McCann Worldgroup’s Harris Diamond: ‘You have to really love advertising to be able to put up with its demands’

With a solid eight years in business and politics before PR and advertising, Harris Diamond understands the business like none other. The chairman and chief executive officer of McCann Worldgroup has taken the network to new heights since coming on board in late 2012, working for global brands such as Coca-Cola, L’Oréal, General Mills, General Motors, MasterCard, Microsoft and Nestlé. Here, he tells us, in his own words, how he got into the business and shares some of the biggest lessons he has learned along the way.

I grew up in Brooklyn and I had absolutely no idea that I would end up in advertising. I went to college at a small school in New Jersey called Drew University and studied political science. For a kid from Brooklyn, it was a different world. I grew up in the city, so going to a university with people from different walks of life was a great experience. It was an interesting time too with a lot of changes taking place, post-Vietnam.

At the end of college, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. So I took the first job that I was offered, which was at Prudential Insurance. I worked in the comptroller’s department, which was ironic, because the one subject that one would never associate with me during those days was math. I had a variety of different positions there that ended up with me being the assistant to the vice chairman of the company.

I learned a lot because at the end of the day I had the chance to see how decision-making happened at the highest levels. I’ll never forget, I prepared a memo once when I was responsible for running a conference. I sent it out to I think 15 vice presidents at the company, and I spelled 14 out of 15 names wrong. The supervising senior vice president called me in and said “Are you stupid, or are you sloppy?” And I quickly realized that either answer was not necessarily something that was going to stand me in good stead.

I then decided to go to law school, and that was when I became involved with a local politics. I ended up running a campaign for Liz Holtzman, who became the district attorney for Brooklyn. Campaigns taught me that there is no such thing as a Wednesday. At the end of the day, there is an election, there is a vote, somebody wins and somebody loses. And good ideas, no matter how good they are, if they are not working, they do not matter. And you must be willing to walk away from those things. It is probably one of the most important and formative lessons for me, and something that has also helped me in my advertising career. Next thing I knew, I was working in corporate public relations.

The biggest joy in this business have always been the people. The chairman at Bozell, Chuck Peebler, probably taught me more about the business than anyone else. He taught me how to trust people, believe in them and give them chances. Rob Reilly has a great line “Hire great people, and get out of their way.” I share that belief, that if you surround yourself by great people, it makes you better.

Having to work the post-2000 meltdown, the terrible collapse after 9/11, those were hard times that called for some tough decisions. I had to make sure that the firms survived in tough times, which required us to close down offices, and let go off some people who were good, but whom we just couldn’t support, in terms of revenue.

We’re in a service industry, where we’re prey to the changes in the economy as well as the issues facing our clients. So the number one quality you need to have to succeed is resilience. People in this business need to have the ability to take a blow, and continue to go. You also have to love what you do, because it’s a hard business, because there are going to be a lot of Friday nights when you have to call your significant other and explain to them why you won’t be seeing them. This is a business that makes a lot of demands on people. You have to really love it to be able to put up with those demands. I’ve been fortunate and lucky that I’ve found a career and I’ve found a life that I enjoy.

Harris Diamond will be speaking about the challenges of reinvigorating a large agency at the Digiday Agency Summit on March 1 in Nashville, Tennessee.

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