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Michelle Edelman is not your typical ad agency CEO. She came to the agency business late in her career, having started out in the client seat. She is a self-proclaimed “strategy geek”—proudly, unapologetically. And she is virtually unflappable, no matter what curveballs might come her way, which is perhaps what makes her perfect for the job of taking a 55-year-old agency into its next era.
Now 90 days into her role as CEO, she shares her backstory and outlook for what’s ahead for PETERMAYER with marketing manager Eli Haddow.
EH: Where did you cut your teeth in the industry?
ME: Some of the best folks I’ve met in the agency business didn’t start there. I entered the business when I was already quite senior. I built my career in marketing on the client side, and was working as director of marketing for a global software company. I’d reviewed and hired agencies, but ended up building insights teams internally, as the agencies were not as adept as they could be in inspired thinking around the customer.
One day, an agency contact reached out and said “Hey, Leo Burnett is transitioning their research team into this thing called planning”—they’d just won the Motorola semiconductor business and, specializing in mostly packaged goods clients, needed a lead to build a practice group. It was right up my alley and sounded fun. So I joined as head of strategy on the tech businesses. It took me a good year to get used to working inside an agency, but I’ve never looked back!
EH: What’s a standout moment in your career before getting to PETERMAYER?
ME: Before I came to PETERMAYER, the highlight of my career was leading the global brand strategy for the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. We took the brand from product ingredient differentiation to a hallmark of personal satisfaction and beauty. Understanding the love/hate relationship women have with beauty across the globe—and having a brand uplift them and affirm them—was a rare opportunity to change the discourse in a category and simultaneously impact culture for the better. A byproduct has been the really weird feeling of having my work and its results featured in Harvard Business Review and marketing textbooks.
EH: Talk about your vision for the agency. What will PETERMAYER look like going forward?
ME: Physically, it’ll look a LOT different. We’re leaving our office space in downtown New Orleans that we’ve occupied for decades. Our current space on New Orleans’ Printers Row is incredibly cool, with architecture dating back to the 1800s. The interiors were retrofitted for an agency—but one that reflected the 20th-century work model of cubes, closed door offices, and 9-to-5 rhythms.
The pandemic ushered in new ways of working, and we consequently made the decision to permanently remain a hybrid/flex workplace. Our aim is to design a collaborative space that earns people’s presence—that draws people back to the office because they want to be there.
Of course, the agency’s evolution will extend beyond the physical walls. As a group, we will approach our work with a new mission: to be agents of change. It’s a mission born of uncertainty. We’re faced with sociocultural change of all kinds. If “change is the only constant,” we are the agency you want to have by your side because we’ll bring unexpected solutions to business problems that go way beyond traditional advertising. To do that, we have to brief at the root of the business problem—not for a marcom solution but for stimulus that effects business change inside and out.
EH: New Orleans isn’t known as an advertising town. How does being based in New Orleans make the agency different from agencies in traditional advertising markets?
ME: NOLA isn’t an ad center, but it is a creative center. Culinary, music, visual arts, film, celebrations and emerging tech are all in the DNA of the city and its people. This environment inspires creativity and a cultural outlook of a different flavor palate than what’s commonly found in the established advertising hubs. Our people are musicians, artists, performers and cooks—and bring their whole creative selves to work.
New Orleans is a crossroad city for many, with a rich and complex culture that attracts people from all over, and our agency is representative of that mindset. As many of our people are transplants that adopted New Orleans as home (such as me!) as are natives.
Just living here, you feel steeped in culture and complexity; it’s a master class in nuance and the subtleties of pain and pleasure. It trains your mind to anticipate obstacles like potholes in the street. Navigating them makes all the difference. And our work is better for it.