10 Questions for Jennifer Appleby, One of Charlotte’s Most Admired CEOs

  • Categories:

    Agency News, Inspiration

  • Date:

    November 19, 2021

10 Questions for Jennifer Appleby, One of Charlotte’s Most Admired CEOs

Agency News Inspiration

This month, the Charlotte Business Journal recognized Jennifer Appleby as one of our city’s Most Admired CEOs. But Wray Ward’s fearless leader isn’t just an incredible business leader — she’s also a fierce protector of our culture and our employees. In fact, Jennifer’s incomparable leadership was one of the primary factors that attracted me to the agency in 2019. Not long after, of course, COVID-19 happened, and Jennifer worked relentlessly to keep our staff safe, engaged, informed and inspired in the face of a million unknowns.

I sat down with our Most Admired CEO to talk about the meaning of strong leadership, how Wray Ward adapted in the wake of an unprecedented pandemic, and what’s next for a company that’s not just surviving, but thriving.

1. Congratulations on being named one of Charlotte’s Most Admired CEOs. What does the award mean to you?

    JA: First, it’s really a shared award. I lean on so many of our leaders, and I admire them greatly. It’s always a team effort, though I tend to get a lot of the credit.

    But it’s a tremendous honor, of course. Especially this year, because challenging times test even the strongest leaders. Keeping our teams safe, informed and connected through the pandemic. Moving into our new, 40,000-square-foot headquarters. Shifting quickly from uncertainty with our clients to an unprecedented wave of opportunity with new business and growth. Making sure we had the talent and resources in place to keep up with the work.

    2. What aspects of your leadership style do you think allowed you to best navigate the challenges of the pandemic?

      JA: I think my leadership style aligns with my personality and personal beliefs — casual, creative, empathetic. I work hard to be authentic, direct and fair. I also hold everyone accountable for delivering on our promise of exceptional and inspirational work. I love to be in the trenches, rolling up my sleeves and using my creativity to help solve both our agency and client challenges. My most important jobs are to clearly communicate our agency’s goals and vision, fiercely protect our special culture, hire great people and allow them to shine.

      When COVID-19 forced us to work remotely, we reprioritized the agency’s 2020 goals and put people first for safety, but also for connectivity. Our goal? To make sure our innately creative and naturally collaborative folks stayed connected and inspired while working apart.

      3. How did the pandemic affect Wray Ward from a business perspective?

        JA: Taking care of our people ultimately took care of the business, building productivity and profitability. Right away, we pulled together new technologies and innovative tools that helped our team activate virtually and in-person in our new office space.

        During one of the most challenging and turbulent times our country and our community faced in recent history, Wray Ward grew: We added client accounts and employees, all while putting our staff first.

        A lot of that success has to do with our remarkable people. But about 10 years ago, we also made a wise decision to focus on the home and building category and have invested heavily in building our talent and experience in that space. So, we were in the right place at the right time when business started heating up. Ultimately, we hired 38 new employees and grew our business by 25% in 2021.

        That’s pretty incredible when you consider the state of the world in March 2020. It was a scary time. But our focus, determination, resilience, great work and exceptional people have made all of the difference.

        4. We also opened a brand-new office at the height of the pandemic. Why do you believe that was so important for the agency and the community?

          JA: We had a vision to create an inspirational, open, creative and collaborative hub — a space to inspire creativity among our staff, a draw for new business and recruitment, and a gathering place for community events. Thankfully, the pandemic didn’t derail any of the major design plans, although we were able to incorporate more hybrid activity into the design with technology.

          Today, employees have more room than ever to spread out, come together and, most important, continue to grow. For the first time in Wray Ward’s 44-year history, our office and studio are housed under one roof. The 3,000-square-foot studio is incredibly functional, and we’ve made it available for community events as well as a rental space to other photographers and producers in the area.

          5. Pandemic or not, why are strong leaders so critical, in this business and beyond?

            JA: I believe our people want to understand our vision, need to be inspired and, now more than ever, need constant and clear communication. They want to understand what’s driving the company they work for, and they should be recognized for their contributions. What’s important to leadership? Leaders — good or bad — set the tone. No matter what’s happening in the world, strong leadership ensures staff feel supported and nurtured, engaged and connected.

            Strong leaders also promote and support initiatives that enrich the company’s work and industry and its employees’ lives. For example, diversity and inclusion are hugely important to Wray Ward and to me. As a result, we’ve increased diversity among our workforce and FORM internship program, hired more minority vendor partners and provided diversity and inclusion training for staff. In addition, we’ve built a robust library of resources and hosted community events.

            I also believe leaders are responsible for bringing the company’s culture to life. They can’t just align with it; they have to embody it. Everyone’s talking about empathy right now, but it’s always been ingrained in the culture at Wray Ward. That’s one reason our retention rate is so strong: Our employees average 6.5 years versus the industry average of 2.4 years.

            6. What do you believe makes Wray Ward’s culture so special?

              JA: I believe our culture is authentic and can be felt in many ways. It brings our core values to life. It’s how we take care of our people. It’s embodied not by what we say, but what we do. And, we’ve worked hard to create and fiercely protect our special culture based on creativity, collaboration, trust, kindness and joy.

              The ping-pong table didn’t get us through COVID-19. We didn’t have parties in 2020. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve lived our culture by sharing our brightest and most emotional stories. Being kind to one another. Staying connected, even when we were physically apart. For example, our “Front Porches” portrait series capturing how our employees spent their time at home (now hanging as a wall installation in our new office), and a series of deeply personal perspectives shared by different team members during our weekly Town Halls: A resource manager sang a song she wrote. A copywriter shared watercolors she painted. A content writer read a poem she penned.

              We also challenged our Chief Joy Officer, a long-time role that creates platforms for joy and camaraderie, to reimagine how we help our employees find joy inside and outside of the office. The result? Virtual happy hours, an online Halloween party, socially distanced yoga at our open-air studio space, and more.

              Culture is a hard thing to measure, but I know for certain that it has helped guide and sustain Wray Ward through challenging times. It’s a competitive advantage, and I love seeing how it inspires our teams and creates a sense of pride and ownership.

              7. What qualities do you look for in potential new team members?

                JA: First of all, I think they have to be passionate about this business. They have to be willing to bring creativity to everything they do. Check their ego at the door. Be team players. Collaboration is hugely important to our work and client relationships, some of which we’ve had for 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years.

                We have unbelievably talented folks, but when we look at potential hires, we’re also asking, do they have the talent and lack the ego? Because that combination builds trust and respect and the ability to think boldly. Yes, candidates need certain expertise and knowledge, but they also need energy and respect and kindness.

                8. As you said, Wray Ward has had incredible growth. What do you hope new employees experience in their first few weeks?

                  JA: I hope they feel welcomed. I hope others are kind and generous with their time. I hope they see joy in what we do and feel our culture of celebrating victories. I hope they share in that success, even if the work predated them. I hope they see how they can help make things even better. I hope they walk past my open door and know it’s truly open.

                  9. You came to Wray Ward as an art director. If you could go back in time and speak to that version of Jennifer Appleby on her first day, what advice would you give her?

                    JA: Learn all you can from the amazing talent around you. Go to night school to get your MBA. Travel more — see the world. Don’t cut your maternity leave short because you think they can’t function without you. Seek out excellent mentors — and return the favor by being a good mentor to others. Also, invest in Apple.

                    10. What’s next for our agency? How do you continue to inspire, now and in the future?

                      JA: I’m constantly thinking about what’s next.

                      How do we grow and expand our footprint in the home and building category while keeping a diverse portfolio? Respond to new technologies and a rapidly changing media landscape? Evolve the solutions we offer and the talent that delivers them? Expand our commitment to diversity? Find new opportunities to do great work while making a difference and giving back to our community?

                      Most importantly: How can we do all of that while fiercely protecting what got us here?

                      Want to be part of the special place that is Wray Ward? Explore our open positions.

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