Job Snapshot: Hillary Miller is SVP, Strategy for DDB Seattle, part of a worldwide communications company. She has been with the company for 14 years, starting out as an account Management Supervisor before switching to strategy. She has five direct reports and reports directly to the president.
AMA: What do you love about your job?
Hillary Miller: What I really love about my job is that I get paid to ask, “Why?” It fuels my inherent curiosity in life—I’ve always been nosy. My husband says I’m really good at eavesdropping and I think that’s kind of what my job is: to observe consumer behavior and try to figure out why people act the way they do. Why do they shop at certain stores? What makes them choose one brand over another? Why do they care about one issue and not another? So I love what I get to do every day. Sometimes there’s too much of it in one day, but that would be my only complaint. There really isn’t a bad side to it.
AMA: What about the people you work with?
HM: You know the Jim Collins book Good to Great? He talks about “the people on the bus.” It’s all about getting the right people on the bus; then you figure out where the bus is going to go. It sounds like a cliché, but I just love the people I work with. From the president, my colleagues, and the team that I have, they are fun people to hang out with. It’s just our agency culture. One of my former bosses who has been here a while explains it well. He says that when he’s trying to decide if a potential candidate will fit in with DDB’s culture, he always asks himself, “Would I want to take a drive to Olympia (about a two-hour drive from our office) and back with this person? Or would they drive me nuts during the road trip?”
We definitely hire smart first. But we also have a collegial, collaborative atmosphere that just makes work a lot more fun.
AMA: You report directly to the president of the Seattle office. How does that affect your job?
HM: That’s another reason I love my job. There are maybe two days out of the year, probably when we have our formal review, when I feel like he’s my boss. The rest of the time he treats me like a colleague. I’ve heard from our HR director that the #1 reason people leave a job is because of their direct supervisor. And the reverse is also true—people stay because of their supervisor. I often joke with my boss Chris that he’s part of my retention program. Working with a boss as generous and empowering as he is really makes a difference. I feel like I have lots of running room.
AMA: What about your job gives you the greatest satisfaction?
HM: Another thing I love about my job is that I get to continually reinvent it. I can decide, “I’d like to do more of that.” And Chris says, “Great, go for it.” I’m going to take an AMA seminar, Fundamentals of Finance for Nonfinancial Managers. I understand enough about our company’s P&L but I now work a lot with “C” level clients, dealing with strategy about how they’re going to grow, and I really need to understand what it means when companies talk about going public, leveraging their assets, and so on.
I’ve been at DDB 14 years, which is an anomaly in the advertising business. I think the industry average is two years. When I was first starting out I stayed two years at five different agencies. And then I found DDB. I was able to reinvent myself here a couple of times. I was on the account side first on two completely different accounts. I always enjoyed working with the planner on my accounts, so six years ago I approached our strategy director and said, “If you ever have an opening for a senior planner, would you consider hiring me?” And he said, “Absolutely.” So I wrote my own business plan explaining how I was going to transition off of my account in six months and who they should move within the team to take my job. I also wrote a six-month plan for my new boss explaining all the things I was going to learn so that I would be ready by the time I officially took the job. So another big part of my loyalty to DDB is that it gave me that opportunity.
AMA: What do you do to make work more enjoyable?
HM: One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten was from a mentor, a former boss. He said, “Be selfish.” He meant, listen to your heart. Figure out what you want to do, then ask for it. Say, “Here’s what I really think I can do best. Can I do it?” And if they’ll let you, great. If they won’t, find someplace where they will. He calls it selfishness, but it’s really just being true to yourself.
AMA: Do you feel that you’ve achieved a good work/life balance? If yes, what tips can you share with others who want both to succeed and have a personal life?
HM: As a working mom, that’s a topic near and dear to my heart. Even before parenthood, I’ve always been an advocate of work/life balance. One of my big balance techniques is vacation. I’m the kid who takes all of her vacation days. And I never feel guilty about that. I’m definitely a better employee when I take time to recharge my batteries. I like to go far away and unplug from business.
When my daughter was first born I temporarily switched to a four-day work week in the office, telecommunicating on Fridays. That worked most weeks. DDB really respected that boundary and that’s also a part of my loyalty.
As far as advice goes, I believe you won’t get it if you don’t ask for it. But you always have to come armed with a solution. Explain how it will make you a better employee, how you’ll make the situation work, how you’re willing to compromise, and how you’ll cover emergencies. As a manager, I now see how much easier it is to retain great employees by offering them some flexibility. For me, that flexibility helped me stay on the job through my daughter’s early years.
AMA: What advice do you have for young people just entering the work force?
HM: It seems like today’s young people have more rigid expectations about what their first job will be like. I think that on your first job out of school you have to be really open to the possibilities. I love to hire people who don’t have a cut and dried career path. One of the women on my team who is now a strategist was formerly a chef and caterer; another person was an actor with an MFA in fine arts. Even Chris, my boss, has an economics degree and a fine arts degree in painting. So my advice is, don’t worry too much about how your résumé looks; it’s more about how you present yourself. Show your creative side. Show that you’ve taken a risk. I hate résumés. When I’m hiring, I ask that people send me a cover letter because I think it’s a better representation of who they are.
AMA: To summarize, complete the sentence, “I love my job because…”
HM: I get to do the things I love to do anyway, whether I get paid or not. I get paid for my inherent curiosity.