Our Culture Isn’t Just a Nice Story: Isabella Rodrigues, Critical Mass

by Elena Runets
Critical Mass
Calgary, Canada
See Profile
Isabella Rodrigues
Business Development Director Critical Mass

How would you describe the overall culture at your agency?

I’ve been at CM for nearly 8 years, and I am so proud of the growth and change I’ve seen during that time. But I’m also proud of how we’ve managed to balance change with consistency as we grow our global footprint. As someone whose role is to “sell” the agency and bring in new clients, I know the official narrative around our culture very well. (After all, who we are is as important as what we do.) And we have a great story. Founded in Canada in 1996, rather than Madison Avenue, we’ve held fast to our all-digital underdog roots and humbleness. We work hard, treat people well, and live our values—“honest, inspired, driven, purposeful, real, and equal.” And we have a lot of fun along the way.

But, more importantly, I get to actively participate in our special culture firsthand.  

As the Women’s Affinity Lead on CM’s Diversity & Inclusion Board, I have a very special opportunity to be a guide and a leader—someone who makes sure our community is a genuinely inclusive place for women. It’s also one way that I’m able to live the values we share at CM. Just this week, to mark Women’s History Month, we ran a company-wide Lunch & Learn session with BUILT BY GIRLS, a program I’m actively and passionately involved with outside of work. If you ask me, the collaborative and participatory nature of our culture is what sets CM apart. It ensures our culture isn’t just a nice story, but a real part of everything we do—our pitches, our work, and our Diversity & Inclusion efforts. And I appreciate being part of an agency that follows through by giving us space, support, and platforms to turn shared values into real actions. 


In your opinion, what do you see as the biggest change in the advertising industry since women have begun to break the glass ceiling?

I think leadership is changing for the better. I’m a firm believer that diversity in leadership helps teams and individuals reach more of their potential. As women enter leadership positions, they bring different perspectives, stories, and experiences to the table (which can positively impact the work we create, as well as the way we work in teams). This rebalancing can give creative teams a clearer perspective on the audiences and customers they’re trying to reach and form a lasting bond with. That’s smart, and it’s just good business.  

Both in her words and her actions, the Chairperson (previously CEO) of our agency, Di Wilkins, has done more than she will probably ever know to teach me about the power and necessity of female leadership. As CEO, Di was fearless and unflinching in her creativity, her leadership, and her ambitions for Critical Mass. But she also had an empathetic leadership style. That balance of business acumen and empathy (rather than just one or the other) is something I’ve come to see as characteristic of female leadership. I think it was missing from the world for far too long, and as women continue to take on leadership roles, we’ll see more of it—and its benefits. 

The road to equality is still going to be a long, steady march, but so much has changed for the better. Ads have changed. Teams have changed. C-Suites have changed. Opportunities are opening up, including at CM. We have our first female Chief Creative Officer, Valerie Carlson. Our first female president, Andrea Lennon. And our first female Chief Talent Officer, Sara Anhorn. In fact, 56% of our leadership team is female. CM is ahead of the curve in a lot of ways, but we’re not an anomaly. The 3% Conference got its name because only 3% of creative directors were female. Today, that number is closer to 11%. We’ve got a long way to go, but the progress is undeniable. 


Do you think that women still face challenges in our industry, and if so, what are they?

Equality of pay and opportunity are constantly being discussed and examined across the industry. Women are also disproportionately impacted by rigid work schedules (inflexible working arrangements, for example). According to a McKinsey & Co. Women in the Workplace 2020 Study (among other recent studies), over two million women were considering leaving the workforce due to COVID-19, and many did exactly that. A more recent study suggested that an “inclusive recovery” is unlikely to happen; female employment is projected to take up to two years longer for women than men. Clearly, we have a responsibility to make the return-to-work journey easier and less obstructed for women, especially in light of the tough decisions they have been forced to make (and more so for women of color). We need to create more flexible working environments and programs for women who are trying to hold all the pieces of their lives—and often the lives of children and extended families—together. 


How should we tackle an issue such as equal opportunity?

Companies should set diversity targets for each stage in the career ladder/promotion funnel. We must identify the key points where women are falling behind and ask ourselves difficult questions about why women in our organization are less likely to progress at each stage. We also need to advocate for flexible working initiatives that help women, remote working options, shortened work schedules, and parental leave. One initiative that works well is unconscious bias training for hiring managers and anyone involved in performance management. It’s critical that agencies evaluate new candidates with a fresh lens, unswayed by personal preferences or like-minded comforts. 


How did you find your way into the marketing communications industry and what professional achievement are you most proud of?

I was fortunate to get great co-op experiences with public relations teams at TJX Companies and FleishmanHillard, as well as social media experience at Constant Contact. These experiences set me a path that led to an opportunity with the Critical Mass Business Development and Marketing team. Having a career path where I can contribute to the growth of agency as respected as Critical Mass has been a huge challenge and massive thrill. To name a few names, I was very directly involved in bringing home Norwegian Cruise Lines (guest booking experience), Blizzard Entertainment (e-commerce experience), AT&T (digital marketing), and, of course, some other very incredible brands that, unfortunately, I can’t name (dream clients)! Overall, I get to work with world-renowned brands in many different industries, forming new relationships and making it possible for new ideas and experiences to come into the world—things that improve people's lives and help businesses (and livelihoods) grow. That’s pretty awesome.


Who inspires you the most, either inside the industry or outside? Why?

I mentioned Di Wilkins earlier, and always will when asked this question, but I am also inspired by my dear friend Ana Hurtado, VP of Digital at GCI Health. Ana and I met over a decade ago at Northeastern University where we studied marketing together. After taking time out of college to fight a personal battle with cancer, Ana built a career focusing her PR/Digital skills on elevating healthcare and pharma marketing efforts. I am constantly inspired by Ana’s perseverance, her resilience, and her strength. Ana serves as my constant reminder that women are so incredibly powerful. We can achieve anything if we put our minds to it.