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A Conversation with Renata McCann, Chief Talent Officer at Leo Burnett advertising agency

“Leaders are people who have learned to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Renetta McCann is to be admired. She has been an award-winning advertising executive at one of the most prestigious advertising firms in the country, Leo Burnett, in Chicago. She is currently the Chief Talent Officer, overseeing talent acquisition, development and management. Renetta joined Leo Burnett as a client service trainee in 1978, and rose through the ranks.

  • 1979 – Leo Burnett’s first African American media supervisor

  • 1988 – Leo Burnett’s first African American vice president, in media

  • 1989 - Leo Burnett’s first African American Media Director

As media director, McCann handled a variety of clients including Sony, Keebler, Walt Disney Theme Parks, McDonald’s of Chicago & Northwestern Indiana, and Dewar’s. In 1999, McCann was promoted to executive vice-president, managing director of Starcom. Later, when Starcom merged with MediaVest, she became CEO of Starcom North America. In 2004, she became CEO, SMG Americas and, in 2005, CEO, SMG Worldwide. McCann helped develop Starcom into one of the advertising industry's top strategic planning think tanks. By 2008, client billings exceeded $26 billion with 101 offices in 80 countries and a global workforce of over 6,000 people. Renetta is currently Chief Talent Officer of Leo Burnett and is poised to make history in another field within the advertising industry.

In 2002 she was named "Corporate Executive of the Year" by Black Enterprise magazine as well as being selected by Ebony as one of the "57 Most Intriguing Blacks." Also in 2002, The Chicago Advertising Club selected her as Advertising Woman of the Year. She has been recognized by Advertising Age, Business Week and Chicago magazine; in 2003 Essence named her as one of "50 Women Who are Changing the World." Renetta has appeared on the pages of Advertising Age, Business Week and Chicago magazine.

In May of this year, The American Advertising Federation (AAF) named Renetta its 2014 Industry Influential for her work in championing multiculturalism in advertising and promoting career opportunities for diverse candidates. In August, she received the Pantheon Award from the 4A's MAIP program for her contributions.

What’s your educational background?

I graduated from Northwestern University School of Communications, which is now known as the School of Communications. I hold an undergraduate degree in Communications Studies. My major focused on analyzing and understanding rhetoric and persuasion with a goal of gaining insight on what messages are being communicated and how people write or speak to influence one another. I also minored in linguistics, studying the construction of language. So, I suppose if you wanted to combine all of that together, in many ways I was sort of moving around what you could call the “art of the argument” - how you use language and rhetorical devices to persuade and motivate others.

Were you involved in debate in school?

In high school I was a member of the Forensics Team, not debate. The difference is that in Forensics you were either delivering speeches that somebody else had already written or, in my case, creating original oratory pieces and giving them in front of panels of judges. I did that for 3 years in high school, my sophomore through senior years.

I noticed that your mom, like my mother, was a teacher. Did that put pressure on you? It seems like all of this is kind of English based. Was your mom an English teacher?

No, she was just an all around sort of grammar school teacher. So she taught multiple topics, such as, reading, spelling and math. I did get my love of learning from her though.

So, technically, you weren’t a real English buff.

No, I wouldn’t necessarily characterize myself as a student of literary writing. But I am in love with how people combine and construct language into persuasive pieces. Back to the art of persuasion, the art of the argument. Most of the time you are using language to persuade but it is not only language, right? In advertising and in a lot of other places, people are also using sound or visuals to persuade.

You’ve made your mark in the advertising field. When did the bug bite?

Well, it was while I was in college. Again, I went to college to become a lawyer and then for a brief moment in time, I had this idea that I would go into public relations. Unfortunately, I had not prepared myself well. I had not taken the right courses. So, when Leo Burnett came to campus I attended their informational presentation and once again, because it’s persuasion, I found that advertising fit into that theme. Advertising uses different levers and tools but it’s still clearly in the persuasion business. So I am still in the persuasion business.

In reading some background on you I saw that you have a lot of firsts within the Leo Barnett agency. Was that something that you were aware of at the time or did it kind of happen along your career path?

It’s something that happened along the career path. I never focused on it. It never was really my goal to do those things. But having said that, once I was a Buyer / Planner, did I have a goal to become a Media Supervisor? Absolutely. Once I was a Media Supervisor, did I have a goal to become an Assistant Media Director? Absolutely! So, was I setting goals that would have me advance my career on the career path that was there? Absolutely! Did I have a goal that said I wanted to be the first African American to do that? No. They are inherently linked but that was not my goal.

With all of your accomplishments, I know there is a lot to balance being a parent and achieving what you have managed to achieve. How do you address that and how do you find balance in being a mom and being an industry power player?

It’s interesting because my life now is a little bit different. My kids are now young adults and they are pretty fully formed. I am one of those people who, even at this age and stage, is still ambivalent about the work-life balance discussion. From a theoretical standpoint, yes I kept them balanced. Do I think you can balance them from a practical standpoint? Well, I am not quite sure. I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t know if that looks like 40 hours at work and 10 hours with your kids. I still don’t know how to define balance really easily. What I always tried to do is figure out what is most important to me at the time.

One of the things I did was start some family traditions. It may seem like a small thing but I built a tradition on taking a photograph of my kids every year. I would take a picture of them on the first day of school standing outside the house. It went on until my daughter went to college. That was very important to me. I think for me it was always trying to have a sense, pretty close to the moment, of what was happening in their lives and what was happening to me at work and making choices around which one I was going to engage in. I would say, for the most part, I am pleased with my choices. There are some places where in hindsight I go “I don’t think I got that one right”. Of course, my kids have their own opinion about it. For me it was always making the choice and then being pleased or okay with the choices I have made.

I’ve seen your participation in some mentoring panels. What have you seen put in place or what have you done to that effect?

I’m someone who has made myself available to talk to young women or men who were just entering my field. In fact, I had a mentoring conversation with a young woman this morning and had breakfast with a young woman a week ago. I have an open door policy and people know that if you want to talk to somebody about day-to-day or career issues, you can call me. I am actually more interested in the relationship part of it. I am interested in being a resource that people can tap into - informally rather than formally. I focus on connecting what I know to the experience of the person I am talking to so that I can offer whatever perspective I can at that specific time and in a way that will be most helpful to them right then. Sometimes in life I think you have to learn a lesson at just the right moment because if you learn it too early or too late it might be lost on you.

I’ve been on this tirade lately about the negative imagery and connotations in today’s music. Hip-hop especially, since it’s the most prevalent music in the Black community. I wanted to ask you about this from an advertising perspective regarding repetitive messages. What impact do you think some music’s recurring negative connotations and images have on the public?

I really don’t have a major comment on that, just a very general statement on what people listen to, watch, or read on a regular basis. As best as I can tell, and as best as I can explain from any type of research I’ve seen, whatever you spend a lot of time with does influence your view of the world. I think it’s important for people, especially young people, to remember that they do have a choice in how they see the world or even how they want to see the world. Certainly they have a choice about what they want to put into the world. I’m actually fairly neutral on the actual choice that any individual makes. But there is no question in my mind that the things you interact with the most do have an influence or shape how you see the world.

Do you write or do you publish anything?

I was never on the creative side of advertising. I was never on the artistic side or the commercially artistic side of it. I do not write or publish very much. I don’t have this burning desire to document all that I think about for the public record. Plus I think there are other people who do it very, very well and it’s their passion. I would just as soon read their work rather than struggle to write myself.

As Chief Talent Officer are you bringing in strictly creative talent or overall talent?

Functionally I am now in charge of four things; talent acquisition, talent management, learning and development and HR operations. On any given day, I am working across any one of those four platforms

It sounds like quite a departure from the media portion that you were involved with in school.

It was. At one point in my career, I decided that I was going to take a break from media and advertising. I decided to go back to school to get my Masters degree. So, I went back to Northwestern and I earned a Master’s of Science in Learning Organizational Change.

Getting a Masters in my 50’s was one of the top five experiences I have ever had. I would highly recommend it to everyone. I challenge the notion that, as an adult, you can’t go back into a structured learning environment and increase or change what you know about the world. I think it was fantastic.

So, some days I say I am on my second career. I had a fully formed first career and now I am on to something else. But it’s still related and, in my mind, what I’m doing right now is equally important.

You didn’t exactly reinvent yourself but you reshaped your next way forward, I suppose.

Absolutely. It is both invigorating and it is difficult. My perspective is that we live in a world that expects and encourages people to perfect one thing. So you pick a career and you do that for a very long time and you try to get to the top of that career trajectory. That is a great thing to do but I don’t think it’s the only thing to do. It’s all part of a great adventure.

v. ray


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