First Mover: Marla Kaplowitz

The CEO of MEC North America on learning to like being in the top job

In college you majored in sociology. How often have you found yourself tapping into that foundation in media planning?
It’s carried over on the planning side in the natural curiosity about consumers, research and digging into the biggest question: Why? The sociology classes I took were focused on learning more about individuals, but also how you could influence people.

You joined MEC as president last March after 12 years at MediaVest and were promoted to North America CEO just seven months later. Was it a whirlwind transition?
Absolutely. I knew when I came that potentially down the road, and I mean three years down the road, I could be considered for a CEO role. I was surprised when that opportunity came up far sooner than I thought, but I knew I needed to take advantage of it. If you talk to anyone I’ve known for a long time, they will tell you I always said I didn’t want to be a CEO.

Why was that?
I viewed it as a lonely job. A stressful, 24/7 job. Ironically, I am sitting in the role and making it work. As I keep progressing in my career, I’ve always found a balance.

Has your opinion about what it means to be a CEO changed in the last few months?
It has. I realized in my previous roles, I didn’t just do my client job. I wore a lot of hats. If I saw something that wasn’t being addressed, I would jump in and do it. In my current role, I have the ability to influence change. In the past, I haven’t agreed with decisions that have been made, and now I own those decisions. I’m far more empowered to follow my intuition.

What direction do you see the work of media agencies moving toward?
One of the areas you are starting to see media agencies go toward is data. Data and analytics and more accountability in terms of what media agencies can deliver. The ability that we now have is to really start measuring the experience. That is where we can really start to push as an agency and start to link back to the strategies that we’re developing and bring that to life in terms of the results that we’re delivering for our clients.

What changes are at the top of your agenda?
We need to get people to lead and not manage. One thing that makes MEC special is the connection that people have. It sounds hokey, but there is a collegial feeling. So, how do we drive that connection for people above and beyond what they’re doing for their clients?

Why do you think there are fewer women in top roles at creative agencies than there are at media agencies?
Within media, it’s definitely more female than male when you look at agency composition. There are far more men in the creative field, so that could be why you see that trajectory to the top. Watching Mad Men, this question comes to the surface. Mad Men was not so long ago. I started out in 1987. I did not wear pants to work for a year and a half. I spent a fortune wearing pantyhose every single day.

You’re a passionate magazine reader. Are you a print loyalist or do you have an iPad?
I read books on the Kindle until I was on a flight and I accidentally hit the delete button. It’s great having an iPad, but I have yet to start reading magazines on it. I’m still a bit old school.

It’s awards season. As a film buff and a member of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, what movie do you deem most worthy?
I have to give a big plug for The Descendants. I’m a huge Alexander Payne fan. I saw it at the closing night of the New York Film Festival. And George Clooney is not bad to look at, either.