when there’s time. Diversity, equity and inclusion have to be integrated into every aspect of business. It’s about listening to employees, it’s about who gets to make decisions, it’s about examining biases, it’s about instituting policies and rules—it’s about building space for the broadest possible range of viewpoints to build the best possible team and create the best possible work.

Ultimately, it’s about transparency, setting specific measurable goals, and holding ourselves accountable for the results.

Purpose in business: A flash in the pan or the fundamental basis for the future?

Purpose-driven business is not a trend. Consumers expect brands to take a stand on issues that matter to them, and they will spend their dollars accordingly. But more importantly, brands are in a unique position to create lasting change at scale and must be a force for good and a force for growth.

How does the culture at your organization help you thrive?

I am so inspired when I see, over and over, that every single member of my team has a sense of purpose—they come to work wanting to create lasting, positive change in the world. It’s all hands on deck, all the time, every day. 

If we took your team out for a drink, how would they describe you?

You’d have to ask them! I hope they’d tell you that I’m a good listener, that I’m an optimist, that relationships are very important to me, that I’m competitive—and that I always fight for the underdog. Oh, and that I’m a rabid Stevie Nicks fan! 

Describe one piece of work you produced in the past 12 months that excites you?

The fact that we were able to get critical messaging to market within five days of COVID-19 being declared a pandemic was an inflection point. The effort ultimately was just the beginning of a massive, multi-tiered campaign that has received more than $368 million in donated media and has been seen more than 30.4 billion times. It is a testament to the generosity of our partners and the dedication of our team. 

Who's your biggest inspiration? And why?

I am being completely honest when I tell you—it’s my dad. I spent my childhood helping him out at the shoe stores he owned with his brothers. The relationships he built with his customers, the kindness he showed to his employees, the meticulous planning and strategy he applied to his business, set the tone for the rest of my life. I think about it every day, and I try to bring that level of care to everything I do. 

What advice would you give to someone entering the industry? Any tips for success you'd like to share?

  • I truly believe in the power of the pack. It’s so important to find your tribe and to know that you have people who will support you when you need It and vice versa.
  • Learning is lifelong. It’s really important to stay curious, read a lot and seek out input from others, especially those with varying points of view and experiences.
  • Taking risks and stretching out of your comfort zone is critical—true growth is impossible without it.

What’s in store for the future of your brand – and the industry in general?

2020 has been an extremely difficult year. COVID-19 has laid bare a failing health system, an unstable employment market, a fraught education system and the systemic racism and injustice that has plagued our country for generations.

Yet there is a lot of conversation about the desire to get back to “normal.” I say, let’s not get back to normal. We must use this as an opportunity to evolve, and we must begin to build the foundation for better systems within our companies, our industry and our communities. Now is the time to act differently, to think differently, to reconsider everything. I believe we’re at a pivotal moment when radical, long-overdue transformation isn’t just possible, it’s critical.

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