May 05, 1997 12:00 PM

Mixing manicures and megabuck deals

YOU MIGHT EXPECT THE OFFICE OF Rochelle “Shelly” Lazarus, the 49-year-old chief executive officer of the advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, to be filled with souvenirs—reminders of the corporate coups that earned her the top job at the world’s sixth-largest agency. You might expect, for example, to see a still photo from an American Express commercial, an industry award for an IBM campaign or a framed letter from the president of Ford Motor Company. Instead there are frogs.

Ceramic frogs and wooden frogs crouch on her desktop. Beanbag frogs and marble frogs sit silently on a coffee table. Lazarus has plastic frogs from five-and-dime stores and crystal frogs from Baccarat. The living room in her lavish East Side Manhattan townhouse is decorated in the same amphibious way. “I gave my husband a toy frog on the first anniversary of our engagement,” she explains. “Soon he gave me a frog, we started to collect them, and now we can’t stop.” Ogilvy clients and employees, she says, “send us frogs from Japan, Thailand, Brazil—all over the world.”

If Lazarus is in some ways the archetypical high-powered executive—she earns more than $1 million a year and oversees an international company with $7.6 billion in annual billings—she is also the sort who leavens her corporate-warrior instincts with a hefty dose of warmth. Lazarus doesn’t shy from presenting herself as a woman, a mother and a wife. She draws out the most reticent clients with questions about the real them. And to do business with her is to have heard, perhaps over dinner at the four-star French restaurant where she landed your account, more than a few stories about her husband, George, a pediatrician, and their children Teddy, 23, Samantha, 17, and Benjamin, 9. Three years ago, Lazarus, in her signature fashion, single-handedly engineered a blockbuster deal in which IBM switched all of its accounts worldwide from an assortment of smaller agencies to Ogilvy & Mather. “Abby Kohnstamm [IBM’s vice president of corporate marketing] and I had been having coffee and talking for years,” says Lazarus. “We’d chat about this and that.” Then one day while the two were getting a manicure together, Kohnstamm decided to give Ogilvy the $500 million piece of business.

Lazarus’s agency, founded by the now-retired advertising legend David Ogilvy in 1948, shapes the ad campaigns of such major corporations as Kodak, Shell, Mattel and GTE. As CEO, Lazarus is charged with overseeing two distinct camps. One comprises the ponytailed, casually dressed staffers who create slogans and story-boards for TV spots; the other is made up of the much more buttoned-down corporate clients who pay for the ads. Her leadership style, which some call down-to-earth and at least one colleague refers to as “distinctly female,” involves nurturing as much as competing, befriending as much as networking. Her supporters say that her approach is as valid as the traditional, masculine way of doing business. “The core values needed for managing a business are leadership, strategies, flexibility and understanding the issues,” says Ann Fudge, president of Maxwell House, an Ogilvy client. “Women are equipped for these jobs—we have been managing households for years.”

Lazarus herself, however, downplays gender as an issue in her field. “In advertising, success is measured by ideas, creativity is rewarded,” she says, noting that 40 percent of Ogilvy’s senior partners are women. “Those who perform well are rewarded with more responsibility—it is a meritocracy.”

It is also a pressure-packed business where clients now change allegiance at the slightest hint of trouble. In 1991, American Express pulled its account from Ogilvy and hired rival Chiat/Day. Although Lazarus was able to woo back American Express a year later, losing the company was, she says, “the worst moment of my professional career.” Despite the highs and lows, LaZarus insists her passion for the business has never wavered. “Whenever the Puttermans [the animated Duracell battery-operated family] come on TV or when I see one of our IBM ads in a magazine, my heart beats a little faster,” she says. “When I see someone reading one of our ads on a plane, it is all I can do to keep from asking them what they think.”

Lazarus is the second woman ever to run a top international ad agency The first was her immediate predecessor, Charlotte Beers, 61, who was CEO until last September, when Shelly was awarded the position. (Beers, now retired, retains the title of chairman emeritus.) Ogilvy insiders say Beers, who between 1991 and ’95 took the company from $5.4 billion in billings to $7.6 billion, was also an effective leader but with a more traditional corporate style. Lazarus is something else again. She certainly works the long hours that are a tradition on Madison Avenue. Dinners with current and prospective clients keep her out till 10 p.m. most nights, and after she had her two younger children, she was back at her desk within a week or so. But Lazarus says she doesn’t want any employee in the company, including herself, to forget what it means to be a parent. “When I went in to tell Shelly I was pregnant, there was no discussion about how long I’d be gone or my job,” says Cynthia Round, 43, a senior account manager currently in charge of marketing a home pregnancy test, a satellite dish and a pro bono breast-cancer research account, among other products. “Instead we got into a whole conversation about becoming a mother at 40 and the differences between boys and girls—which is characteristic of Shelly.”

Lazarus has a nanny and a housekeeper to help her take care of her children and manage her household. She has never suffered from the dish-pan hands that Ogilvy’s ad for Dove dishwashing liquid warned about three decades ago. Yet she considers certain family rituals sacrosanct. On a recent workday, for example, after attending a business lunch with clients from Duracell, she took off for a 4 o’clock rendezvous at Wondercamp in lower Manhattan. “It was my youngest son’s birthday, and I didn’t want to miss it,” says Lazarus. “I took the rest of the day off to go home and watch him open presents. There are things I do with my children no matter what.” She adds, “I always go with them to the doctor, clothing shopping and to buy new shoes—I guess those are things my mother always did with me.”

Lazarus was born Shelly Braff and raised, along with her two younger brothers, both lawyers today, in suburban Oceanside, N.Y. Her father, Lewis, was a CPA, her mother, Sylvia, a homemaker, and Shelly was the kind of kid who got straight A’s on her report card and was editor of her high school paper. After graduating from Midwood High in Brooklyn, where the family had moved in 1960, she went to Smith College and majored in psychology. She became interested in advertising in her senior year, when she accompanied a friend to a lecture sponsored by the Advertising Women of New York. “They were talking about positioning products and had all the leaders of different agencies there,” she says. “I was amazed you could do something that fun and make a living.”

The year before, at a Yale mixer, she met her future husband, George Lazarus, a premed student, and had what she describes as “your classic Smith-Yale romance.” (He now runs his pediatrics practice out of the first floor of their brownstone.) After Smith, Lazarus attended the Columbia University Graduate School of Business. She received her M.B.A. in 1970, then landed a job in Manhattan as an assistant product manager at Clairol. About a year later she moved over to Ogilvy, where her first position was junior account executive. “When I started out, 25 years ago, I was often the only woman at the table,” Lazarus recalls. “We’d be talking about what women would buy, and then suddenly everyone would look at me—it was amazing, there I was, suddenly representing all women, everywhere.”

Today many of her own purchasing choices are guided by loyalty to her clients. The family cars include a red 1995 Jaguar XJR and a 1996 Ford Explorer, both members of the Ogilvy client stable. In matters of personal taste, however, Lazarus is not a world-class consumer. She wears little makeup, refuses to dye her short-cropped, silver-gray hair and dresses in simple, elegant clothing topped by a trademark single strand of pearls. “She is the real thing and people trust her,” said Laurel Cutler, vice chairman of the ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding. “That is important in advertising.”

Even in her sometimes lush personal life, Lazarus strives for simplicity. When she isn’t collecting frogs or frequent-flyer miles on her trips to Latin America, Asia, Europe and around North America—Ogilvy has offices on all four continents—Lazarus and her husband like to jog around the reservoir in Central Park and spend time with their children at home. She uses her evenings—when she is home—to help her two youngest with homework (her older son works for Ogilvy in San Francisco) or they rent videos from a nearby Blockbuster. Ben, the freckled grade schooler whose lumpy signed potterywork shares mantel space with a few ceramic frogs, knows what is really important to his mom. “Yeah, I am the baby—her favorite,” he says.

Apart from family, though, Lazarus loves nothing more than landing a new client. Just a few weeks ago, she picked up her office phone and heard the kind of jingle advertising executives like best. “We won the 100 million dollar GTE account, and we hadn’t even known we were in the running,” says Lazarus. “It just happens that way sometimes…when the chemistry is right, it just clicks.”

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