Women in Business: Q&A with Lisa Cochrane, SVP Marketing at Allstate Insurance

As SVP of Marketing at Allstate Corporation, the largest publicly-held insurer in the United States, Lisa Cochrane leads marketing and consumer communications for all business units of Allstate, including brand standards and guidelines, planning, advertising, direct marketing and interactive communications, media, promotions, sponsorships, consumer public relations, collateral and creative services.

Over the past 35 years, Lisa has held senior positions with advertising agencies (Ogilvy & Mather) and marketing service companies (IMS/Omnicom, formerly Schwarz Worldwide), leading branding, marketing communications and advertising for a variety of global companies. Lisa also spent one year in academia at Northwestern University, where she directed university-wide corporate relations.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
As the oldest of four kids, I was naturally the leader - I learned at an early age that it felt better to me to lead than follow - I've always known where I wanted to go and felt comfortable taking charge to get there.

I was lucky because I knew early on that I wanted to work in advertising. My dad always said I came by it honestly. He and my grandpa were both successful salesmen. From a very young age I started to hone my skills - I sold comic books to my brothers when I was five, distributed my own neighborhood newspaper when I was 7, wrote book reports as ads when I was 10 and was the editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper. I went to the University of Missouri Journalism School and chose the Advertising Major. I was hired at an advertising agency. Then another. I married a creative director. So many experiences in my life led me to a career in advertising. I'm grateful for all of them.

And I still love what I do as much as I did when I was five.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Allstate?
Everything I've done - well beyond employment - has made me the person I am today. And probably more important than the jobs were the people I've had the good fortune to work with. In high school, I authored a weekly column in the city paper - there's nothing better than the discipline of having to write a crisp and interesting feature every single week. In college, I worked at a keyline studio at night (yes, I love typography and print layouts) and as an animal warden in Cook County, IL over the summers - talk about responsibility and respect for all forms of life! My first real job out of college, in the "Ad Training Program" at Marshall Field's Department Store, taught me two valuable lessons - the humility of working retail and that bad jobs are often the best jobs...because they're the ones that motivate you to go and get the job you really want.

I spent 13 years at ad agency Ogilvy & Mather - that's the work experience that shaped me more than any other. I learned how important culture is to corporate success. David Ogilvy's promise of "first class business in a first class way" applied to everything we did then - and everything I do today. That you'd better know your client's business better than they do - and that "making the cash register ring" is the ultimate purpose. I learned the difference between good writing and great writing directly from the best in the business - Joel Raphaelson and David Ogilvy himself.
Working at ad agencies exposes you to all kinds of businesses - and you soon learn the difference between companies with a purpose and those that are aimless. I was attracted to Allstate 15 years ago because of its purpose: to put people in good hands, so they can live a good life. Simple, powerful and true. With a people-driven purpose, there's a people-driven culture: people who do the right thing, who put people ahead of policies, who care.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at the Allstate?
Mayhem. And mayhem. What many don't remember is that we first launched Allstate's Mayhem campaign with some ominous teaser commercials. The commercials scared people, especially people who were comfortable with the warm reassurance of our presidential spokesman, Dennis Haysbert.

More importantly, the teasers scared Allstate agents and management. Within a few hours, the email at Allstate was exploding. I remember that phone call like it was yesterday: "Are you sure you know what you're doing?" There was pressure to kill Mayhem. But I knew in my gut that Mayhem was the right idea at the right time. I could feel it. I didn't need market testing or focus groups. I just asked myself "would I want to watch these ads?" Long story short, we made it through, weathered the storm, and a year later the Mayhem campaign won five Cannes Lions.
How's that for a challenge and a highlight?!

You've recently been awarded the honor of Woman of the Year (by the Advertising Women of New York). How will you build upon this success both professionally and personally?
I'm still so surprised, and humbled, by this recognition. The best way I can build on this success is to pay it forward to future generations of marketing and advertising leaders. I'm so proud of the women and men who work for me, and I learn so much from them every day.

Any success or recognition I've received will all be worth it if one day in the future I get an email or a phone call from someone who worked for me asking me to attend his or her award celebration. I hope in some way, large or small, I was part of his or her success.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in advertising?
My advice to women in advertising - and women in any field, frankly - is to do what you love with people you love to be with. And trust your gut. It's usually right.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
What? Are you kidding? Who really has this?!?!? I like to think about it as work/life integration, which my friend Carolyn Everson talks about. There's really no perfect balance. You have a job and you have a family, and it's a very personal decision how to spend time between the two. For me and my team, we employ a philosophy that it doesn't matter where or when you do your work, as long as you get it done. And, if you ever have to choose, family comes first.

That said, if you love what you do, then it's not really work, is it? 

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Fear. I am surrounded by so many brilliant women. Women who inspire me every day. But one thing I notice among many of them is fear - fear to be wrong, fear to overstep bounds, fear to speak up, fear to sound bossy, pushy or mean - the list goes on.

Sheryl Sandberg writes quite a bit about fear in "Lean In." She asks "what would you do if you weren't afraid?" My personal interpretation: what can you do in spite of the fact you're afraid? We are human. We all feel fear. But let's learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I am only where I am today because of a series of incredible sponsors and mentors, starting with my father. Throughout my career I've been fortunate to work with some advertising greats, David Ogilvy, for example, and Joel Raphaelson. They both taught me so many things that I still use in my work today, every day. David Ogilvy taught me one of my favorites - "If you hire people who are smaller than you are, you will become a company of dwarfs. But if you hire people who are bigger than you are, you will become a company of giants." I have a team of 100 fantastic people, plus numerous agency partners and countless colleagues, friends and advisors. I like to think that among this group I am the least talented.

And from Joel Raphaelson I learned how to write. How to write well. And that more doesn't mean better when it comes to writing. Seems an appropriate place to end!

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Martha Stewart and Lena Dunham. They're both bold, true to their own "brand" and go forth fearlessly.

What do you want Allstate to accomplish in the next year?
More good.