Tonise Paul, President & CEO, Energy BBDO

"Chicago-ness is embedded in me. There are courses that teach you 'authentic leadership,' but in the Midwest, it comes more naturally. Around here, it is part of the culture to be genuine. The work ethic in Chicago is that you don’t think twice about going the extra mile."

September 2017

Who was the most influential person in your life while you were growing up?

My mom, for sure. She was a truly fantastic mother, who held no leadership positions outside of our home, but from whom I learned all of my best leadership lessons.

She was an amazing problem solver and she taught me that when things got tough, it wasn’t the time to run and hide, but to stand up and say, “We’ve got to do something here.” In 2002, in the midst of economic downturn, I remember calling my mom on my way into the office and lamenting the situation. She said, “Really, I would think you would see this as an opportunity for leadership.” I learned from her that you can make anything better and that anything is possible. She would literally tell me to “think big.”

You are a lifelong Chicagoan. How has your experience growing up and working in Chicago impacted your leadership style?

Chicago-ness is embedded in me. There are courses that teach you “authentic leadership,” but in the Midwest, it comes more naturally. Around here, it is part of the culture to be genuine. The work ethic in Chicago is that you don’t think twice about going the extra mile. You do whatever it takes to get the job done well. There’s also a team spirit and a strong sense of community. This is a place where people rally around each other. Being brought up personally and professionally in this neck of the woods has wired me with these good leadership tendencies.

What other leadership roles did you hold in your personal or professional life before your role as president & CEO of Energy BBDO?

There’s a book called The Art of Possibility that talks about “being a contribution.” That’s how I like to think of my track record and what my future imprint will be. I have always wanted to contribute something meaningful to any class, team, group, organization, or board that I am a part of. So beyond “titled” leadership positions, where I have been responsible for leading large client accounts, business development for our agency, or chairing a board, I have sought to make enduring contributions such as starting the first youth group at our parish, leading a campaign to help raise substantial funding to eradicate a disease, and forming a global talent exchange at BBDO. You can look at any situation you are a part of, regardless of formal position, and ask, “How can I be of help here? What’s missing? What difference can I make?”

Can you talk about the impact of self-interest on the growth of BBDO?

Because self-interest is such a powerful force, we seek to address the interests of our people, our clients, and our consumers as a focus of our organization. We start with our people because we know if they are energized, it will lead to energizing client partnerships and work that energizes consumers.

Our call to action for this chain reaction is: “Energize People. Energize Brands.” As an organization, we try to anticipate and listen for what our people need in order to be their “best damn selves” for our clients. What tools do they need? What are the obstacles we don’t even realize are in their way? What are their aspirations for their careers and lives?

Sometimes we have gotten it wrong and had to course-correct, but over the long term our agency proves this out as a model for talent and organizational growth. Focusing on what matters most to people (i.e., their self-interest) has led to a positive culture with more motivated people, more successful client partnerships, and more growth for our clients’ brands.

In what ways has your experience at BBDO influenced you as a leader?

BBDO’s unrelenting focus on “The Work. The Work. The Work.” is a powerful leadership lesson for anyone. Every organization—and every person in it—needs to know what you are there to do, and what you do better than anyone else. When you have that focus and clarity, it can produce amazing results, as it has for us—year after year, BBDO is the most awarded agency network in the world for creativity and effectiveness.

BBDO has also taught me the power of having a strong values system to recruit and evaluate talent and to guide our day-to-day actions. Our values require us to have individuals who “make the work better,” who “do the right thing,” who are “a radiator, not a drain,” and who are “a hand-raiser, not finger pointer.” Our values make our unique strain of talent stronger, give us a common language of expectations, and help guide the behavior of each one of us every day.

What wisdom would you impart on young professionals in the advertising business?

As young professionals, you bring fresh eyes to any company you work for and to our industry generally. So, use that to help make the place you work and the industry at large better. Approach your new world as an innovator. When you see things that don’t make sense or that can be done better, put them forth with some smart ideas on how to improve them. The fish can’t see the water so you have a real chance to identify opportunities others have become blind to. Having the courage to point out what others have not can have a meaningful impact on your workplace, the industry, and your career.

What advice would you give your daughter to inspire her to become a future leader?

I literally just gave my daughter this advice over a Sunday morning cup of coffee: observe your own natural leadership tendencies to identify your strengths so that you can develop and leverage them.

There are moments when you know you are having a leadership impact. Think about those moments, past and present, both in terms of the situation and in terms of your response to it. It will provide guidance into your leadership strengths.

What my daughter could see in an examination of her leadership moments is that she is good at helping teams she is on get past a tangled mess of issues to find the real problem they need to solve. This is a valuable skill she didn’t realize she had. It’s really inspiring to recognize your own leadership strengths, and to keep using them to help your teams get further faster. This will set you on an exciting path to more and greater leadership opportunities.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

One of the facts of leadership life is that you will encounter difficulties beyond your control. What I’ve learned from that is two things:

First, as the leader it is your job, when adversity strikes, to help the team maintain focus and to inspire a spirit of hope and optimism.

Upholding the vision of the organization and reminding everyone that it is not changing, despite what may be a short-term detour, is really important.

Second, embrace the difficulty. When you do, you will see your way through to a better place than where you started. If you embrace them, situations of strife will provide the opportunity to take beneficial long-term actions that might have been too difficult to make when times were good.

Nobody spends a lot of time talking about what happens when you are in a corner and the lights are off and you don’t know where the door is. How do you get out of that? As you enter a leadership position, you should know that it will happen, and when it does, you have to embrace the difficulty, and handle it with grace, which includes abundant, open communication. With a spirit of hope and optimism, you will end up in a better place.


Interview By Megan McTighe & Samantha Perlman

Fast Facts

Chicago, IL
Time in current role
20+ years
• Advertising Woman of the Year
• Business Insider’s 30 Most Powerful Women in Advertising
• Crain’s Who’s Who in Chicago Business and Forty Under 40
• YWCA’s Academy of Women Achievers
• Chicago Illini of the Year
• Midtown Educational Foundation’s 25th Annual Reach for Excellence Award

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