Five auto makers, four countries and managing a global team adds up to a lot learned and a lot to share.
“I was in Saudi Arabia the week women were allowed to drive,” Allyson Witherspoon, vice president of marketing at Nissan says in a flash of sheer happiness. She was reflecting on the monumental moment when a male-driven culture turned to empower women. Nissan celebrated the moment by helping women learn to drive assisted by those they love—their fathers, husbands, brothers — and shared these first drives in a campaign.
Talk about an emotional connection. We could feel the tears and hear the cheers around the world.
This is exactly where Allyson’s journey had been leading, and from there, where it’s taking her: Creating connective moments that bond us to each other, to our vehicles and to our futures.
Bridging the Culture Divide Starts with Listening
Listening to connect ideas across seemingly impossible divides was an early ‘aha’ moment for Allyson. An accounting major at the University of Missouri, “I took an international advertising class in college and literally changed my major the next day. What fascinated me was looking at different campaigns like “Got Milk,” which really got me with how it translated across the globe.” She was intrigued with how a brand can reach audiences across cultural and geographic divides with a singular, universal idea. She knew the change in her major was right. “It freaked my parents out, but it worked out,” she laughs.
From college she worked for Mercedes-Benz helping dealerships to align their local marketing with national brand strategy. “I was sending out letters to dealers saying their co-op funds were at risk unless they changed things,” she said, “Having dynamic conversations with dealers” gave her a new world view: “A brand doesn’t just sit at the manufacturer level, it actually sits at every single point where consumers interact and engage with the brand.
From there she learned business development, pre-owned sales, product development, marketing communications and more. As a “jack of all trades” her expanded skillset landed her a role at Mercedes-Benz’s ad agency working on strategy.
“Being part of the creative process versus being on the [manufacturer’s] end” was eye-opening. “How do you motivate creativity, how do you tap into the motivators to get the most out of everybody? On the brand side you’re responsible for the decisions, pulling the levers for something that can work or not work; on the agency side you are somewhat removed from the actual decision making. Full accountability sits on people who are making those decisions,” which is what she wanted ultimately to be.
Soon another agency opportunity popped up, this time the client was BMW.
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What It Takes to Grow: Leaders, Mentors and Coaches
At BMW “I went back to my digital roots,” a reversal for how most people journey an advertising career. But, “I gained a lot of exposure. Things were changing rapidly with emerging technology, the introduction of social media. We were able to get the entire agency of record business,” which included everything from product launches to big events like the Super Bowl.
And, she met someone who would become one of her most influential mentors: BMW’s chief of marketing, Jack Pitney. “His demeanor, how he approached agencies, he was always motivating, a kind human being. He embodied the type of CMO I wanted to be,” she said. “He took me under his wing. I was pretty young, he helped me, showed me the ropes of leadership.”
Mentoring for Allyson has been informal but critical; she recognizes it as one of the key tools that helps people on the path to leadership. She is glad to be in a “company like Nissan that supports mentorship. I wish I had that earlier on in my career,” she said. Mentoring isn’t enough, though. She lauds championing people, advocating for them behind the scenes and “executive coaching, which has been incredibly valuable.” Now, “what we are trying to work on is how to bring executive coaching on earlier in people’s careers”to develop them and to strengthen the organization.
How to Become Fearless (Yes, It Takes Work)
Traveling to Saudi Arabia might be a scary moment for the average person, especially a woman whose mission is to empower other women. For Allyson, it fit with her value of being fearless. “I’ve been the underdog, not the obvious choice for a lot of positions, but people saw things in me and they took a chance on me. I wasn’t afraid, I wanted to embrace it,” she said. “I’m often in the room as the “only,” but when I start talking, when I present, there aren’t questions about my capabilities or my expertise. I take a lot of pride in that.”
Being fearless takes work, though and her assignment in Japan proved that. “In business school they talk about ‘preparing to manage,’ you understand that, but doing it is a different reality. Working overseas is a bootcamp in communication and management. In Western culture we coach on the spot, we react to manage. Working with a team around the globe, English is a second language for the majority. I had to think about what my communication was. Every day I would write out what I wanted to communicate and how to communicate it before I got to the office. I reflected on what worked, what didn’t, and did it again the next day. Optimize optimize optimize.”
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Not Luck, but Experience That Sets You Up for the Job You Want
Always open minded and up for new challenges, Allyson left BMW to join Volvo as global business director working in the Amsterdam office. “Amsterdam is a huge creative hub,” she said, so it made sense for this job that had her managing the entire agency team around the world. And it was a deep dive on the Volvo brand. “I was in Sweden every week getting to know the products, designers, learning how everything operates around the world.”
That, in addition to her experience and skills, set her up for the next journey: Nissan.
“The timing was never right,” she said of other opportunities that had passed her by. “I was too early in my career or the position wasn’t quite right or I didn’t have the experience I needed yet.” This time, though, “I had international experience, which positions you at a different level. So when I was contacted by Nissan looking for a director and head of marketing in the US for Infiniti,” she was immediately interested. “I always wanted to be brand-side,” she said.
“Infiniti was in the process of a huge product offensive with Q50, Q60 and changes to the QX60.” But the job was more complex than just launching new products. “How do you work with a challenger brand? How do you solidify, connect with consumers, build a relationship with dealers and use them as a sounding board so what you do at the national level will resonate with dealers?”
A couple of years later another monumental move presented itself: “I was approached to work in Japan as the #2 leader on the global marketing team,” working for the global CMO. “I was responsible for global creative strategy, media strategy and sponsorships, reporting to the executive committee on our marketing investment.” She also oversaw the heritage collection, securing vehicles, dealing with restoration and display of the vehicles, a hugely important role to her. She wanted it to be right so that “the person in my role 10 or 20 years from now doesn’t have to do that.” For Allyson, heritage was about establishing the legacy of Infiniti.
New York, Amsterdam, Yokohama and … Nashville!
Then, on a trip to Japan, Jose Luis Valls, then head of Nissan in the US, asked her for a meeting and invited her to return to run the brand’s next era. For Allyson, the timing was right and she was ready to come home. And for Nissan, it was a needed next move.
She returned as VP of Marketing in April, 2019. She’d already been watching as the brand set up the transformation within the business and knew the overall strategy. “But brand strategy is part that, part creating emotional connection between product and consumer. Technology can be overwhelming and sometimes it can be a barrier; how do we remove that barrier and show tech in a way that helps people’s lives?” To better empower customers and enrich their experience in the car, her team —both at Nissan and at the agencies — are creating a more confident and connected customer journey.
Sprinting into the new role was a natural for Allyson. Roel De Vries, “my boss in Japan, gave me good advice: pick 2 to 3 things that need to be done and be unrelenting about them.” She identified those things immediately. “I landed [in Nashville] Saturday night, wrote the strategy on Sunday and started work on Monday,” ready to align her team and get started.
Her list of three? Creative excellence by creating an emotional connection between Nissan and consumers, implementing a precision marketing approach and aligning their ad agencies. This last one may have seemed the scariest but was ultimately the most impactful. “10 agencies with different scopes of work and none were integrated, so we completely collapsed them and restructured around the Nissan product portfolio,” she said. This created cross functional teams, and the response was positive. The teams were able to deliver on creative excellence early on.
“Cross functional is where it is and what will accelerate in the future,” Allyson believes. It’ll provide a clear path to move through a marketing department to develop the skills to advance in marketing. And, it’ll give people exposure to ideas, the opportunity to build advocates and the ability to prepare for anything. So they, too, can be fearless.