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Meet the 40 Over 40 honoree: North’s Rebecca Armstrong

Meet the 40 Over 40 honoree: North’s Rebecca Armstrong

The CEO and cofounder discusses the advice she’d give to her younger self and the mentors who helped her succeed.

What’s kept you dedicated to this industry?

The sheer variety of the businesses I’ve had the privilege of serving. My work experience has spanned everything from the International Space Station to eyeglass retainers. Yes, I’ve helped keep the ISS funded and people’s glasses attached to their heads. 

Perhaps more importantly, I continue to be motivated by the desire to improve this industry’s output so it is genuinely useful, always entertaining and maybe even a force for good. At present it is sometimes good, mostly bad and, at its absolute worst, evil.

Why is mentorship so important in advertising?

We need to mentor so that we retain the best, brightest and most diverse pool of talent to better mirror and serve our clients’ customers.

How can the advertising industry be less ageist and more inclusive?

To better reflect the people we serve (our clients and their customers) we’d better start hiring some people who actually are the people we serve. Then we need to help those people be successful through mentorship.

What advice would you give your younger self?

“Lighten up.” My younger self had a lot of anxiety and suffered from imposter syndrome. I wasn’t sure I was smart enough or hip enough. Turns out I’m a lot smarter than I thought. And “hipness” doesn’t matter. Being relevant and empathetic does. I’m good at those two things.

Sum up your leadership style in five words.

Firm. Fair. Flexible. Freeing. Funny. Alliterative. Rule breaking.

Who has inspired and influenced you most to get where you are today?

Shelly Lazarus, former CEO and now chairman emeritus of Ogilvy. She is an intelligent and deft advertising exec but, more importantly, she brought humanity to the profession. When I met her in the late ’90s I was a young exec in a room full of (mostly male) professionals at Cole & Weber. She made a point of seeking me out. She knew my name. She showed genuine interest in me. I’ll never forget that.

The other most important influence is my mum, who got me my first waitressing job at 14 and made sure I did a secretarial course between school and university. She values hard work, modesty and always having a Plan B.

What are you most passionate about changing in the ad industry?

The work. As noted earlier, so much of it is so bad, and there’s so much more we could do to add real value to people’s lives not just in terms of what we offer, but in how we offer it. As my business partner and North’s chief creative officer Mark Ray says, “Advertising is a guest in entertainment’s house. Act accordingly.” To do that, we need industry-wide appreciation and empathy for our clients’ audiences, and to achieve that we need better representation of all populations in agencies. Am I sounding like a broken record?

What’s one quality all creatives should have?

Empathy for the audience — a genuine interest in how people live their lives. Mark Ray is a great example of this. Not only is he a talented conceptual thinker, designer, editor and musician, but he applies a strategic rigor to every aspect of the work. Most importantly, he approaches the work with a sensitivity to when, where and how it shows up for people. He’s also extremely sensitive to the pressures our clients are under. He’s a really nice guy.

How would your team describe you if we took them out for drinks?

They would say that initially I’m a bit intimidating, but once you get to know me I’m actually quite nice. One of my favorite quotes about me was written by my friend and former boss Karen Macdonald in a reference letter I never used. She wrote: “She’s very well brought up, well-educated and a good deal brighter than she likes to let on. Clients like her because she doesn’t shout, but just sort of silently insists, a bit like a dog hypnotizing someone into giving up their last bit of biscuit. It's very effective.”

Where are you going to display your 40 Over 40 trophy?

There’s a trophy? Somewhere between my 2012 “Portland Business Journal Highest Honor of Achievement for Women of Influence” plaque and my “Most Unusual Player” prize from a 1989 Elimination Paintball tournament.

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