18/01/2016 10:54 GMT | Updated 18/01/2017 05:12 GMT

Women in Business Q&A: Frances Webster, Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer, Walrus


Frances is Chief Operating Officer of Walrus, an independent, creative advertising agency she co-founded with her husband, Deacon Webster, in 2005. Under Frances' leadership, Walrus has had triple digit growth in a few short years, propelled by award-winning creative work that drives business results for brands.

Named the 2012 Northeast Small Agency of the Year by Advertising Age, Walrus has worked with a multitude of national brands including AMC, Amazon, Bloomberg, Condé Nast, HBO, Pfizer's Emergen-C, Pret a Manger, Rémy Cointreau, Staples and XOJET, among others.

Prior to Walrus, Frances was New Business Director at Mad Dogs & Englishmen. She spent four years at Butler Shine Stern & Partners in Sausalito, where she rose to Head of New Business. She's also held senior account positions at nationally renowned agencies including Munn Rabot and Saatchi & Saatchi. Frances is a graduate of the University of the South (Sewanee).

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

I grew up in a family of leaders. My maternal grandmother was the head of the Historic Charleston Foundation and my paternal grandfather was the CEO of South Carolina National (SCN), a regional bank. My mother launched and ran a successful children's clothing shop, and my father is a successful real estate executive and well-respected community business leader in Columbia, SC. He sits on Walrus' advisory board and without him, the agency would not be where it is today. Having such civic- and business-minded family members as my earliest mentors taught me from a young age the importance of hard work and that you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Walrus?

I've had the good fortune of working at some fantastic agencies, including Butler Shine, Stern & Partners, Mad Dogs & Englishmen and Munn Rabot. While each agency was distinct in their culture, clients and work, they shared a common thread in that they were all growing, entrepreneurial organizations with talented leadership, who also happen to be good people. Working in these types of environments was like having a front row seat to running a company and agency.

It's also where I learned what constitutes good creative, which was a source of inspiration when we started Walrus 10 years ago. From day one, it has always been about the agency's creative output -- ideas that are smart, funny and respect people's time and intelligence. This type of work sometimes requires ignoring the rules or maybe being "bad" in a smart way. That can be as simple as being honest or self-deprecating (most ads are neither). This philosophy of "calculated misbehavior" continues to be our compass at Walrus.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Walrus?

A major highlight was when we pitched a global piece of business and won against agencies that were three times our size. These were A-list agencies putting out work we admired. That was a good day.

When our client Emergen-C was purchased by Pfizer Consumer Healthcare in 2012, Walrus was the only agency retained post-acquisition. On top of that, our relationship was expanded to include all creative digital and social work in the U.S. This grew again in 2015 when Walrus was tapped to lead the launch and brand building of Emergen-C in the UK and globally. UK sales have increased significantly as a result of these efforts.

This year Walrus began working with a major packaged goods company for the first time. Partnering with a large multinational advertiser reflects how Walrus is an ideas-first agency that punches above its weight. It shows that we understand their needs, can navigate their internal systems, and deliver creative solutions that drive business results - all while staying true to the type of work we do best.

Of course, there have been challenges. At the end of 2008, several of our clients' marketing budgets were cut and we lost one of our largest clients. But after that, we came together to pitch a piece of business that would ultimately help kickstart several years of growth for the agency. We won Fourth Wall Restaurants (owner of Smith & Wollensky, Maloney & Porcelli, among others) based on a campaign idea that tapped into the very thing was creating a tough business climate for everyone, the economic recession. Our "Steak for Stock" campaign for Smith & Wollensky and "Expense a Steak" campaign for Maloney & Porcelli helped the steakhouses find creative ways to navigate through the downturn, continue to serve its clientele of bankers and financiers, and ultimately profit. Ironically, the downturn saved us.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

I give women the same advice I give men: want it more than your competition and prepare accordingly. Learn everything you can about the agency you are interviewing with, ask informed questions, and listen to the responses. Make it clear why you are both enthusiastic about joining the company and genuinely excited about advertising. And have a non-generic answer as to why you want to get into the industry. Those of us in advertising believe it's the most fun, dynamic sector of business and want to recruit people who feel the same way. Finally, write a thank you note -- you will stand out.

My advice to women specifically would be that this is a great time to be a woman in advertising -- we are running agencies, marketing departments and companies in growing numbers -- and while there are still issues of gender pay gaps and female representation at the top of creative departments, that is changing, and they can be part of that change. They should unapologetically self-promote as much as they team-promote. Women have exceptional natural talents and skills to succeed in the business world, but this is one area we have to really focus on nurturing in ourselves. Our male counterparts are doing it and it's incredibly important if you want to move up the ladder and reach goals. Ask for that raise, promotion or new assignment, and don't apologize about it!

That's not to say I think this is a women vs. men issue. I've had many wonderful, hilarious, crazy smart (and just plain crazy) male bosses and co-workers who support women in business, and I run my agency with a man who also happens to be my husband.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?

One of the most important lessons I've picked up along the way is that you have to push yourself beyond what you're familiar with and already know how to do in order to be successful. No matter what industry you're in or are interested in being in, seize every opportunity to be outside your comfort zone. Yes, there will be plenty of failures and setbacks, but how else are you going to learn? There have been many instances where doing this really paid off, including starting my own agency -- it was a big decision to make that leap. I'm a runner, and similar to managing a business, you set goals, like running a marathon, that scare you a little bit and you work diligently and with intention towards achieving them. Also, telling people you are going to run a marathon is helpful; there's nothing quite as motivating as the ego and pride. This same idea can also be applied to business.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

Ha! Seriously though, the key is to focus 100% on where you are. If you are thinking about your child's after-school activities registration deadline in the middle of a client's planning meeting, or scrolling through work emails at the dinner table, everyone and everything suffers. It also comes down to having support. I couldn't do this without my husband taking an active a role in our children's lives.

Fortunately, forward-thinking companies like Facebook, Netflix and Google are acknowledging that work-life balance is good for business and are implementing practices accordingly, which is setting a standard for the rest of the industry. Policies like unlimited parental leave for both parents highlights how men and women alike are seeking balance so they can be equally invested as co-heads of the household. As an agency led by two parents, we understand what this is like firsthand and have built an environment that allows working parents to succeed at work and be happy at home. Three of our departments - production, new business and account management - are led by women who also happen to be mothers. They work on flex schedules, which enables us to retain senior talent and allows them to make an impact at the agency without sacrificing family life.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

At Butler Shine Stern & Partners, I initially worked for Thomas Harvey, who was an incredible boss and in many ways, a mentor. He led by example, took responsibility for his team and gave us the room to figure things out. He had the trust of management, clients and importantly, creatives. I frequently go back to my "what would T. Harvey do" internal voice when faced with tricky managerial decisions. Actually, I should make that into an inspirational poster with a picture of crashing waves or kittens and hang it in my office.

I have also made an effort to mentor undergrads at my alma mater, the University of the South - Sewanee. Selfishly, I want to foster and attract the best talent to Walrus. Less selfishly, I remember how tough the transition from college to "the real world" was and how completely clueless you are (or at least I was). I also remember those kind souls who agreed to talk to me and what a difference it made.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

My grandmother, Frances Smythe Edmunds. Under her visionary leadership as director of the Historic Charleston Foundation, the preservation of the city of Charleston became a model for cities all over the nation. She led and transformed an organization when women in leadership roles, particularly in the South, were an anomaly.

What do you want Walrus to accomplish in the next year?

As co-owner and COO, my vision for Walrus is to be the best, creatively led advertising agency, a go-to partner for brand marketers, and a top place to work for talent. Our track record of innovative work and new business momentum have contributed to a 300% agency growth rate in the past three years. As Walrus continues to grow and mature as an agency, our focus will always be on the work - creating smart, irreverent advertising that drives business results for clients. We're also working with a broader range of brands beyond the niche categories in which Walrus' funny and clever approach has always worked so well, and I'd like to see us expand into new categories in 2016. My goal is to keep this momentum going in the next year and beyond.