3 Advertising Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

Lizzie Widhelm, SVP, Ad Innovation

By: Lizzie Widhelm, Senior Vice President of Ad Product Sales & Strategy

Don’t you wish you could read a book and learn everything you need to know?

I do, but the universe doesn't always agree. Sometimes it’s necessary to learn things the old fashioned way: make a mistake.

I’ve spent the better part of my professional career in advertising, focused on driving connections between brands and consumers with good stories. I started at Pandora as its first salesperson, selling something called “digital audio,” which no one had heard of at the time.

Since then, I’ve played a hands-on role in Pandora’s growth from a startup to a $1 billion company. You can’t witness that kind of growth without learning a few lessons along the way. While there may never be a “book” to teach us about life, I can offer a few guideposts I wished I’d learned earlier in my career.

Be Soul-Centered

You wonder what I mean by “soul-centered”? Well, for starters, it’s the opposite of self-centered. It’s about thinking of what makes your partner and their business unique. I spent the early part of my career with a single focus: to be the #1 seller at all costs. So I tirelessly met with clients, rattled off a sales pitch, drove revenue...wash, rinse, repeat. But what I didn’t know then was that I wasn’t fully recognizing the “soul” of who I was working with.

In 2006, I joined Pandora and met our Founder and now CEO, Tim Westergren. The company was still in its very early stages, which meant that in addition to running the company, Tim was also selling ads. For the first time in my life, I got to see a true salesperson in action. We traveled city-to-city together, meeting with prospects and clients. I was continuously impressed by the time and focus he put into understanding each person’s business, life, challenges and the problems that kept them up at night. It allowed him to form deep, authentic relationships with our clients. I now realized how much more effective I could be by combining my knowledge of products and business, with an understanding of the soul of the people and companies I was talking to.

The Power of Team (aka I can’t do it all)

It’s no secret among my peers and colleagues that I’m an outspoken, Type A, tough-on-crime, work-harder-than-everyone kind of person. There’s nothing wrong with that per se--you can get lots done and feel in control of your time and performance. But it’s also small thinking. To build an amazing company, you have to enable and guide others to join up.

As my own career and family grew, I felt like I was taking on more work in all areas of life but not getting any more hours in the day. There was no way I could keep going without the help of an amazing team, both at work and at home. So I hired a talented team and gave them the leeway and trust to get their jobs done. At home, I’m proud of the fact that I’ve outsourced everything that doesn’t need “mom” to do it. Identifying people you trust and are capable of getting the job done means tasks can be handed off. The time I free up by involving others grants me the space to think and solve the toughest challenges I face.

Raise Your Hand (but lend your other to the girl behind you)

It wasn’t until I got my first job leading a large team that I felt the gender gap. I came up in sales, so there was always just as many women as men in most of my meetings. But as I moved into the executive ranks, I often found myself sitting at a table with less than 10% women. I struggled to understand where and when to use my voice. I knew the men around me had role models and mentors they looked up to, who were examples of doing it “right,” but I rarely remember finding the same in a woman.

Eventually, I had to make a proactive decision to stop worrying and start raising my hand. After a little while, I started speaking up, then speaking louder, and then taking ownership over major company projects. I felt alone most of the time, but I kept pushing towards whatever goal I set for myself. I also decided that I could be the mentor for other women that I didn’t find, so I worked hard to bring more women into my projects. Over the years, my confidence grew, my compensation grew and the number of women around me grew too. Today I lead a team that is 90% women and 10% men. I am proud that I have helped foster an environment where the norm is women who speak up, lead projects and execute.

Lizzie Widhelm was inducted into the AAF Advertising Hall of Achievement on November 15, 2016 to recognize her outstanding contributions to the industry. The Advertising Hall of Achievement has long been the gold standard in recognizing leading advertising professionals age 40 and younger and is operated by the American Advertising Federation (AAF), the same organization that operates the Advertising Hall of Fame. We tip our hats to Lizzie for making a significant impact on advertising with her focus, tenacity and unparallelled passion.