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'We had to write down our peers' strengths – our boss mailed them to their parents'

My First Boss: The people who helped shape business leaders

Lisa Utzschneider's career was shaped at Microsoft where she started on the 'ground floor'. Photo: Getty
Lisa Utzschneider's career was shaped at Microsoft where she started on the 'ground floor'. Photo: Getty

Lisa Utzschneider is CEO of Integral Ad Science (IAS) and has pioneered the growth of digital advertising throughout her career working at Microsoft, Amazon, and Yahoo. She leads over 800 global employees – providing marketers with solutions for brand safety, viewability and invalid traffic across the open web, Connected TV, and the largest social platforms in the digital ecosystem.

I started at Microsoft on the 'ground floor' in 1998 as an account manager and worked my way up to partner. The 10 years there were formative in my career and I had the good fortune to work for Joanne Bradford, a well known media executive and one of the top sales leaders in traditional and digital media over the years.


Joanne came to run global ad sales and transformed the business. What I really appreciate is that she played both sides of the coin. There's an important distinction between both mentor and executive sponsor, the leader in the room when a team is making decisions on potential leaders, talent and who in the organisation could drive new business.

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Joanne tapped me when I was rising in the ranks on ad sales, to move over to operations and rebuild a high-performing team. What it meant was interfacing with customers in a different way. In many ways, because I developed both sides of the coin in revenue generating and operations, it later set me up for my next role at Amazon.

Joanne guided me but also trusted me to figure it out. There was no defined blueprint to develop ad operations, it was a skillset I developed on the job and she pushed me into the deep end. In many ways, it was a job no-one else wanted as everyone liked the sales side.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24:  Chief Operating Officer for So Fi Joanne Bradford speaks onstage during Cosmopolitan Fun Fearless Money 2016 on September 24, 2016 at Cedar Lake in New York City.  (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Cosmopolitan)
Joanne Bradford is an experienced operating executive and independent board member. Photo: Getty (Cindy Ord via Getty Images)

Joanne was fearless, walked a mile in your shoes, understood the team on the ground, the challenges and opportunities and had a remarkable way of connecting with employees in any timezone, any team. She would randomly call employees and say ‘Hi, it’s Joanne, how can I help you today?’ She inspired hundreds of employees at Microsoft and, I would argue, even still today.

She empowered me to learn how to lead, encouraged me to take risks, taught me to be effective as a remote leader, how to develop your voice in conference calls, that I showed up prepared and how to deal with people who interrupted me.

When I took over the team, we had two days of leading a conference and, stepping off the stage, she sat me down on the sidelines and said ‘Lisa, the sky’s the limit, you have what it takes.’ The fact she had that moment with me reinforced that she believed in my potential and I try to encourage this today.

Read More: My first boss: Tony Jamous, CEO of global HR platform Oyster

In our Microsoft leadership at the time, there was frustration across the team with some members not getting along. I will never forget one offsite where, during the session, Joanne took a time out.

We were sitting in a circle and she told us that next weekend was Mother’s Day. I didn’t know where this one was leading to, but she said, ‘I want you to turn to your peer to the right, look them in the eye and out loud to tell them that if they were to write a letter to their mother or their parent about their strengths, the positive impact they are making on the business and what they should be proud of as a parent, what is the letter that you would write?’

We all had to say it out loud in turn and then we had to write it down in a note. As soon as that happened, all of the tension left the room.

She mailed it out to everyone’s parents and then, a week later, she called them all on Mother’s Day. It was a tear-jerking moment for our parents.

IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR ADVERTISING WEEK - Lisa Utzschneider, Vice President of Global Sales for Amazon Media Group, gives a presentation at Advertising Week on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012 in New York. (Photo by Jason DeCrow/Invision for Advertising Week/AP Images)
Lisa Utzschneider's mentorship under Joanne Bradford helped her in next role as Amazon vice president of global sales. Photo: PA (Jason DeCrow, Associated Press)

The entire leadership team realised we had been so focused on this petty conflict and that we needed to rise above it. It was a powerful way to connect on a personal level and more deeply as a leadership team. Joanne was also vulnerable as a leader and by showing that, it opened everyone else up too.

We are a leading digital media measurement and optimization company at IAS and our products have never been more relevant than they are today. As brands try to navigate digital landscape and finding high quality media, that‘s where we lean in.

From cookie-based targeting to a cookie-less world, contextual targeting is our sweet spot. Of all the ads that we process, it’s tied to the ‘what’ and the ‘where’ of where the ad ran. It’s never the who.

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We have sophisticated solutions for brands - including misinformation and deepfake detection - and we ensure that they aren’t just blocking everything, that they are much more sophisticated in helping publishers drive higher yields and optimisation, but also that brands know that it’s high quality media where they are running their ads.

Today, when we're talking about talent development at IAS, if a leader puts forward someone to be a successor, my immediate question is whether they have told that person directly and what skills they may need.

Joanne did that with me and it was one of the reasons why I am a public CEO today.

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