PDX Spotlight: Rebecca Armstrong, CEO at North

How did you find your way into the advertising industry?
I took a job as a PA to the Client Services Director at an ad agency in London in 1989. That was an eye-opener. On the one hand, I was exposed to the intimate dealings of agency management as well as the day-to-day of setting strategy and nurturing creativity. On the other hand, it was advertising in London in the late 80s. The agency kitchen had stainless steel countertops which were never used for food preparation if you know what I’m saying.

Tell us about yourself. What do you do?
I’m a Taurus and an introvert (ISFJ) who can handle socializing but needs long periods of solitude, preferably in nature. Luckily for me I live on Sauvie Island. I have four elderly dogs. Old dogs are the best. I like gardening, design, classical music, history podcasts and Tai Chi. Yes, I am a member of AARP. But I still maintain a youthful outlook and I can hold up my own in a debate on the merits of IG Reels vs TikTok. I am a student of human behaviour. I’m also British (as the spelling of “behaviour” belies). I’ve been in this business for over thirty years, but I still don’t really know what I do. Most days, it seems to include crafting arguments. Some days it’s cheerleading.

The advertising industry is constantly evolving; what skills do you wish more young professionals would acquire? How about seasoned vets?
My advice applies to both groups actually and has not changed over time: young professionals and seasoned vets alike need to apply a strategic filter to every conversation and action, no matter how seemingly trite in service of the work. Every day you need to get up and think, “how can I make the work better?” It doesn’t matter if you’re delivering a highly technical, immersive brand experience or a print ad.
In the ad industry, the conversation around the lack of women in senior leadership positions is ongoing.

As a women-led agency, what changes do you believe need to happen in order to see more women in leadership positions?
Business needs to embrace life/work integration. It’s already happening due to shelter-in-place. We’re breaking down the perceived need to work in a dedicated space away from home in 8-hour blocks Monday through Friday. As long as the work gets done brilliantly and on schedule, it shouldn’t matter where or when it happens. If we can embrace that idea, time and space is created for the life stuff that historically has predominantly affected women (home, family, kids, health etc.) It allows people (everybody) to take care of everything on their terms. I think life/work integration levels the playing field.

How have the events from this year impacted your work? How do you think these things will impact the future of advertising?
The pandemic has forced us to optimize collaboration tech and be more diligent about planning and casting projects. We had all the tools in place and were using them already, but not to the degree that we are now. We’re also adapting (with varying degrees of success) to the need to maintain agency culture from a distance. We’re all completely over the Zoom happy hour. We’re now testing other ways to remain supportive of each other and collegiate as a team.

As for our client work, we have to apply the “so what now?” filter to everything we do in acknowledgement that people are profoundly affected by the pandemic and the social unrest and the hurricanes and the fires and and and…the murder hornets. Shelter-in-place has accelerated changes that were already taking shape – most obviously the rapid growth of online shopping and related services. I think these changes are permanent. As for the rest of the horrors that 2020 has unleashed on us, they will undoubtedly alter people’s worldview for generations to come. So yeah, the future of everything is impacted. As students of human behavior, we’ll have to stay on top of that.

What do you find most challenging and also most fun about managing an agency?
I get the most fun out of tackling a wide variety of business problems in wildly different business categories. My personal experience spans everything from eyewear retainers to the International Space Station. In its 16 years, North has grown specialty practices in outdoor lifestyle (apparel and gear), organic and natural CPG, renewable power and entertainment. We’ve also done a ton of work in beer, booze and cannabis. Maybe I should classify those under “entertainment”? The point is, I love the variety.
As for challenges, I think staying abreast of cultural change and switching gears (changing positions, processes and people) to meet the needs of clients is both exhilarating and really really tough. Fortunately, to date my incredibly shrewd business partners and I have managed to read the tea leaves.
What imparting words of wisdom or career advice would you give someone just starting out?
Be a student of the science and craft of the business. Do your homework. Have a deep understanding of how agencies work before meeting with them. If you’re not passionate about advertising, maybe think about doing something else.

What past project or campaign from North are you most proud of?
I’m proud of everything we do, but the work for Cover Oregon stands out. OK, the business failed, but the advertising was spectacularly successful because it ignored standard health insurance tropes and positioned Cover Oregon as a rallying cry for health care for all Oregonians.

What are you most looking forward to in your career or in the advertising industry?
Retiring. Actually, I don’t think I’ll ever stop working. It’s just too interesting. As for the industry, one day I hope all companies realize that we’re primarily in the business of entertainment. In the words of David Ogilvy “Tell the truth but make the truth fascinating.”
Learn more about North

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