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Critical Mass

Meet the Digital 40 over 40 honorees: Dianne Wilkins

Dianne Wilkins is CEO at Critical Mass and one of Campaign US's Digital 40 over 40 honorees. Here, she explains why her job is more than just a job, how her employees are a constant source of inspiration and why human interaction should never go digital

How did you feel when you saw your name on Campaign’s D40o40 winner’s list?
Relieved that you don’t do a 50 over 50 list. 

Can you sum up your journey to where you are now in fewer than five words?
Surrounded by great people.

What three qualities do you need to be successful in digital today?
Nimble, curious, brave.

How does the culture at Critical Mass help you to thrive?
When I get asked about what makes Critical Mass a special place, culture has always been my first answer. It’s really special to think that for 21 years – pretty much since my first day – my time at Critical Mass has been so much more than a "job" to me. This has been a unique place since it started up in Calgary. Not many agencies can say they have strong Canadian roots while thriving on a global scale. But we have, because we’ve connected with so many incredible people around the world. In that regard, we’ve never lost our sense of who we are – the scrappy underdogs who work extra hard, care deeply about other people, obsess about digital design and technology, and love having a whole lot of fun along the way. 

One more thing that helps me thrive is when other people thrive in our culture. Seeing someone come here and truly experience a sense of belonging. Seeing a team do great work because they trust each other and feel supported. Seeing our clients be happy about the work we do as well as the kind of people we are. All of that helps me thrive.

What excites you most about digital advertising right now?
The thing that excites me the most is how the skills we have at a place like Critical Mass can make a real difference. When we talk about what we deliver, we use phrases like "better customer experiences," but what that really means is that we’re trying to make an actual person’s life a little better – in both big and small ways. One day we could be saving someone a little time because we’ve designed a way for them to pay a bill faster. The next we could be involved with the United Nations, helping them literally to save lives and limbs. We’ve done both. What matters most is never losing sight of the goal – improving people’s lives, and looking for those opportunities to help business and humanitarian purpose connect. I think we have both the opportunity and responsibility to do that, and to do it well.

Can you describe one piece of work that Critical Mass has produced in the past 12 months that excites you?
I promise this in not a cop-out – but it’s impossible to pick just one! The breadth of the work we’re doing is what makes the question so hard to answer, just spend a little time on our dedicated work page and you’ll see what I mean. We’ve had the chance to do some stunning data-inspired campaigns, tackle entirely new kinds of UX challenges, and engage in purpose-driven efforts for organizations trying to make the world a better place. 

If we took your team out for a drink, how would they describe you?
Di didn’t want to speak for her team, so we reached out to a few of them. Turns out, they’re quite fond of her as both a leader and human being.

"She is a force of nature that is a rarity in our industry. She knows that our company relies on the individual, and she starts with an employee-first mentality. She can also challenge you with her IMMENSE IQ, but only in a way that leaves you fulfilled after every interaction."

"Di knows our business inside and out, drives the agency to growth year-over-year, and has worked to build strong relationships across our client base."

"She knows how to hotwire a boat and is also the smartest person I know, and a genuine humanitarian."

"Di does an amazing job of bringing the humanity back into business. In fact, her focus on humanity is part of our reason for being – our focus on the customer’s experience, our unique culture, our shared sense of purpose."

"She has a positive intensity that is infectious. She’s got a unique way of finding opportunities in challenges. She can spot a Critical Mass cultural fit a mile away."

"Di goes way above and beyond to make sure that we are balancing the needs of our clients with our internal needs, and makes sure we’ve got a healthy mix of focus on each (knowing that they feed each other)."

"She’s one of the most authentic people I’ve ever met. She’ll turn down a multi-million-dollar opportunity if she smells an ethically compromising deal or sees a brand that is pushing a product that doesn’t feel right for us (eg tobacco)."

Who's your biggest inspiration and why?
I think I’ll have to choose not to choose again and say that I find inspiration all over the place. There’s always the occasional celebrity or politician. But my main sources of inspiration each day are the 950 people who work at Critical Mass. They’re brilliant in 950 different ways. 

Do you have any digital life-hacks that help you do your job?
I don’t do anything that every other digitally native person wouldn’t do. I like reading on devices (not having to carry about 150 books a year is pretty great). I also really love my air pods. When I’m not reading books, I listen to podcasts. I honestly feel lucky to live at a time where brilliant conversation, ideas, and interviews are always at my fingertips – on tap. 

Can you tell me one thing you’d love to be digital… and one thing you hope never goes digital?
Anything I still have to do over the phone should go digital. When I can do 90% of a process with a few taps and swipes but then have to wait on hold for ten minutes to get through the last little hurdle – well, it drives me nuts. 

Don’t get me wrong: there are also times when I genuinely need help and want to talk to another person. And this brings me to my answer about what should never go digital – human interaction. When human compassion and experience matter, people should always be the ones taking care of other people. Child care, for example, should never go digital. 

To be honest, this question really raises some important issues for the digital industry. The takeaway is: we should stop to consider what we value in life and why we value it. Data and the things it can tell us have tremendous value. Technology and design have tremendous value as well. It’s great if technology can help you make a reservation or file paperwork faster. But there are times and places where technology cannot – or should not – replace human beings. And if someone out there does want to invent robot child care, please don’t.  

What advice would you give to someone entering the industry? Any tips for success you'd like to share?
Find a place that offers you more than "just a job". It’s not always easy to do. It may take time to find. The obstacles you need to overcome may be many and varied. But it’s worth it. Find people who push themselves and encourage you to do the same – people who love learning new things, and who value what you value. Above all: throw yourself into it. When you get into the right spot, make everything you can make of it. You’ll find true inspiration, people who truly matter to you, and a career. 

Have you ever written down a set of values?
Yes we have. We’ve written down a set values and built upon them as time has gone by. That doesn’t mean that our values have changed. Rather, at certain junctures in our history, we’ve seen opportunities to say more about what we stand for, and to put down in clear, simple language what it is that we’ve always believed.

Our six agency values are Honest, Inspired, Driven, Purposeful, Real, and Equal. We added "purposeful" and "equal" last year, but they’ve been true for as long as we’ve been in business; it simply was time to codify it to ourselves, our industry, and the world. We chose "purposeful" because we believe in driving positive change by acting upon our shared sense of purpose. And we chose "equal" because we stand for equality in everything we do (and we won’t stand for anything less).

What’s in store for the future of your agency – or agencies in general?
When we look at the future, the thing that ties together everything I’ve been talking about in this interview – purpose, positive change, culture, values, empathetic design thinking, meaningful work– is talent. From what we’ve seen, the most talented folks out there also really care about finding meaning in what they do and finding a sense of belonging. At the same time, our industry isn’t set up to meet their needs. Talented people are ready to abandon traditional workplace models, like working in one office and doing one type of work. To put it another way: talent is changing. Our industry is not.

We realized that evolving our employee experience and meeting talent on their own terms is paramount. So, I guess you could say the future of our agency has already begun. We’ve appointed an EVP of Talent to help us drive forward a lot of ambitious but necessary change, like embracing a liquid talent approach and investing in smarter resourcing tools. We’ve also become licensed to operate in a growing number of states and are building up local talent pools in places where we don’t have plans to open an office. Each day that goes by, we’re learning more about how to integrate a sense of cultural belonging and the kind of flexible work models that people want. The better we get at it, the better off we’ll be in the years to come. 


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