After considering stepping away from the advertising industry, Kristen Cavallo is doubling down on it.
The top executive at The Martin Agency for the past five years has accepted a promotion as global CEO of MullenLowe Group, the international agency where she previously worked that’s likewise under the umbrella of marketing conglomerate Interpublic Group.
While the promotion puts her in charge of the agency that’s headquartered in London, Cavallo is keeping her role as CEO at Martin in Richmond, where she worked 13 years prior to her current stint.
Cavallo said the scenario is a result of the time she’s invested in both agencies, which she’s bounced between for the bulk of her career. She said it also comes as her children have moved out of the house, freeing her up to do more things.
“I became an empty-nester, and my schedule had a lot more flexibility,” Cavallo said on a call during a conference she was attending last week at the United Nations building in New York.
“When the opportunity came to run MullenLowe globally, I was extremely excited, because I’ve wanted to do the global piece for quite a long time and I have a lot of heart for that agency. But I didn’t want to give up Martin,” she said.
“I wrestled with the choice, and then I decided: what if I ask for both, which I know is rare and perhaps unorthodox. But I felt like no one else would care about these two agencies or have as much invested in these two agencies as I would, and they said yes.”
The opportunity might not have ever happened, as Cavallo said she’d been doing some soul-searching in anticipation of her empty nest. She said it was the first time in 25 years that she could seriously consider doing something else, without having to consider her family at home.
Cavallo said she considered philanthropy, making a move to client-side marketing, politics, startups, consulting and journalism, and reached out to folks on LinkedIn who had made career moves that intrigued her to share their insights. Through that process, she said, she determined her next move would not be away from advertising, but deeper in it.
“I found in the end that advertising is actually where I should be,” she said. “There’s a lot of reasons for that: I love the thought of working on 20 different clients; I love looking for the synergies; I love thinking about things that are culturally relevant; I love working with interesting and curious people.
“I love solving problems with creativity. And I feel like I have the freedom to use my voice in this industry, in ways that I might not feel like I have the latitude to do from another company or industry.”
At MullenLowe, Cavallo replaces Alex Leikikh, who remains the agency’s chairman and becomes an executive vice president with IPG. Cavallo will continue to report to Leikikh, as she’s done since being named Martin’s first female CEO in 2017 when the agency was in the midst of a #MeToo scandal.
Since then, Cavallo has led Martin to increased growth and back-to-back recognitions, in 2020 and ’21, as Adweek’s Agency of the Year. Before those, she was named by Ad Age as its 2019 Executive of the Year.
In last week’s announcement, Leikikh said Cavallo’s success at Martin and relationships at MullenLowe made her dual-role scenario make sense when they discussed it with IPG CEO Philippe Krakowsky.
“When Philippe, Kristen and I started talking about next steps for Kristen and me within IPG, this was such a logical evolution of our partnership,” Leikikh said.
“Kristen is the ideal person to build on what our teams have achieved at MullenLowe,” added Krakowsky. “She’s a leader that people want to follow, and she’s proven that she can attract and grow the industry’s best talent. Having known Kristen for many years, I’m confident that the more expansive the stage we provide for her the greater her positive impact can be.”
While her new duties will have her globetrotting and spending less time at Martin, Cavallo said she would still maintain an active presence, through Zoom calls and other technologies. She also pointed to the leadership team at Martin as making it possible for her to take on the dual role.
“I have a lot of faith in this leadership team,” she said. “We’ve also been preparing a group of managing directors for the last two years that will take on increased responsibility. They’ve been in training for those two years, meeting with the executive committee, learning everything about how the company runs. So, we’ve developed a deep bench.
“Because of that, and because one of the silver linings of COVID is that we’ve learned how to work differently as an entire business and economy, I can find ways to be present without being physically there for anyone,” she said.
Asked if the scenario sets the stage for her to eventually pass the torch at Martin, Cavallo said she sees that as an eventuality but not currently in the cards.
“I’m not planning to make a change. Certainly over the years, even if I was not taking this position, I’m always looking to raise people up and give them opportunities. So, I don’t object to the idea of me moving on at some point. But that is not in the plans,” she said.
While she’s now a global CEO, Cavallo said she’ll still be calling Richmond home – in between flights to London, Mumbai and the 18 other offices that make up MullenLowe’s network across 13 countries.
“I’ll be flying all over. I’ll probably Airbnb in a lot of different places, but my home and family is in Richmond,” she said.
Laughing, Cavallo added, “I’m sure I’m going to be overwhelmed. I think overwhelmed is going to come, and I will be happily overwhelmed. I’ve waited a long time for this.”