Shelly Lazarus Biography

As chairman and CEO of advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather, American businesswoman Shelly Lazarus (born 1947) has been described as one of the most powerful executives in advertising.

One of a handful of women to graduate from Columbia University with an MBA in the early 1970s, Lazarus propelled herself through the corporate world to become chairman and CEO of the billion dollar advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather in 1997. Encouraged by legendary founder David Ogilvy, Lazarus became an evangelist for the power of brands and created an integrated multimedia advertising giant with clients worldwide. A role model for businesswomen, Lazarus has stressed the need for balance between work and family life, and has advocated that people love the work they do.

Attended Smith College and Columbia University

Rochelle "Shelly" Braff was born in Oceanside, New York, on September 1, 1947, the daughter of Lewis Braff, a certified public accountant, and Sylvia Braff. Shelly attended Smith College, an all-women's school in Northampton, Massachusetts. During her senior year she was inspired by a conference presented by the Advertising Women of New York that led her to consider a career in advertising. In 1968 she graduated from Smith with a bachelor's degree and went on to Columbia University. One of four women in her class, she earned an MBA from Columbia in 1970. That same year she married George Lazarus, a pediatrician, with whom she had three children.

Shelly Lazarus steadily worked her way through the corporate world, beginning at Clairol where she became assistant product manager in 1970, but soon moving to Ogilvy & Mather in 1971. She served as an account executive until 1974, when she followed her husband to Dayton, Ohio, while he served in the Air Force. Lazarus spent two years as a department store buyer. In 1976, the family returned to New York, and Lazarus returned to Ogilvy & Mather, the company where she would spend the next thirty plus years.

Ogilvy & Mather

At Ogilvy, Lazarus resumed as an account supervisor for Avon, Campbell Soup, and Ralston Purina. After serving as management supervisor from 1976 to 1987, she shot up the corporate ladder, becoming Ogilvy & Mather Direct general manager in 1987, Ogilvy & Mather Direct U.S. president in 1981, then Ogilvy & Mather New York president in 1991.

In the 1990s, Lazarus attracted American Express as a client and convinced IBM to consolidate its scattered advertising operations into one account at Ogilvy. She gained experience in every product category in both general advertising and direct marketing, eventually running Ogilvy & Mather Advertising and the North American direct marketing arm, Ogilvy & Mather Direct, which is now known as Ogilvy One.

Woman Broke the Glass Ceiling

A slight woman, Lazarus began at Ogilvy as the only woman in an industry in which 90 percent of the consumers were female. She remarked in Across the Board , "I had this enormous power because there would inevitably come this moment in a meeting. It would be me and fourteen men, and we would be talking about something—like tampons, which was the case once—and they would all turn to me and go, 'Well, Shelly, what do women think?' And I would be talking on behalf of all women everywhere in the world."

In a meteoric rise, she was named president of North American operations in 1994, president and chief operating officer in 1995, chief executive officer in 1996, chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide in 1997, and finally to the highest office where she remains today, chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide in 1997.

As a sign of the slow but progressive change in attitude toward the glass ceiling, Lazarus replaced Ogilvy's first woman CEO, Charlotte Beers, in 1996, making Ogilvy & Mather the first firm in the industry to have one female CEO succeed another. Beers helped pave the way for women in leadership roles, and both women have said that the Ogilvy succession was an important signal to the corporate world that women were equally competent in top agency positions. Nevertheless, today women comprise only 12 percent of corporate officers in the Fortune 500 list of biggest companies in America, and there are only six female CEOs in those companies.

Under Lazarus' stewardship, Ogilvy secured an impressive list of large and very profitable American and international clients, such as American Express, British Petroleum, Coca-Cola, DuPont, Ford, IBM, Kodak, Morgan Stanley, Motorola, and Unilever. In a daring move, Ogilvy's choice to reject stereotypes of pencil-thin models and instead use medium-sized women in its Dove soap campaign garnered immense attention and even awards. Ogilvy also gained prominence when it captured Johnson & Johnson's 2008 Olympic campaign.

Influenced by David Ogilvy

At the time Lazarus was working at Ogilvy & Mather, legendary founder David Ogilvy was working a semiretired schedule of a few months a year, yet he made a lasting impression on her. One basic idea that stuck with Lazarus was that advancement came through merit regardless of gender. Although David was not directly Lazarus' mentor, she said in Lessons from the Top , "I did get to know David because he's very democratic in the sense that he had no idea what titles or positions anyone every had in the agency…. I always talk about this place as a meritocracy and that's because of the way David ran it. Not only did he not care that I was a woman and pregnant, he actually liked it, because it was like a challenge to what everyone else believed. At General Foods, at that time, as soon as you wore maternity clothes you had to leave the building. To David, this was another way of challenging the status quo."

David Ogilvy also gave Lazarus advice that she would remember during her long tenure at the agency. In Harvard Business Review , Lazarus said that when she knew she would be named CEO, David gave her the best advice she ever received. "No matter how much time you spend thinking about, worrying about, focusing on, questioning the value of, and evaluating people, it won't be enough…. People are the only thing that matters, and the only thing you should think about, because when that part is right, everything else works." Lazarus said that his advice drives not only how she thinks about and mentors people but also how she forms business strategies and makes critical decisions.

Promoted 360-Degree Branding

David Ogilvy also preached the driving need to build brand awareness, a message that got through to Lazarus like a religious edict. Lazarus promotes the concept of 360-degree branding, which involves making a significant impression on a consumer at every point of contact between that consumer and the brand. From the packaging to the advertisements, the brochure, the sales materials, the order forms, every message about the product should reinforce the other messages in the consumer's mind. In today's world, that includes electronic contact, such as the Internet, e-mail, and interactive experiences.

In one 360-degree turn of advertising strategy, Lazarus confronted Ford Motor Company, which bristled at a woman trying to explain how to run an automotive company. She said in Lessons from the Top , "One of the first things I said to them was, I'm relatively new to the car category, but here's something I don't understand. If a Ford is different from a Jaguar, is different from a Mazda, is different from a Buick and a Volkswagen, why do all the showrooms look the same?" Lazarus's point hit its mark as Ford executives then realized that this is where 360-degree branding at every point of contact was needed.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ogilvy & Mather was now getting more than half its revenue from nonadvertising business, a testament to its 360-degree branding.

"Love What You're Doing"

When young professional women ask Lazarus for advice, she quickly has one emphatic response: "You have to love what you're doing." She said in Lessons from the Top , "If you ever want to find balance, you have to love your work, because you're going to love your children, that's almost a given. When things get out of balance, and where women become miserable, is when they actually don't like what they're doing professionally. They then resent every minute that they're away from the things they love and, therefore, the job gets worse and worse, because more resentment fills their lives."

In Business 2.0 , Lazarus offers more advice on how business should not supersede happiness. "The truth is that balance is achieved through a host of individual dance steps, from being willing to suffer a little domestic chaos to insisting that performance be measured by results, not just time spent in the office." She added that company employees who have found this balance are more creative and productive and build more successful business environments that tend to prevent employees from leaving.

Named One of the Most Powerful Women

It was Lazarus' powerful vision and success that earned her top awards and recognition in her field, not the novelty of being a woman at the helm. In 1999, Forbes magazine named her the fourth most powerful woman in America. She consistently appeared in the magazine's 100 Most Powerful Women in the World list, appearing at number 93 in 2004, at number 78 in 2005, and at number 87 in 2006. She gained the attention of Fortune magazine as well, returning several times to its list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business, reaching number 11 in 2001, number 14 in 2002, and number 30 in 2006.

Among her numerous business awards and women achievement awards, she was the first woman to receive the Distinguished Leadership in Business Award in 2003 by the Columbia University Business School. She was also named Advertising Woman of the Year in 1994, Business Woman of the Year in 1996, and Woman of the Year in 2002 by the Direct Marketing Association.

But Lazarus takes the accolades in stride. She commented in Adweek , "In a way, I'm thrilled that there are 50 women in such prominent positions, and the list is a nice acknowledgment of pioneers." She continued, "But at the same time I think we're coming to the day when noting the gender of a powerful person in business will be a thing of the past."

In addition to her position at Ogilvy & Mather, Lazarus is currently serving or has served on numerous prestigious boards in industry, business, and academia, including American Museum of Natural History, Ann Taylor Stores, Columbia University's Board of Overseers, General Electric, Merck, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, and the World Wildlife Fund. She was one of only two women to serve as chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, and is an adviser at venture capital firm RRE Ventures. At her alma mater she served a five-year term as chairman of the Board of Trustees.

Role Model

Lazarus even finds time for a lecture circuit, speaking at industry and leadership forums, and especially at her alma maters. She was keynote speaker at the 2006 conference of the Marketing Association of Columbia at Columbia University. In May 2005, she provided the commencement address at Smith College describing how in the 1960s, the high point of a woman's life was getting engaged, but that women could break from expectations and create their own plan for their lives.

At Smith she said, "I never dreamed that I would some day be standing on this platform getting an honorary degree, and giving this speech…. You know, we are all such products of our own expectations. When the world portrays us in a certain way, we tend to see ourselves as pictured. Accept it and expect it…. I never set out to be a role model, to get to the corner office, or to have a big career…. After Smith, the only reason I went on to get an MBA from Columbia was because I needed a job and I heard that if a woman had an MBA they probably wouldn't make her type."


Neff, Thomas J., and James Citrin, Lessons from the Top: The Search for America's Best Business Leaders , Random House, 1999.


Across the Board , September/October 2005.

Advertising Age , November 20, 2006.

Adweek (Western Edition), October 7, 2002.

Business 2.0 , December 2005.

Harvard Business Review , January 2005.

Times (United Kingdom), March 13, 2002.


"Shelly Lazarus '70," Marketing Association of Columbia, (December 7, 2006).

"Smith Tradition," Smith College Commencement Address 2005, (December 7, 2006).

"Who, Where, How Much?: Board Members, Shelly Lazarus," Corporate Watch , (December 7, 2006).

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