Perspectives: Women in Advertising: Heather Torreggiani, CMO, VSA Partners
By Jeff Finkle
In honor of International Women’s Day, AdForum is showcasing the achievements of women in advertising in the month of March through a series of interviews. We would like to thank Heather Torreggiani, CMO at VSA Partners, for taking the time to offer her thoughts and reflect on her career.
AdForum: As a woman in a competitive industry, I'm sure you've faced challenges that have shaped your outlook on how you approach your career. What are some principles that help guide you in the workplace?
Heather: I wholeheartedly believe in surrounding yourself with good people and leveraging great peer mentors. I’ve been extremely lucky to have women at similar professional levels surround me—here at VSA, at previous agencies and as clients. It’s a competitive industry, but there’s real power in sharing knowledge. Having supportive relationships, mutual respect and camaraderie with my female colleagues—and the men I work with, too—is hugely important to me and usually leads to much better outcomes.
I’m also a big proponent of having my team members’ backs, and making sure they have each others’. When things don’t go the way you want, and especially when they do, I want to have that be a shared experience, and for them to know that they’re not in it alone.
AdForum: What do you consider the biggest personal achievement in your career that still fills you with the most pride?
Heather: Even though I’m no longer involved in each new business opportunity, I still love the rollercoaster that is pitching new clients. The entire process is strategic and exhilarating (and often stressful)—from bringing the right people and talent together, to pushing the boundaries of the final presentation, to getting that decision phone call from the client. The best part is figuring out how to make it all work, make sure people can do their best work and that it all comes together to represent the agency well. So, this is a long way to say, when I see the creative work we pitched actually be produced and appear in the real world, it’s extremely gratifying. I know what happened behind the scenes to make it all come to life.
Recently, one of the people I manage led and won a big pitch, with very little of my direction or participation. (It was so great to not be involved!) I realized I’m most proud when my team experiences success. When there is a high stakes situation, it can be tempting to want to manage every single aspect of it, and I find that loosening the reins and giving trusted next-level leaders the chance to drive can be hugely rewarding—for them, for me and for the end result. There’s a great satisfaction in seeing them win a piece of business, secure a big story or manage a process seamlessly. I hope I’ve taught them something and have given them the room to succeed on their own, consequently strengthening the entire group.
AdForum: Can you reflect on a mentor that helped guide you in your career? What made them special?
Heather I’ve been so fortunate and worked for so many great people, so it’s hard to pick just one. Susan Popper was someone who influenced me very early on. She was my manager at one of my first agencies, Merkley & Partners, in New York. She had an incredible influence on how I approach my everyday role. In fact, I think about her often and ask myself, “What would she do?”
Susan taught me that team is everything. This is probably true for many industries, but our team works hard, long hours, often under pressure and dealing with high-stakes situations. Without a strong sense of being part of something bigger, including trust and confidence in one another, we wouldn’t be successful. And, team is more than dinners and drinks. I strive to create an environment where the team feels empowered to push harder, work in new ways and, ultimately, I’ll be there if something goes wrong or fails. (Of course, we do dinner and drinks, too, but you get the idea!)
At the same time, Susan taught me that one of the most important things a leader can do is to set the bar high. There’s no reason I should not expect the best work and thinking from my team. Susan was able to have incredibly high expectations for our team at Merkley & Partners, but she did so in a warm, approachable, supportive way. It’s a tough balance, but I strive to do that for my team. I want it to be both a great environment and a challenging one.
AdForum: Was there a job you had outside of advertising that prepared you most for success later in life?
Heather: This question makes me laugh—I’ve been in the agency world for over 20 years, but I do have some important lessons from my early work experiences. I interned at the business development hotline for the State of Ohio and worked at the Phone-A-Thon for Bucknell University’s Annual Fund. Both jobs taught me a lot about being bold and connecting with new people. I learned how to handle rejection (lots of it!), and that every contributing person is a part of the big picture—every interaction counts toward something bigger, regardless of how small your part may seem. Whenever I cold call a prospect, I’m grateful for those experiences!
As I sit at VSA today, some of these lessons are exactly why I love our company. We embrace every person’s role in a project and believe that the solution will be better because of each contribution. VSA understands that those small details are what can set a great idea apart from a good one.
AdForum: How do you, as a successful woman in your industry, plan to inspire the next generation of women? In a few words, what advice do you have for women entering the advertising industry?
Heather: I don’t know if I ever thought much about being a woman in business or in this industry until recently. A few women who are developing their careers have asked me for advice or made mention of me being a woman in senior leadership. When I saw how others might view me in my role, I realized that being in the C-Suite is not a luxury—it’s a responsibility. I think a lot more about how to make sure I am an advocate for more women to have a chance for leadership roles as a result.
A bit of advice I’d offer women rising in the creative industry would be to recognize the value in being around people who are different from you. Bringing in different perspectives challenges your ideas and beliefs to make them stronger, and to help you grow as a leader. VSA has a mantra that “there is always a better way,” and that way becomes clearer with unexpected people sitting around the table.
And another piece of advice: You have to really love it. Our industry can be inspiring and fun, but it’s also messy and stressful and relentless. If you don’t love it, those endless hours of tweaking a Keynote can get really, really old. I feel really lucky to work in an environment that has so many creative, fascinating, intelligent people and a beer tap across the hall.
AdForum: How do you find the best work-life balance to help you stay productive and creative at work and to help you live a happy, sane life outside of the office?
Heather: I love to read and binge-watch a good Netflix series. Complex stories and interesting characters, both fictional and nonfictional, captivate me. Similar to my comment about different points of view before, perspective and empathy are two of the most valuable things a leader can possess. But it’s also just highly entertaining and a great escape to get through my to-watch list.