Connecting 12 Years of Dots at W2O Group: A Q&A with Carolyn Wang

The outgoing president of BrewLife reflects upon her journey and shares some hard earned wisdom in the world of communications and agency life.

In 2004, Carolyn Wang joined what was once called Weiss Comm Partners (now W2O Group) hoping to bring her experience from Ogilvy & Mather to a fledging firm specializing in biotech communications and investor relations (IR).  In the following twelve years, she solidified her career in healthcare corporate comms, advised a multitude of clients and ultimately helped grow the firm from six people in the San Francisco Bay Area to over four hundred across the globe. It was most recently recognized as The 2016 Holmes Report North America Midsize Agency of the Year. She now prepares for her new role as chief communications officer at Verily (previously Google Life Sciences).

Howie Chan: Today is your last day, how are you feeling?

Carolyn Wang: Last night I had trouble sleeping, there are emotions that are floating to the surface I have not quite acknowledged yet. But this is definitely a bittersweet time for me. Following 12 years with such an amazing team – it’s one of the main reasons I’ve stayed here – it’s those close interpersonal connections. Knowing I’m not going to see the same faces everyday… it’s tough.

How would you breakdown the phases of growth throughout the last 12 years?

I do feel like I’ve worked at a few different companies throughout the 12 years, just because of the change and the evolutions. We started out as Weiss Comm Partners, and we were a strategic consulting firm focusing on corporate communications and IR, working with a certain type of biotech companies, mostly small to mid-size. We had a couple of bigger players, but we weren’t working with big pharma, and we certainly weren’t working beyond healthcare. I think that was one of the first phases of the company.

The next phase was building the New York office with Jennifer Gottlieb and others – branching into big pharma and growing up as an agency. I was one of the first coming in from a big agency, and knew how to build a team and manage agency projects. Jim Weiss (W2O Group founder & CEO) was working with a team of pretty eccentric, very smart and senior communicators but none of them had agency experience, at least to the degree I did. Then Diane Weiser (now CCO at Cytokinetics), Jennifer Gottlieb and others came on board to continue growing and help put the right infrastructure in place.

The phase where we became an integrated firm saw the acquisition of multiple disciplines starting with ODA. All of a sudden, with Paulo Simas, Tom Haan and Matt Dong, we had brought branding and creative capabilities in-house. We were able to work hand-in-hand to achieve the vision and allowed to flex different muscles. It was really fun to play in their world.

Around that same time, we acquired social media and engagement capabilities with Paul Dyer and others. This started our expansion into the digital world in a way we hadn’t done before.  It was an intense period of learning for those of us going through these integrations. And then we just started to build and expand across the country and then London. It was amazing, we were growing at 20 to 30 percent year after year, and that didn’t plateau for sometime. When you’re growing at that rate in revenue and the number of people, it was inherent that the type of work was a lot broader, and there had to be continuous learning and growth.

What would you say was a highlight during all those years?

I must say working with and seeing the evolution of Jim Weiss has been extraordinary. It could be a graphic novel, a TV series – it’s been a wild and wooly trip but always engaging! That’s the nature of working with someone who is super driven, super smart and highly entrepreneurial. I feel fortunate to be a part of his trajectory and to be part of that ride. It’s amazing to see where we’ve come. I came in as employee number six and now we are over four hundred people with offices around the country and in London. That is no small achievement – force of nature type stuff (laughter).

There is a lot of risk. That’s the great thing about Jim too, he is really intuitive and like I said, highly engaged. He’s able to course correct whenever needed and continue in a positive direction. That whole ride has been pretty awesome.

What were examples of difficult but important learning moments?

I’m thinking about situations where you have someone, be it a client or someone from the media or an investor, somebody who is very upset and perhaps putting you on the spot in a way that is really uncomfortable – sometimes maybe even inappropriate. The way that you react to that and handle yourself in the face of that person is really important. I know I’ve been in those heated situations many times. Taking a deep breath in that moment and listening to the words versus that tone of voice, reading between the lines and understanding what the key issue is is very important – then asking the question or making a point to that person. And doing it calmly, that’s definitely a skill worth attaining. And it’s something that I had to learn over the years.

What is a trait that you value that most people often don’t see?

One thing that is probably more of a hard skill is preparation. Someone who is dynamite at that is Jennifer Gottlieb. She will not walk into any client situation without being as prepared as possible – she’s got a process and she is an expert on it. If anyone who has the opportunity to work on new business with her, you should take it. Because you’re going to learn, and she will micro-manage the hell out of it. Turn yourself over to the process and you will learn a lot.

Preparation is something that is very highly valued in our world and it’s not something everyone is necessarily great at – definitely something worth working on.

What would be your advice to junior folks just entering the world of communications?

I would say to build those hard skills, work on your quality of writing, work on your ability to tell a compelling story and to be able to pitch media and audience members. Get experience reaching out to media, be it online or offline. Get into it. It’s going to be uncomfortable at first for most people but you’ll feel so happy you did it. You will learn that it’s not that scary, it’s really about building relationships just like it is anywhere else. But media is a specific headset and a specific type – you have to learn to communicate with them how they like to be communicated with.

Treat agency like finishing school. This is the time for you to practice your skills to learn and grow. I would say jump into the swamp of integrated work and raise your hand for new experiences. At about five or six years at the firm, I did my first advisory meeting, my first drug launch, and there were all these firsts. There is a first time for everything, and you want to experience as much of that possible.

I’ve talked to people and they say that they want to be doing direct to patient and physician communications and want to work on sexy brands and drugs. That’s great, but you really should get the corporate perspective too. People want well-rounded individuals. The great thing about an agency is that you are allowed to build out the base of that pyramid – you can decide you want to specialize later. But get as broad of experience as possible.

The other thing I would say is, particularly on the agency side, there are many opportunities to learn from your colleagues on softer skills, which is more about business acumen and learning to have really difficult conversations with one another and with clients. Those skills are very important and most highly valued by organizations. Their value has less to do with our industry specifically but it’s important that we are working on those.

Talking about advice, what would you say to your 30-year-old self?

When I was 30, I’ve been here for two years, and I was pregnant with my son Owen, who is now nine years old. It’s funny – I’d been in the business by then for about seven years, and I never intended to enter the public relations or communications world. That was an unexpected foray that kinda’ turned into a career, and one that I really enjoy. I think there was a part of me at the age of 30 thinking, is this what I’m meant to be doing? I was pre-med in college and thinking I was going to go back to school for one thing or another. And there’s a part of me that has never been satisfied with where I’m at – my career trajectory. I think what I would say back then is that you’re in the right place; it’s the field for you. It’s the right place, and its actually pretty perfect. You should be confident and don’t worry so much, it’s not going to get you anywhere. Just dig in and have fun, don’t worry about it. It’s amazing what happens when you do that. There is a flow that starts to happen, you know?

As your enter into your new role as CCO at of Verily, what kind of a client will you be when working with an agency?

I want to be a really good partner. I want them to be an extension of my team. Literally, I want to be thought partners. That means they are as deep into the business and at least can see out ahead in terms of where we need to be.

I believe in really transparent direct communications. I have worked with clients with a variety of different styles in terms of keeping some information confidential from their agency partners, versus being more liberal with that information. I always feel like we’re a better partner as an agency when we have access to that information. Often times the information that’s held back is based on ultra conservative philosophy that has neither basis nor any real risk. We are under CDA for that reason and can act as that in-house strategic partner and advisor. I want to build that type of relationship with my agency and they should really feel like an extension of the team.

Anything you absolutely will not do as a client?

What I will not do is be disrespectful to my agency partners – I will treat them how I would like to be treated. That means I will not treat them as a vendor. It’s also understanding that it is a business. They have to be paid – justly and fairly for their time. While conversations could be difficult and while budgets could be difficult, it’s a part of the work relationship and shouldn’t be such a hairball.

I think it’s really simple, follow the golden rule – it’s a really small world and life’s way too short to get into silly fights and burn bridges.

How do you think you’ll feel tomorrow morning?

Well, I do like a certain amount of routine in my life. I moved around a lot growing up, which may be part of the reason why I like being with one company for as long as I have. I do like routine and the banter that I have with the team and the broader W2O team. There is a level of comfort and intimacy with a lot of the people here by virtue of the fact I’ve work with them for so long. I’m going to be leaving all that behind. There is going to be a lot of stuff happening without me, and I won’t know about it. It will be okay, but that’s what’s going to make me sad. And it’ll hit me later! I’ll be watching Finding Dory with Owen and bawling in the theater, and he’s going to think it’s about the movie and obviously it’s not. That’s how I handle sadness – freaking out people in the movie theater (laughter).

What most excites you about your next move?

Well that’s what it’s all about. I’m going to a company whose mission I feel very passionate about. It’s in a space where honestly I feel my skillset fits perfectly with what they need – that I’d be a fool not to give it a go and pursue it. I mentioned this idea of flow earlier. The way that this opportunity came about for me, the nature of the conversations with the team over there, the skillset that I feel I still need to build – all of this synced up in my head. I’m very excited about the work ahead of me with this team and this company.

Like I said, it’s a mission that I feel very strongly about in terms of making healthcare accessible and more affordable to millions of people.

It’s been a true privilege to work with you closely at BrewLife, any parting words for the team?

Don’t screw it up! (Laughter) Look at how amazing BrewLife is, don’t screw it up! And I know you guys won’t. It’s so funny. I’m leaving and on the one hand I feel like I don’t have a succession plan in place, but that’s not really true. I’ve said this before – I feel like I get a lot of credit for the culture here, for professional development, for multiple people on the team. I’m simply amplifying a lot of the ideas that’s brought to me by you, Howie and Nicole and others. The fact of the matter is that you guys are fully capable of running the show, will do a great job and will continue to develop the culture at BrewLife.

Howie Chan
Howie Chan

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