Carly Avener

Meet the MD

What it's like to be MD of Leo Burnett: "The role touches everything"

At Leo Burnett Carly Avener has been crafting a role that shapes everything from new business to DE&I

By creative salon

There's no standard job spec for the role of an agency managing director. For some, it's the equivalent of a chief operating officer, often a vital internal facing job focussed on process delivery. For others, it's a market-facing growth-orientated role. Whatever the focus, the MD is a crucial - but often low-profile - player in any leadership team, and the best make it to the very top.

So we're throwing a spotlight on the managing directors driving some of the biggest and most dynamic agencies in the UK, starting with Leo Burnett's Carly Avener.

It’s three years almost to the day since Carly Avener joined Leo Burnett in the role of managing director – a position that had lain vacant for several years. Her appointment marked a reunion with the agency’s chief executive, Charlie Rudd, who first hired her as an account manager at Bartle Bogle Hegarty. It was also part of his turnaround plan for an agency that seemed to have been in danger of losing its way.

Carly started her career at McCann London where, she says, working on award-winning campaigns for American Airlines fired her interest in creativity. After two years Charlie, who was then head of account management at BBH, asked her to run the agency’s Vodafone business – a large account and a heavy responsibility for someone relatively new in the business, but also a big vote of confidence for someone who had already been earmarked for bigger things.

A move into BBH’s nascent new business department followed, while still running some smaller accounts. “This was at a time when BBH was still famous for its policy of not pitching for business,” she says. Because of this she worked with Nigel Bogle, Jim Carroll and eventually Jon Peppiatt on defining and refining the agency's new business strategy. “I found out about commerciality,” – all useful lessons to bring to Leo Burnett. Moreover, she was forced to think and operate in a more B2B way – a manner similar to that of her clients.

This refinement of an agency proposition, as well as immersion in new business, meant that it was probably only a matter of time before she was approached for a managing director position (it seems to have become a useful stepping stone into more senior management positions).

The personable Carly had acquired many of the skills that would make her an ideal managing director – and perhaps, should she desire it, a future CEO.

Having developed a significant network, it was serendipity – in the end – that led her to Leo Burnett. She's stayed in touch with Charlie Rudd, who by then had joined as Leo Burnett's CEO; when Rudd realised he needed a managing director, he knew Carly would be just the person to fill the role. The mutual benefits were clear. “I wanted to be able to do a turnaround,” says Carly – and while Leo Burnett was far from on its uppers, there was a job to be done – in terms of perception at least.

Carly has certainly given the agency some new business spice as well as helped give it some of the sparkle it once lacked. Since her arrival the agency has picked up accounts including Vision Express, Google, TUI and Comic Relief (see below) and more recently found itself in a final shoot-out for Allwyn, the company entrusted to run the National Lottery.

But Carly is keen to stress that she is more than just a new business person with a glorified job title. “The role can vary – it touches everything,” she says. She is responsible for the day-to-day running of the agency, ensuring it delivers outstanding populist creative work for its clients.

Among her other responsibilities is championing the agency’s D&I and mental health initiatives – the latter was something that was essential during Covid but which continues to inform how the agency is run. Carly has reformulated Leo Burnett’s policies and introduced a number of initiatives to ensure that the agency’s talent reflects the audiences it serves, and that the culture is as inclusive as possible. This has included forming an internal group of D&I Allies at Leo’s (DIAL) to agree commitments and track progress against them, and the introduction of a successful apprenticeship programme.

Other initiatives include setting up a ‘buddy system’ that makes it easier for people to seek help, as well as mentoring women, initially through Bloom, to help them avoid falling into the trap of the imposter syndrome.

She says: “It’s been so rewarding to see people flourish. To give people confidence so they can take control of their own destiny.” This is something that has held Carly in good stead since the start of her career too and will likely continued to do so.

We asked for her advice for those who are looking to progress their careers. Watch this short video for her top tips.

Carly Avener's tips for the top:


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