Med Ad News caught up with Sharon Callahan, the new CEO of CDM, and Robin Shapiro, who moved into the position of CEO of TBWA\WorldHealth, to talk with them about the changes at their agencies and what it’s like taking on new roles at a time when COVID-19 has literally changed everything about the way that everyone works. Structure wise, CDM is now led by Callahan, who previously was chief executive officer of TBWA\WorldHealth; Kristen Gengaro, formerly managing partner at TBWA\WorldHealth, is now president of CDM New York, the agency’s flagship office; former CEO Chris Palmer now is chief creative officer; and Deepa Patel has taken on the role of chief strategy officer, having come over from TBWA\Chiat\Day. TBWA\WorldHealth is headed by Shapiro, who was previously global president of the agency, and Andy Hayley, who has been leading growth of the agency’s London office and now has taken on the role of managing partner in the U.S. office. Shapiro says more changes will be coming.

When were the changes made?

Sharon Callahan: It was under way seven weeks ago, when all of the COVID stuff started to hit. And it didn’t seem right to be all “Yay! Rah, rah, all of these changes at the agencies are happening!” And then we wound up doing our agency profile for an industry publication…CDM hadn’t done their agency profile, and then someone forwarded it to me, because half the people who had been filling it out weren’t there anymore, and then I had to tell them what was going on. So they went ahead and made this article. We’re not going to have a release, but we are going to have a big party that everyone will be invited to, someday when we can have a party again!

Sharon Callahan

We all knew there were going to be more changes, we knew Kristen [Gengaro] was coming over to be president of CDM, but we weren’t really ready to announce that when I left [TBWA]. But it’s all exciting for all of us.

How did this all come about? Where did this direction come from?

Sharon Callahan: It came from Ed Wise, who’s my boss at [Omnicom Health]. He came to me a couple of months ago and said, “You guys have done so well with TBWA\WorldHealth, and CDM needs a new leader.” Chris Palmer, who was fantastic, who was the chief creative officer and then the president, basically didn’t like being a CEO. He wanted to go back into creative, and Gregg Geider, who was the president [of CDM New York], wasn’t the right fit. So Ed said, ‘You have a wealth of leadership at TBWA\WorldHealth, basically, which one of you wants to do it?’

Robin Shapiro: Sharon and I chatted about it, we didn’t do a coin toss. And Sharon, very generously, stepped forward for that position, under one condition: “I’ve got to have Kristen [Gengaro]!” Everybody needs their No. 2, and I was Sharon’s No. 2 for as long as we have worked together. I think we could complete each other’s sentences. One of the questions we were asked was “How are your management styles different,” and my answer is that you probably wouldn’t be able to tell our management styles apart, because we have grown to be so of one mindset. It’s working for us, and when the time came, and Sharon said “I’ve got to have my No. 2,” we said Kristen’s ready. We have a lot of people who are ready. We have a wonderful guy called Andy Hayley, who was the managing partner of our London office – he doubled the size of the agency in a year – and he was like, “I’m really ready for my next challenge.” We told him we would let him know when we could give him his next challenge, he said he’d be willing to move to the States, and then we were able to say, “Guess what, your moment has arrived!”

Robin Shapiro

So we were able to put things into place very quickly, to move people to the right challenges. CDM has created a new leadership team with Sharon, Kristen, and others they’ve hired. I have Andy stepping in, moving to the U.S. as soon as possible. With COVID, we’re all working from home. But again, we were able to pivot very quickly on this.

The great news is that TBWA has been doing great, and continues to do great, and is growing and thriving. We’re not seeing any signs of that stopping. I promised Sharon, as the chairman of TBWA, that it would not happen, that we would continue to make her proud, and that’s what we’ve been doing.

What are you looking forward to in the future as you take over each of these organizations?

Sharon Callahan: We’ve already developed a new purpose for CDM, which is, we are a gutsy, creative community that exists to invent new possibilities in health. CDM is such an admired, storied agency, has launched huge brands like Lipitor and Viagra. And I am really looking forward to CDM getting that gutsiness back, and having a new level of swagger, and getting some more momentum. The days of big primary care brands are behind us and those were great days but there could be even better days to come. I’m not interested in a carbon copy of TBWA\WorldHealth, we’ve done a great thing there but we’re not here to create the same thing. We’re here to create something new and different, and that’s what I am excited about. If I had to do the same thing I did four years ago, it wouldn’t be that interesting.

And for me, I am not at the beginning of my career, or the beginning of my CEO career, so one more challenge is kind of fun for me. And I get to do it with Kristen, who I adore. We also hired a woman named Deepa Patel, who comes from consumer strategy, from TBWA\Chiat, so that’s really interesting and different. And I actually kind of get to do it alongside my work wife, Robin, here, who I still talk with every single day.

Robin Shapiro: We laid out a strategic plan and a vision for the agency [TBWA\WorldHeath]. We’re kind of an infant, we’re four years old just in April, and still growing, still continuing to reinvent ourselves, and it was all done based on a foundation of Disruption. We didn’t want to act or behave like any other agency, and we’ve continued to try to reinvent ourselves ever since. That goes back to the way that we operate, many agencies are rooted in one location or they treat their individual locations or geographies like standalone businesses. We operate as a single agency across all of our offices. That’s not the way that most agencies operate. It’s just one little example of the way that we do things. We kind of just reinvent, and there have been a lot of examples of that, and there are continued ways of how we’re doing that this year. One of the moves that we’ve made, in putting Andy over the U.S. and London, we are making another move towards our geographically boundless approach to business because it’s going to be very easily stitched together. So many of our businesses and so many of the brands that we have are shared across U.S. and global, HCP and consumer. This makes it even easier.

For us, it’s a continuation of our constant desire to Disrupt and change ourselves. When people ask, ‘Are there going to be more changes?’ Hell yeah there are! There are always going to be more changes, we are going to continue to change! And thankfully we’re changing so that the business isn’t changing on us, we’re changing ourselves, and that’s the way we prefer to be.

The ad agency world has always been seen as very male-centered, but that has changed a lot, and you two are among the primary reasons why that has occurred. What does it feel like moving into another area, one that had been branded under Ed Wise for so long, and whose recent top leadership was male?

Sharon Callahan: It feels really good. First of all, I’m the only non-CDM lifer who has ever been the CEO of CDM. The feedback that Robin and I got a lot at TBWA\WorldHealth, from men and women who joined the agency, was that it didn’t feel like a boy’s club and the agency felt really different because we’re women-led. This is week five for me at CDM, and I am hearing the same thing from the women, that it’s feeling really different already and I am sure it’s feeling really different for the bros that are there! And I have to say I am really proud of Ed Wise. CDM, it’s his baby, it’s his legacy, and he’s entrusted me with it.

What are you most looking forward to?

Sharon Callahan: I am looking forward to the first big pitch win! We need to get back on the momentum train, and I think that will come pretty quickly.   

Robin Shapiro: I’m looking forward to continuing to drive the culture forward, continuing to bringing new, great talent forward to drive our strategic plan, to continue to choose clients who are Disruptive, and are disruptors, and helping them achieve their ambitions.

But honestly, it’s an interesting time in our world right now, to be put into a new position like this. And one of the things that I’ve always prided myself on is my authenticity and honesty, and it’s the right tone for this moment especially. Because nobody really knows what the future holds, nobody expected any of this to happen. What we can do though is communicate really well. We can make people feel comfortable and safe and have them know that we have them, that we’re going to take care of them. And the same goes for our clients. This has been an incredible leveling experience. We’re sitting here in our T-shirts, the game’s over, we are humans now, and that’s the way that we have to lead our agencies and our companies. I feel it’s a great moment for me to continue to be myself. When I announced Kristen was leaving, I was literally crying, we were all crying, in front of 350 people who had joined the video call! And I don’t hide from that. This is who we are, this is the company that we are, we care about each other. We are people, first. And I think that’s the right vibe for the moment.

Sharon Callahan: We were on a client call right before we got on with you. This is probably one of our toughest, most senior clients, and he was talking about how he gave himself a haircut through a kit he bought at Rite Aid. This is all a great equalizer.

Robin Shapiro: It’s all hard to know how this will end. Sharon and I were on a leadership team meeting with Omnicom Health Group, and there are conversations starting about how we will get back to the office in some way, what it’s going to look like. And you have to vacillate sometimes between like feeling this is happening to you, and then grabbing the wheel and saying, “No, this isn’t happening to me, I am going to take this steering wheel and I am going to decide what is going to happen here!” And that’s the fortunate position that we have as CEOs of the agencies that we lead, in that it’s up to us, how we want to lead in this situation. We’ve just discovered, we’re 100 percent virtual, guess what – you don’t have to be in a physical location to do great work. So now what? What do we want to do, how do we want to envision the future? And I think we’re all inspired to use this to really think about how to positively transform, as opposed to looking at this like, “It happened to us, oh my god, how are we going to recover?”

Sharon Callahan: The first few weeks, everyone was resilient, and doing great work. But now it’s endurance. We’re running a marathon here. Anyone can get out of their chair and go a few miles but this is a long road. So keeping people motivated through that is not easy. Parents of young kids, they are really struggling, but I think the people who are struggling most, are living alone. Young people, they went to New York City, they had a social life, they were building their career and going to the office. This is not what they signed up for.

Our job is really different now, it’s about taking care of people. Maybe the fact that we’re women, and mothers, gives us a unique opportunity to do that.