Fiona Gordon is a rare thing in today’s business landscape: a home-grown leader. She joined advertising agency Ogilvy in 1992 as a graduate trainee and became CEO in 2021, just shy of 30 years later.
Company loyalty is becoming increasingly rare. Gone are the long-service awards and gold watches to mark long tenures. Many of the younger generation would probably baulk at the idea of an employer for life.
But despite appearances, Gordon says her career has probably been “more squiggles than straight lines.” She has enjoyed a wide range of assignments, from running global clients in New York and Hong Kong, to successfully handling a major turnaround project in the Singapore office. She believes moving around the different offices and parts of the business has helped her learn new skills and kept her constantly challenged.
Gordon’s early mentor - Shelly Lazarus, then Ogilvy’s global CEO - encouraged her to be proactive about her career, telling her: “If you want to do something, put up your hand and tell people.”
One of the advantages of being a homegrown leader is a deep understanding of the culture of a business. “You also have connections you can draw on for advice or counsel,” she says. These included experience of working closely with the wider network of Ogilvy’s owner WPP. She believes this helped her to see how the agency fitted in with the other parts of the network and understand Ogilvy’s point of difference.
To ensure she is not “in a bubble”, she spends a lot of time talking to clients, intermediaries and external sources to understand Ogilvy’s position in the market and what it could do better.
Sometimes people who stay at a company for a long time are overlooked or taken for granted. To avoid this fate, Gordon advises people to make sure they build networks beyond their immediate team. To help foster this at the agency, she has set up two-day sessions where anyone in the business can come together to try and crack a client problem. This helps people work with people they don’t normally interact with, which helps people get a broader perspective on individuals.
The agency also provides lots of learning and development opportunities, where people can meet others too. She also encourages people to move between Ogilvy’s different agencies to grow their career. “Being proactive can lead to brilliant opportunities. Even if you don’t get a job, people will know you are up for doing something different. Just keep telling people what you are interested in,” she says.
Gordon’s first big move was a one-way ticket to New York to work on the American Express account. From there, her “itchy feet”, perhaps partly prompted by her geography professor father, have seen her posted all round the world. “I’m very curious about the world,” she says. After New York, she moved to Hong Kong, where she ran global clients across Asia and later became CEO of Ogilvy’s Singapore office.