Robin Whalen

Marketing leader Robin Whalen (BA ’93 Innis) believes empathy is her superpower in life and work

As an agency veteran, I have spent the past 25 years at some of the world’s largest advertising networks, holding a variety of senior management roles; I am now president and CEO of independent agency Church+State. I speak/lecture/ judge at a variety of industry events, and am involved with the Canadian Marketing Association as a long-time instructor and volunteer. And I’m a mom to three kids: 24, 21, and 15, working diligently to convince at least one of them to step into my heels, and take the advertising and marketing community by storm.

headshot of robin whalenThe theme for this ear’s magazine is storytelling, and we are highlighting alumni who are, in some aspect of their work or their lives, storytellers. Your own story, so far, has been marked by some life-changing events. Can you tell us a little bit about those and how they have contributed to where you are today?

My interests and passions generally align with my values and goals in life overall. I work and play in equal measure and believe it keeps me balanced, realistic, and hopefully, interesting! While I take my work seriously, I don’t take myself seriously. I wear my heart on my sleeve and lead my company with compassion that can be, at times, mistaken for weakness. I’m fine with that, though — I consider empathy to be a superpower.

I experienced a significant loss when, as a 31-year-old mother of two young children, my husband died of leukemia. While this obviously changed my life dramatically, it also reinforced my belief that we have no time to waste. I was bound and determined to LIVE. To survive. To succeed. To honour the man I loved and to show my children we can persevere.

I made the decision to stay in the industry in which I had built my career. Advertising is renowned for long hours, poor work-life balance, and is generally dominated by men at the leadership level. I felt I could do things differently; find a way to thrive without sacrificing my personal time; how a new and different face of professional leadership; and generally, contribute to a culture that I wish had existed in my 20s.

I’ve stayed focused on this goal ever since. And I think it has worked.

“Brand storytelling” is a popular term right now that places the customer as the lead character in the marketing story, and not the brand. As president and CEO of  Church+State agency, do you follow this strategy?

I think brand storytelling is not only about the customer, but also about the brand showing its authentic self. As “woo-woo” as that sounds, it’s real. Essentially, it’s about moving beyond product proposition to brand values. What does a brand  believe about the world? How is it uniquely suited to serve that purpose? This is the essence of brand storytelling, and my agency’s strategy for all our clients and even ourselves.

Content and advertising used to live on opposite ends of the spectrum, but then came the internet and smartphones, and anyone could become a content creator. And with these two forces at play, we saw the rise of niche content, where anyone with a specific interest could make and distribute content for an audience, and where every piece of content can be advertising if it’s good enough, and every piece of advertising can be content if it’s responsible enough. They co-exist.

This is the approach we take for brand storytelling. Make sure your message is compelling, and differentiated. Let the soul of your brand shine. Otherwise, you’re a commodity. Today, consumers do business with brands that share their values. People used to vote with their wallets, and now they vote with their time. We help brands win the battle for time through brand storytelling rooted in truth, values, and persuasion.

(Photo of Robin Whalen, above, by Shayla Anderson)

This story originally appeared in the 2021/22 Innis Alumni & Friends magazine.