First Friday Interview: Weber Shandwick

by TongTong Qu, Comm Lead Alumni Fellow

“A single conversation across the table with a wise man can be superior to studying ten years of books”

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Weber Shandwick is a leading communications and marketing firm. It delivers next-generation solutions to brands, businesses and organizations in major markets around the world. As one of the most respected agencies in the world, Weber Shandwick has been a dream company to start a career for many communicators and marketers.

Before Comm Lead’s November First Friday event, I had the honor to speak with Will Ludlam (President, Weber Shandwick West), Christiaan Brown (Executive Vice President, West Corporate Practice Lead) and Dennis Padula (Executive Assistant, Weber Shandwick). I was thrilled to learn their visions, and how they are handling the current remote working environment while dealing with a global pandemic.

Special thank you to the Communication Leadership program and Alumni Fellows for providing me with this valuable opportunity. An enormous and sincere thanks to Will, Christiaan, and Dennis, for your time and effort to make this happen.

I hope you enjoy the conversation as well and are ready to dive into their stories with me.

Will and Christiaan, you have a few intersections in your career path. And you both joined Weber Shandwick from Edelman in 2019. What made you decide to join Weber Shandwick? What do you like most about your organization? 

Will: Weber Shandwick is one of the most respected agencies in the world and has an amazing footprint. For me, there was an opportunity to step into a regional role because I was running the Northwest for Edelman, including Seattle and Portland. This was a chance to expand that footprint with a brand that I know is really well respected globally. I wasn’t necessarily looking, but the more I talked to the recruiter and the more people I met, I really began to appreciate the people. It’s not only that they are super smart, but they’re also really nice people. It’s just been a pleasure to work with such a nice group of grown-ups. They are very confident in their career and what they’re doing. I am a restless soul so after I’d been on my last job for about eight years, I got a little antsy and wanted to do something new. So, this was going to be a whole new set of opportunities and challenges. I’ve been very happy and it’s a great organization.

Christiaan: Some of my answers are similar. Because it definitely is the people and, in this case, a big part of it was Will. The opportunity to work with him again was exciting. I think the other reason is I wanted to work at a firm that was squarely focused on helping clients with their challenges. And I think that actually gets to what makes the people at Weber so good. It isn’t about ego; it isn’t about themselves; it’s about the client and solving the problems. I think it’s an important orientation. I am afraid it isn’t always the case at every agency. So, it’s a combination of the people, the focus on solving client issues, and then the last piece of it would be an agency that has the resources and the capabilities to actually solve those challenges and make a difference.

What are your top values or priorities in life? Are they changing at this moment?

Christiaan: I’d like to believe it’s consistent, but I think it’s more important now in particular to treat others with respect. The idea of love and being respectful to other folks goes a long way. That’s both in personal life and most certainly in business. That’s the challenge we’re at right now as a country and potentially even as a world. How do we disagree and do so in a way where we can still have respect for one another’s opinions and appreciate where they come from? It goes back to what Will was saying about giving people the space and comfort to be themselves, versus feeling like you need to hold back or maybe they won’t be accepted.

Will: I would agree with all of that. It’s interesting because I think on the agency side in addition to the dynamic of employees, you have the dynamic of clients. Right now, to Christiaan’s earlier comment, we really need to practice grace because I think everyone is coming to the situation from a position of stress and that means our clients as well. One of my core ethos is that you should create an environment where people really want to do their best work because they feel valued and heard. When you create an environment like that, you see that spark. We’ve tried to create chances where people can really stretch their minds. If we are going to be consultants, we need to create an environment that encourages inquisitive thinking and thinking beyond the client’s immediate ask and discussing what’s the zeitgeist of the moment that we should be having a conversation around. Because that’s how you get to the good stuff and get the most out of people.

Do you see any significant changes in your day-to-day life from working in the office to working remotely? 

Will: I will start with a personal piece. In probably the past 20 years, I don’t think there’s a week gone by that I haven’t been on an airplane. Heading home at about 10 at night, I would have missed a meal with my family. I’ve got three adult children and I have had them stay with us at various points since the pandemic started. The quality meals, conversations, and just getting to know them as adults has been with all of the other bad things that have happened with the pandemic, it’s one blessing that I am just so grateful for.

However, I am a social person and professionally it’s driving me nuts. We as an industry have moved to open office environments for a number of reasons. Cost is obviously one of them, but the one thing I found when we went to the open environment is that you could sense how teams are doing just by the energy and being able to look out. You can tell who’s stressed, who has a deadline, who’s carefree. You don’t get that piece as a manager while working remotely. It requires scheduling more one-on-ones. We were missing that “water cooler conversation” in the kitchen. I think finding different ways to compensate for checking on the pulse of the people that you work with is really important. Allowing people to have a conversation that’s outside of work is really important.

Do you have any tips to share how you manage “work/life balance” while working remotely? 

Christiaan: [Laughs]… there is no work/life balance! It’s kind of one thing, and it’s hard to differentiate the two. I do not miss traffic or traveling. I have always been somebody who’s wanted to work in an office. This has forced me to try it and I surprisingly like it. I do want more opportunities to interact with colleagues, but for the same reasons I think the ability to be close to family, to see them and to spend time with them has been invaluable. The time I spent on traffic is now being spent on client work and working with colleagues. You give a little and you take a little. But I’ve enjoyed it for the most part.

I do think it’s a little bit harder now. Because it’s so much easier to stay on another half an hour since I don’t have to go anywhere. A lot of folks were spending more time and working long hours because it was so easy to do and I think you have to create some boundaries.

Will: Somebody in our Los Angeles office came up with the idea of doing walking meetings. You go for a walk and both you and the other person you’re meeting with will take the time to clear your head and get some fresh air.

How do you balance your full-time job and personal interests? 

Dennis: We do socially distant workouts like boot camp style workouts right on the Santa Monica Beach. They have been very supportive for my music as well.

I have a music business degree from Syracuse University. When I graduated, I thought maybe I would work in publicity and try to stay in the industry. Honestly, it made more sense for me once I started working for an advertising agency as an admin. It became really clear how much I appreciated the separation of my day job from my creative life. Also, the best part about working in agency life is the culture and the support. I worked for a subsidiary of Weber Shandwick in New York for many years before I moved out here and started working at Weber. That team was very supportive of my career. The hustle is a very big part of the music business. But that’s how I made it happen. With my team’s support, I was able to take one to two weeks off and fly to Los Angeles and work on music with some of my colleagues. I’ve had significant milestones as a songwriter and a singer and as an administrative assistant. So, I care very deeply about both of those career paths. I put the time into both very equally. I wanted to move to Los Angeles for many years and I made it happen. Weber is a wonderful company and they’ve been absolutely very good to me from the minute they recruited me. It’s important to find a culture in a company that does support your creative adventures.

If you have a time machine and you could travel back and give a piece of advice to a younger self, what would you like to say?

Will: I feel like I was so blessed at the beginning of my career. I had a colleague who was maybe

fifteen years older than I was, and gave me a couple of pieces of advice that I took to heart early on. Always keep balance in mind, and the other piece is always remembering that your boss is going to pay their paycheck before they pay yours. I think she was basically saying always be prepared that there are things out of your control in any professional situation. The balance piece, I appreciate it more in hindsight now than I probably did at the time because

I think you try to prove yourself early on in your career.

Christiaan: If it’s a piece of advice to myself, and it took me probably half of my career until I realized this: here is not just one right answer; there are a lot of wrong answers. But I think I went through my career believing that there was some magic formula or only one way to answer it and someday somebody would show me and tell me what the secret is. That means just have a little more confidence and trust in your gut. Have an opinion and feel comfortable sharing it.

Be curious and be well-read. I think those two together means ask questions but then go seek out those answers. Lastly, and it’s just a good rule for new people starting their careers: be hungry and humble. Dedicate a hunger and a desire but be humble enough to listen, to take advice. I think those two together are a great combination for folks coming right out of school.

A parting piece of advice from Christiaan: “It’s the basic rule of PR: don’t worry about what you say about yourself but do everything you can to have other people say those great things about you.”

Inspired by Anita Verna Crofts and The New York Times, this interview was condensed and edited for clarity.