When the pandemic caused the world to start working remotely, Molly Whitfield had an advantage: she’d already been doing so for eight years.
The president and COO of Madison+Main had been splitting her time between the marketing firm’s downtown office and wherever she called home at the time — Texas, Arizona, Kansas; “You name it,” she said — spurred by her husband’s Army job that requires frequent moves.
Just before the shutdown reached Richmond in mid-March, Madison+Main founder Dave Saunders named Whitfield the agency’s president, capping a 13-year run with the firm that’s the longest, next to Saunders, among its 15-person staff.
The recognition got the attention of the Advertising Club of Richmond, which named Whitfield its Ad Person of the Year at this year’s Richmond Show awards, held virtually over the summer.
BizSense spoke with Whitfield from her current home in Maryland about her award, how she fosters creativity while working remotely, and her perspectives on her hometown’s ad scene from afar. The following is an edited transcript:
Richmond BizSense: Congratulations on your award. What did it mean to you to win it, and what was your reaction?
Molly Whitfield: I of course started to cry, because I was just so honored. I’ve worked really hard behind the scenes in this industry, so to be up there with some of these major names in the incredible Richmond ad scene, it’s my biggest professional achievement to date. I was floored and incredibly honored to be on that list.
RBS: How did you get into the business?
MW: I had worked at an attorney’s office for about three years, at the end of high school in my early 20s, and really thought that was going to be my path.
I went to VCU back when they had the different tracks. I went in undecided, and once I started taking some advertising classes, I just really enjoyed the creative side more. I thought, “How do I pair some of these business and operational things that I’ve learned with being in a creative environment every day?” Once I saw that advertising could combine those two elements for me, that’s when I was like, “This is where I should stay.”
RBS: What’s changed for you since being named president in March?
MW: Our plan was to get me out of a lot of the day-to-day administrative and financial type of projects that I’ve been in in the past, and be more involved in the strategy and overall operations and where Madison+Main wants to go next. At the beginning of the year, I gave this great presentation to the team of all these things we’re going to do this year, and then COVID happened and it was like, “Okay, we’re going to roll with this.” I had a lot of goals I had to shift this year, but I think we all have.
RBS: How have you all adjusted to doing business in a pandemic?
MW: I think we’ve been managing it as best as a small company can. When everything hit, we were just like everyone else, not sure what was going to be next. We weren’t sure how this would affect certain clients, and we jumped into PPP loans and all of those things to try to protect our employees. We have been very lucky to maintain our current staff, we haven’t had to lay off anyone. Some of our clients have had to cut their budgets, but we understand that.
The advertising industry is full of creative problem-solvers, so this has just energized us in a different way to find new solutions for our clients. In all sorts of aspects, we’re looking at what they do, how they do it and how we need to change their messaging, their sites, anything that they do from our side and how we can help them, because it has affected so many businesses in different ways. From our side, we’ve been very busy, because every business has needed to address it in some type of way.
RBS: With everyone working remotely, how do you encourage creativity and collaboration from your staff without those in-person brainstorming sessions?
MW: Having the collaborative meetings still, over Zoom. Using all the technology that I feel like now everyone just uses every day. One of the things that a lot of people may not know is I’ve been working remotely for eight years. My husband’s in the military, so that’s led me to change locations. I’m in Richmond some of the time, I’m traveling some of the time. So for us, we kind of had a lot of that stuff in place already, and it was more just bringing everybody into the fold with me.
Our project management software and the collaboration that we were already doing and the communication that we had internally was really set in place so that it wasn’t a huge transition for our team. Prior to COVID, I would be in Richmond about one or two weeks out of the month, and it’s worked. It’s allowed us to have some of these things in place so that when COVID happened, it wasn’t a drastic change for our team and we’ve been able to keep rolling.
RBS: Is there a campaign Madison+Main has put out that you’re most proud of or has been its calling card?
MW: I’d say our work for the Virginia Energy Sense campaign, that was with the State Corporation Commission, that’s been a huge campaign to be a part of. It’s another advocacy campaign, so those are near and dear to my heart. Same with a campaign we did for the attorney general’s office, “Respect Richmond,” and also an anti-human-trafficking campaign. We’ve had a lot of experience in the state government world, and a lot of campaigns have had a huge impact on anti-human-trafficking, energy saving, anti-violence campaigns, things like that.
RBS: What’s your take on Richmond’s creative scene? Does viewing it from afar change your perspective?
MW: I can say, from being all over the place and traveling different places, Richmond has a phenomenal ad scene. We have so much creativity in this city that it continually energizes me. People call them competitors, but I look at the other agencies in town and I’m just proud of being part of the Richmond ad scene. I can look at another agency and say, “Wow, they did awesome work for that.” There’s enough work, to me, for all of us.
I would love to see more collaboration in Richmond between agencies. I may be too rainbows and butterflies about that. I’m a big fan of collaboration and just knowing that there’s no cap for creativity. I think the more we build off each other, the better.