As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Adryanna Sutherland.
Adryanna Sutherland joined gyro (formerly HSR) in September 2001. Over her 16-plus year career with gyro, she has seen the agency transform several times over — from HSR’s merger with gyro in 2009 to form gyroHSR, to being named Ad Age’s 2016 ‘Agency of the Year’ and the company’s acquisition by Dentsu Aegis that same year and, most recently, the launch of Merkle B2B in 2020. She has seen it all, while managing to rise through the ranks to her current role of gyro Global President.
Adryanna leads with equal parts marketing expertise, creativity, and heart. She holds herself and those around her to the highest standards, but always with a sensitivity for the individual person, their unique talents and ambitions, and the cultural wellbeing of the organization.
She is constantly challenging the teams at gyro, and increasingly, Merkle B2B, to innovate and anticipate what her clients will need next. She isn’t afraid to try new things, ask others for their opinions, and pivot when needed. She also maintains a high-touch approach with both clients and internal teams, somehow balancing attention to the smallest detail with an ability to keep the big picture squarely in view.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I started my career on the client side at a company called NCR/Teradata, working in global recognition, corporate communications and eventually global marketing where I led a team of 8 to launch what was then Teradata’s first significant global marketing effort. My father was an executive creative director so advertising was always front and center in my life. So after almost 9 years at NCR/Teradata, I made the decision to go to the agency side at a B2B firm called HSR. It was a good transition from my corporate B2B experience and I absolutely fell in love with the variety of industries, complex marketing challenges and robust target audiences I had the pleasure to work on. I became an account director and made it my mission to know as much as I possibly could about every client’s business I worked on. I was curious, confident and eager to learn. I had a great mentor who gave me guidance, challenged my beliefs, and pushed me to be better and do more.
After HSR was acquired by a private equity firm, I was asked to run the Cincinnati office which was the largest office in our network for a time. It was in that role that I was able to experiment, innovate, launch new services and develop new programs that set us apart from other B2B firms and gave our employees a reason to come to work every day. We received Top Workplace recognition for six years, despite a somewhat turbulent economy, and I did some of the best work in my career.
During this time, HSR became gyro:HSR and later gyro as the brand grew and transitioned. The next natural step for us as an agency was to become part of a network holding company and we were acquired by dentsu as their flagship B2B specialist agency. I was then named Chief Operating Officer to support our global CEO and run the US operation of gyro. As dentsu restructured into service lines, we became part of the CxM group under Merkle and joined forces with other B2B specialists with expanded capabilities that were aggregated into the agency we are today, Merkle B2B, bringing together a never-before end to end B2B solution. I run the creative and content arm of Merkle B2B, working closely with my colleagues to drive innovation and focus on value delivery through integration.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Culture has always been important to me; from the first time I stood in front of people and realized the awesome responsibility as a leader to making hard decisions for the good of the company while protecting the fragility of the culture. COVID is the obvious answer to this question and particularly relevant given the cultural concerns I’ve always had. How do we make work a fun place, make people feel respected and connected, get work done, and run a business? It’s possible, but it sure became a challenge when we were no longer together in a face-to-face environment. Those early days were hard — trying to stay connected to people, checking in on people, and finding a way to make people still believe that you have a plan, all while the world was crumbling around us. It was maybe not interesting, but it was a challenge, and it made me think a lot about the future of work, how to keep people connected, how to prevent biases for people who were together, and how to create cultural opportunities that were meaningful. I’m not sure we are there, and every time I think we’re getting out of this situation we get dragged back in. People’s frustration, anxiety and mental health is all impacted and continues to be, but in different ways for many than in the beginning. They still need a leader, though, and expect that we will have the answers — maybe not all, but most.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m not sure if this was the funniest mistake but it was a lesson that taught me a lot.
It’s impossible for me to completely unplug. As a result, I half listen to my children, get distracted easily by email, and feel I have to be always on. This is something I am working on, but it’s not easy for me. When I was an account director I attended an event for a client who was being recognized by her community for her charitable contributions. As the emcee was describing to the packed venue all of the amazing things Juanita did, and the many ways she got involved, he brought her son on stage and said that no matter what she was involved in, no matter how big the demands of her day job (as a CHRO of a F100 company), no matter how intense the work, her son always knew he was her number one priority. It was an inspiring and emotional moment, and the crowd stood in thunderous applause.
I got home from that event and the next day I gathered my children around me — they were 7 and 5 at the time — and asked them: “Do you know what my number one priority is?” They asked, “what’s a priority?” I said, “do you know what is the most important thing in my life?” And they said without hesitation, “gyro of course!” My heart sank, my soul was crushed, and they looked confused by my disappointment. I have never forgotten that response.
I haven’t always been better, but I think about that often, and remind myself that the work will be there, but kids are only here for the moment.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Rick Segal, one of the founding members of HSR, became my mentor fairly early on in my career. He was generous with his time and always came to our mentor sessions prepared for the topic at hand. He listened, he debated, and he offered perspective but never the answer. I proved to him early on that I would never let him down, and to this day there is part of me that wants this agency to be successful for Rick and the business he started so long ago.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I’m a firm believer that the more prepared you are, the less nervous or anxious you will be when it comes to anything where the stakes are high. And preparation for me translates to practice. So whenever I have a pitch, a presentation or a big meeting, I rehearse over and over and try to start at least a few days in advance. I write out what I want to say, I highlight those things that are most important, I read my notes out loud, I then re-write my talk track from memory, I then read my notes into a recording, I play the recording back, and then I re-write my talk track from memory again. And generally I will repeat that process a few times.
One of the most nerve-racking speeches I can remember was a simple 3 minute sponsor talk at the ANA’s Business Marketing annual conference in Chicago. There were about 500 people in the audience, and my job was simple: Just give a quick but interesting 3 minute talk and represent the brand in a positive way. I had it all mapped out but when I was rehearsing, I decided that what I wanted to talk about was boring and expected. We happened to have a booth at the event that created animated GIFs for people that they could create individually or as groups and get the file sent to them. This was several years ago. The booth was pretty popular but the debate of the pronunciation of GIF was on, so I decided to pivot and make my 3-minute talk all about the pronunciation. I researched the history, made my notes, injected some humor, practiced, rehearsed, practiced again, and have to say the audience was engaged, laughed at the right moments, and my job was done.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
It is an answer that seems so obvious, and yet, it is clearly not obvious given where we are as a nation. When we are all the same, the outcome is predictable and the perspective narrow. Diversity is critical to bringing new ideas, different experiences, and ways to think about a problem or situation that we might never have considered. I got a newsletter from someone named Christian Banach who talked in one article about how he turned left instead of right one day when he was going for a run, and how he saw his neighborhood in a completely new way — the same streets he always runs on, the same houses he passes, and yet it gave him a totally different perspective. We get comfortable doing the same things over and over, solving the same problems in ways that are tried and true, knowing what we know and thinking that’s enough. Diversity creates opportunities to challenge beliefs and look at the world in a whole new way. We have an obligation to reflect the world around us, and when we do, we will all be better for it.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
At our agency, we focus on diversity, equity and inclusion at all levels of the organization. From a management perspective, it is important to set the vision and establish a commitment for a diverse workplace and an inclusive environment where people can come to work every day and be accepted and celebrated for who they are. We invest in training to help people understand how to create an environment of inclusivity and to identify behavior that is unacceptable or inappropriate. We give people information on various topics each week to help broaden perspectives. We create opportunities for discussions to talk about tough subject matter in an effort to be enlightened as a result of these conversations. We promote kindness, patience and understanding of individual differences related to how people make decisions, consume information and communicate with each other. We recognize individuals in a peer-to-peer program that encourages people to show appreciation for their colleagues. And we look for talent who can provide diverse perspectives and new ideas to challenge our thinking and make us better.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Executives chart the course, steer the ship and swab the decks (when needed). We establish a compelling vision for where we need to go and create the action plans to get there. We identify synergies across capabilities to amplify value creation. We roll up our sleeves and help out where and when needed. We set the example for appropriate behavior and hold people accountable when they don’t comply. We invest in our people, our culture and our diversity to create a place where people feel valued, supported and a sense of belonging. We create opportunities for our employees to grow and nurture their personal and professional development. And we give people hope — that we are heading in the right direction, that we have a plan to get there, and that we will succeed.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One thing you often hear about being an executive is that it’s lonely at the top, and for a time in my career I would agree that was the case. It’s hard to be “friends” with your employees and maintain the impartiality necessary to treat people fairly and equitably. And I respect that employees want to be together at happy hours or other outings without what could be perceived as the “watchful” eye of an executive. That said, I have made so many amazing friendships with other women leaders that it is hard to think about feeling lonely. This network has given me a place to work through challenges, test out early thinking, share learnings and best practices, and enjoy a glass of wine or two. Another place where I’ve gotten great satisfaction is being a mentor. I am sure I receive more than I give, and have so enjoyed answering questions, providing suggestions, giving support and listening. It’s part of the job that keeps me from being lonely and counterbalances the challenging days because this dynamic is all about someone seeking out and valuing your help. That’s a pretty good feeling.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
We are operating in an environment where it is very normal for people to talk over one another, and I have observed this happening more to women executives than to men. It not only depositions the woman but also it makes them less inclined to contribute to the discussion the next time. As a result, they may hold back and not bother to weigh in, and the discussion is then dominated by male voices without the benefit of diverse contributions.
Women executives are often still the caregivers at home even if they are the primary breadwinners. This creates additional stress for many women who are trying to care for children who are dealing with any number of challenges, exacerbated by COVID for some, and it creates added pressure and stress on the female executive trying to “have it all” and not let anyone down as a result.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
How hard it is. How much you care about letting people down. How deeply comments on an employee survey impact you — even if just one. How hard it is to not take it personally, when you are standing in front of your team, asking them to believe in you and trust that you will take care of them. It’s hard. Every day.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I think anyone with ambition, determination, and an appreciation for diverse perspectives can be an executive. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, but you have to hire smart people and surround yourself with great experience. You don’t have to be an extravert, but you do need to be charming and engaging and connect with people at a human level. You don’t have to come from an Ivy League school, but you should be street smart, resourceful and creative. You don’t have to be loud, but you do need to be intentional. And if you are a decent human, along with these things, people will follow you. You have to make people feel good, give them hope, and empower them to do what you hired them to do. Good leaders are multipliers who ignite a culture and unleash the organization to be their very best.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Never question for a second that you earned this position. Don’t sacrifice; rather, prioritize. And believe in yourself as much as everyone around you believes in you. Forget the inner critic, the imposter syndrome, the self doubt. You earned it. You deserve it. Now show everyone why you are in this position.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I have had the great fortune to sit on several advisory boards and demonstrate to others the importance of diverse thinking and actions. I have taken mentees under my wing — as many as 4 at one time. I have adopted charities and supported minority businesses with marketing advice and counsel. I have led diversity and inclusion initiatives as well as cultural efforts to demonstrate the importance of these efforts from the top. I have led by example, espousing the importance of kindness, generosity, and gratitude. If something sticks, if there is a ripple that is even ever so slight, I will have succeeded.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
This list is a list that my husband wrote for his mother’s eulogy when she passed away last year. These words of wisdom were so touching to me — to all of us — and words to live by. These were things my mother-in-law was known for and to which I aspire
- Be the first to like. My mother-in-law was legendary for her ability to like a post on social media from the moment it went live. We would all tease her about it, but her desire to support others, and publicly demonstrate her support, was admirable — we should all be the first to show appreciation, kindness and acceptance.
- Be generous with your laughter. We are all human beings and laughter can brighten a mood, diffuse a situation and make us connect in an emotional way. My mother-in-law’s laughter was infectious, because she was generous with her laughter — she did not hold back. She was always first to laugh, and she laughed the longest. And people loved that about her.
- Take the call, make the call. So many of the world’s problems stem from poor communications; when in doubt, pick up the phone and work it out. And always take the call. When the phone rings, answer it. Receive the news, make the connection, keep things going.
- Prune the roses. Take the time needed for your own personal care and well-being. Everything starts with you, so prioritize yourself and then you can be the best you for work and family.
I realize this list is only 4 things, but I think they’re perfect, and I am grateful to have had some amazingly strong, smart and inspiring women in my life and on this journey.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Finding a way to create kindness in this world. When you look at what children witness every day, it’s hard to imagine that they could believe there is goodness in the world. If we could all show each other patiences, grace, kindness and generosity imagine how amazing the world would be. As a leader, I want people to send one another thank you notes, to take a moment to work through an issue with a difficult colleague and get back on track, to assume positive intent, and to create an environment that is inclusive, welcoming and safe. Is that too much to ask? I want to start this movement.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you want to go fast go alone; if you want to go far go together.” This has become a very popular quote but I do love the meaning of it. Working together as a team gives us diversity of thinking, and the ability to draw upon our collective experiences to get to a better place. I love collaboration and the challenge that comes with a good sparring session. Torture testing an idea, a platform, a program, and improving it through the process is what this is all about.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I had the great privilege of seeing Michelle Obama speak at a women’s conference several years back. Our table was fairly close and I had a good seat. I can remember very early in her speech being completely blown away. I have no real opinion of her politically, but as a woman leader she is incredibly impressive: poised, thoughtful, and intentional. I was hanging on every word. And her work on Girls Opportunity Alliance is inspiring and admirable. I would love to grab breakfast or lunch with her and just talk about where she’s helping girls be successful and how I can help.