This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
This month’s “The Graduate ” features Nadja Bellan-White, who is the Global Chief Marketing Officer of Vice Media. Since receiving her MBA from Stern, she has had an eminent 25+ year career in brand transformations at Digitas, Publicis Modem, and Ogilvy, where she became CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Africa and consequently Executive Partner/Chief Client Officer of Ogilvy in London. Her career, beginning in New York, has taken her across the world to help brands through pivotal transformations. Notable brand transformations Nadja has worked on include for clients such as American Express, LG Electronics, IKEA North America, RBS Citizens, Bharti Airtel, Coca-Cola, Siemens, and Safaricom/Vodaphone. Her tenure as CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Africa included driving business growth in Kenya, Gabon, and Ghana by partnering with important government leaders. In short: she is one global Stern graduate. In our interview, we discuss the significance of being culturally humble in the business world, why youth are the focal point of change, and mourn over the show Insecure ending.
Thank you for meeting with me, Nadja! Could you tell us about your current role in global CMO advice and how your MBA set you on this career path?
Well it’s interesting, as the global CMO of a media conglomerate, my responsibility is first and foremost helping to steward the Vice brand, ensuring that we continue to stay at the center of culture. Or, as I like to say, always pushing culture forward. One of the things that I like to say is: “Culture is our North Star and truth is our currency.” We have a 90% trust rating. That’s really important particularly today when you really see that the world is at an inflection point around what’s going to happen next. If you think about how activism has become the center of what many young people, such as yourself, use to guide your decisions, then [you can] understand what it’s like to be CMO of this great organization.
At Stern, my MBA enabled me to open up my mind to endless possibilities. The world of NYU is really a global world. I have lived and worked in Kenya, in London, Indonesia to South Korea to São Paulo, Dubai, I have been everywhere! So I have always been globally minded and I’ve always put the center of letting the culture drive the business decisions I make. My MBA first enabled me to do that. That kind of gives you a bit of perspective as to who I am.
That’s incredible. I especially find your point about youth interesting, since I entered as one of the younger students in my part time MBA program and find myself on the cusp of Gen Z and millennials. So what actually prompted you into working for a media company that’s focused on the youth, or do you think there was something throughout your lifetime and career that sparked your interest in that?
I thought I was going to have a career on Wall Street at the time I came out [of Stern] in 1994. Instead I did consulting and from consulting it really allowed me to go into a variety of areas. I encourage consulting as a path because it allows you to decide what part of business you want to work on. From there, I got tapped to go to IBM to work in marketing strategy, and much of those experiences were due in large part to a wonderful class I had around organizational behavior. Not to date myself, but one of the projects I was working on by IBM at the time is how they can figure out how to sell directly to consumers using something called the Internet.
The Internet! Who would’ve thought.
(Laughs) And if you can believe it, I would go to these meetings and the guys would say to me: “Sweetheart, I’ve got shoes older than you. People are never going to be using this platform like that, you need our channel partners.” And I would say, being an inquisitive person that went to NYU, “You’re wrong.” And here’s the thing about what NYU prepares you for, sometimes in circumstances like that you gotta know when to fold them and walk away. That was me saying I don’t want to work here anymore, and enabled me to step into the wonderful world of digital marketing.
That led me to an organization called Strategic Interactive Group which many people know as Digitas. But what did I work on? Something called marketing using digital. [I was building these platforms] in… 1996, ‘97, ‘98, ‘99. I was at the beginning of that transformation that then prompted a whole career in transformation that continued and continued, always at the cusp of what the current generation is really tapping into. Back then, it was MySpace, it was AOL. It was instant messenger.
If you’ve been able to follow that arc through me working at Publicis and Ogilvy all over the world where you’re always about how those insights translate into action and enable the brand to move forward, then it should be no surprise that I ended up here at Vice, where we’re in the middle of a huge renaissance. In the case of Gen Z, I think what we are witnessing is your generation and even younger than you leading us forward in saying: “I don’t want to work by traditional means. No, I’m not going to judge people based on the color of their skin. No, I’m not going to judge people on their character, or how they want to be identified, no, no, no. Instead, I want to lead based on values. I want to lead based on character. I want to lead a far more global culture.” I think that is what attracted me to Vice in the first place, being able to steward this brand or, quite frankly, represent people whose interests are really in terms of the future leadership of the world.
It’s amazing to hear you talk about the onset of the digital transformation in the late ‘90s, because I was literally born in 1996.
(Laughs) Okay, you were born after I got my MBA so just understand when I worked in consulting, women weren’t allowed to wear open toed shoes in the office.
I can only imagine…
You had to wear your hair pulled back so it looked a certain way, and you couldn’t have multiple earrings. Tattoos were a no-no. Yeah, it was hella difficult [being young] and also as a person of color, there were a lot of times I had to bite my tongue.
I think it’s interesting because nowadays I feel like I’m one of the last people my age to really actively use TikTok. I think it’s one of the coolest sources of information, but it’s so cool the way these people younger than me to just a little older than me are creating so much content and building entire businesses out of that content.
Now I think you’ve got to be worried about technological obsolescence. What worries me about TikTok and these other platforms is when does it become too much? I think we’re hitting a point where it’s almost too much when it impacts how people are developing as humans. The social interaction that you’re seeing with younger people and teenagers is staggering. They don’t have direct conversations.
And they’re stuck inside, too.
So my challenge to you all [the youth] is how do you help us overcome that? Nothing can replace good old fashioned human interaction right?
We’ll do our best! Next question… given the increasing significance of transparency and accountability in corporations and media, especially in the last couple of years, how would you recommend that corporations and media outlets approach genuinely embracing diversity and improving racial equity in the workplace?
First of all, they actually have to mean it.
Yeah, that’s usually the problem.
Many leaders are well intentioned. But they really need to back up what they say. You have to hold people accountable; their KPIs have to actually support these lofty goals they have in front of them. If you’re going to have a diverse board, have a diverse board. If you’re going to reflect a more diverse workforce, have a reflection on who you have tenured at universities. Have it be reflected in your leadership, just don’t embrace the same old because you’re going to create alienation on both sides. It has to be from a place of genuine desire to effect change, or else quite frankly it’s all bullsh*t.
That sounds a lot simpler than it is, or has been shown to be. Maybe that’s cynical, but…
No, I was just thinking I’ve seen this so many times: the pendulum swings up, everyone wants diversity, the pendulum swings down, and they don’t want it, then they want it up again… At the end of the day, I think, sadly, people are more afraid of [change] than they realize.
Yeah, and I sense, from a consumer standpoint, they’re just lazy and the status quo is hard to change.
It’s hard talking to people who are different. You can tell some people aren’t really comfortable about it and I’m like okay, you can’t work with everyone that looks the same as you. So there you go.
Practice makes perfect. Regarding your time as CEO of Ogilvy in Africa and Executive Partner in the UK, what was your experience and how were their needs for brand transformation different than in the United States’ or in any other country you’ve worked?
People need to understand how many countries there are in Africa. I happened to be able to oversee about 26 of them. They all have their own individual cultural nuances; there wasn’t one you can unilaterally paint that’d be applicable across the continent. I would say my time in the UK, which is part of EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa) is the same thing – you can’t make assumptions that the challenges that exist in London are going to be exactly what you might expect in Nairobi and exactly what you might expect in Berlin. There are similarities, but they’re not different.
So you have to pay attention to the nuances that impact that transformation. What I’ve learned about Americans is that we tend to be just a bit arrogant. The best advice I can give you is that the center of the world is not the United States. Everything doesn’t emanate from here. You can learn from developing or emerging countries as much as they can learn from us, and so one of the things you need in relocating and living abroad is to check your ego at the door. And I think that is something that many Americans have to learn, and I think we’re still trying to get that right.
Yeah, that should be a class taught in business school. Or elementary school, rather.
We don’t listen much. I had to really retrain myself in active listening and honestly I think in this country that’s not quite how people are trained. You’re trained to be the best, to be at the forefront, and you don’t take the time to really listen to what the nuances are in between. A common anecdote in foreign companies is when an American comes in, they want to hit you over the head saying this is what it’s going to be. Whereas I will say culturally what I saw in Europe, and certainly what I saw in Africa, is latency: let’s observe. Let’s see how this is going to unfold, and so just because you’re not first to speak or first to the table doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have a point of view, it means you’re being quite deliberate. Learning to have the art and science of listening and paying attention to the nuances has strengthened me as a leader.
Extroverts who have aggressive personalities and communication styles are rewarded here [in America].
That’s right and I’m a natural extrovert and that was not rewarded, by the way. I had to learn how to just listen and I can admit that was something that I had to learn how to do and it’s something that, as an American leader, is not quite what American culture has taught us.
That’s a very good point. What is your favorite and least favorite thing about your job?
The favorite thing about my job is the people I work with, they’re truly inspiring people. I love the fact that I wake up every day not knowing how it’s going to go. At the same time, my job is hard. Vice has been part of such a huge transformation. And it is a special place where it’s probably one of the rare examples where you’re promoted based on your abilities. You truly can express your point of view and mind, and I’ve been at other places where that was not the case. You didn’t have that degree of freedom. Vice affords you that creativity, and it really runs through what we do.
Very cool, especially not knowing what every day is like is probably extremely stimulating. What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Be patient. Things have a way of working themselves out.
Were you given this advice in business school or when you were in the throes of your early career?
Shelly Lazarus gave me really good advice once, she said, “Sweetie, if you’re going to be in the business that we have, don’t get too excited about the highs or too upset about the lows, you manage the in-between.”
That’s good, I’m going to take that myself.
Some fast fire questions: what’s your favorite way to absorb content?
I love audiobooks now, and podcasts.
What is your favorite TV show or podcast?
My favorite TV show today is Insecure, and I’m so mad that it’s over.
I’m obsessed with Insecure! What did you think of the ending?! [not so much of a spoiler alert]
I’m a romantic at heart, so…I don’t know. It was good. I just need to find a new favorite show.
What is your favorite or go-to karaoke song?
Bob Marley, Don’t Worry About a Thing.
What is still on your bucket list?
Well, at least I intend to do this, I think I’m going to be one of those people who actually lives all over the world. I would love to have a place in New York, maybe someplace warmer. Like in Europe somewhere like Greece. And then maybe London. I think I’m just a bit of a nomad.
You’re already doing it, though, having worked all over.
Yeah, I’m doing it.
What are three words that your peers or friends would describe you as?
Empathetic, smart, and passionate.
Lastly, what advice would you give MBA students looking to start a career in marketing?
It depends on the kind of person you are. Agency experience will always be the best, or the classic brand tracks. What I liked about agencies is that you get to work on so many types of brands and be creative as well. Depending on who you are as a person, if you’re more creatively driven, you might enjoy the agency side. If you’re more traditional marketing driven, you might go into P&G’s program.
Thank you for talking to the Oppy, Nadja. It was a pleasure.