CEO Interview

by Christopher Jankoski

A look back—Andrew Schirmer reflects on his first six months at the helm of Ogilvy Health

Posted by Chris Jankoski from Ogilvy Health ― North America on November 28, 2018

Approximately six months ago, Andrew Schirmer took the helm as our agency’s CEO, and in that short amount of time he has made a tangible impact on our people, our business, and our culture. We sat down with Andrew to reflect on his evolution as a leader and how he’s managed to both immerse himself in our Ogilvy family and lead the charge as we move toward the future in our agency and in the business of healthcare marketing.

Let’s start from the jump—tell us a bit about your rise to agency life.

I’m the middle child of seven and we moved a lot when I was growing up. I guess that having so many personalities around while experiencing new places and cultures gave me the raw materials to fuel my creative pursuits from an early age.

I was an average student growing up, but I could draw and paint like nobody’s business. My dad worked in the magazine publishing business, so I did have a general awareness of commercial art, graphic design, and illustration, all of which ultimately helped carve my path in this industry. After attending Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts, I held a variety of typical jobs and some freelance positions, but my dream of being an art director at a premier NYC advertising agency never waned.

What learnings did you get from those pre-professional grinding years? What were some lessons learned as you worked your way up the ranks?

I had a few different odd jobs that built the foundation of my work ethic, like when I was a short-order cook. But I learned an awful lot about people during my time as a bartender, both at college and in NYC. There’s no better public-facing sales and relationship job on earth, and I will always affectionately call those years and that experience my MBA in advertising. It was great preparation for a career in client management.

So, tell us a bit more about your navigation through the advertising world.

For almost three years after school, I bartended and freelanced but wasn’t able to land a full-time gig in NYC. The agency that ended up taking a chance on me in the fall of ’87 was the original agency that would become Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide (OCHWW), Thomas G. Ferguson Associates (TGFA). After a few years there, I was hired by a former OCHWW leader to join the newly formed Consumer Healthworks agency within Harrison and Star. In three years, we built the unit, moved it down to Soho and into another Omnicom agency called Merkley Newman Harty to help them build out their health care offering.

In ’03 I was wooed into starting a new agency within McCann Erickson called HumanCare – a pure play DTC offering within one of the world’s leading agency brands. After founding and then building HumanCare for a decade, I was then asked (or I asked) to run a nascent practice called McCann Global Health, which focused on public health communications efforts in the developing world. From there, I made my way to OCHWW.

But my real foundation in healthcare advertising came from my formative years at TGFA/CommonHealth. I learned from Tom Ferguson the value of relationships both inside and outside of the agency and how you can combine being a good person with doing well in business. From John Zweig, at TGFA/CommonHealth and beyond, I came to understand the true power of persuasion and partnership. In John, I had the opportunity to watch and learn from the best presenter I have ever known. I also discovered a lot about teamwork and the power of the collective at TGFA/CommonHealth.

Our industry is no stranger to disruption and you seem to have successfully navigated your career throughout the ups, downs, and all-arounds. How do you stay ahead of the curve in our business/industry?

I am a bit of a news junkie, so I do stay fairly current on the broader topics that affect our industry and agency – healthcare, politics/policy, science, technology, culture, media and entertainment. I poke into some of the online magazines and news feeds like MM&MFiercePharmaAd AgePharmaVOICE and others.

I also listen to the very bright and plugged-in leaders we have within this organization. They have the best pulse on what is really going on at the client level, as well as in the health communications world in general.

Sounds like you’ve been able to engage and learn with a variety of people in leadership roles throughout your career. What sort of qualities have you taken with you as you’ve moved along the continuum of your career and into your new leadership role?

First and foremost, authenticity. In a world where “reality” is now called into question, it is more critical than ever that leaders present to the world and their charges a sense of realness, honesty, and integrity. I think leaders need to have the ability to show vulnerability while also having a high level of confidence. And empathy is critically important for anyone who is to lead others. While the current expression is “Emotional Intelligence,” I have always been drawn to those whom others would call a “people person” – someone who is both interesting and interested. Most leaders develop over time and those with the right attitude, aptitude, diligence, luck, and personality generally end up in the leadership positions.

Tell us a little bit about the onboarding experience and rejoining the OCHWW family. What was your strategy/mindset as you took on the CEO title?

I started here in early April and knew that I needed some time to get my feet underneath me and see what this place is all about as it has been around 23 years since I was here last. From my first Town Hall, I have been clear with everyone that my intent was to listen and learn on an ongoing basis to best reflect and understand the culture, community, and offering here.

I continue to have individual half-hour one-on-one meetings every week with different employees from all areas of the agency and have done this from week one. I am probably at the 35-45 count at this point and I intend to keep these going with a goal of meeting with everyone in the agency at least once.

I have also started to host small breakfast meetings every other week with eight randomly selected employees, where I ask them to join me for an hour so that I can learn more about them as individuals, and they have the opportunity to hit me with any questions they might have.

What’s to come for the future of the agency and your role as CEO?

The biggest bit of news since I have been in my role as CEO is the news announced last month: OCHWW is being reunited with Ogilvy and is now becoming Ogilvy Health. This will provide all of us with the opportunity to grow as individuals, professionals, and as an agency practice. Now as an actual component of one of the leading ad agency networks on earth, our future ahead is bright, and I could not be more excited! The next six months will be filled with high energy, new connections, complex transition efforts, and a bigger and more robust platform for us all.