By Cole Friedman
According to Christine Olson, SVP of Ad Sales Midwest Office at A+E Networks, “You can’t teach passion.” At a FUTURE NOW Leadership Talk on January 26th, hosted by FUTURE NOW Founder and CEO Peggy Kim, Olson advised the audience of aspiring media professionals to be honest with themselves about what drives and motivates them in life…something she has had to figure out for herself as well.
Recalling her college years and graduation from DePauw University with a degree in communications, Olson confessed that it was a time of great indecision. “It was a tough job market, and I had no idea [where to start].”
Everything changed, however, when she met with a DePauw alumnus who worked in ad sales for E! Network. “[The alum] said, ‘Look, it’s a fun business,’” Olson remembers. “It’s pop culture, plus you really get to do a lot very early in your career.” Her interest was piqued, and she decided to focus her efforts on getting a job at a media agency.
Olson started at a small direct response agency before moving to a mid-sized media company affiliated with Wrigley Gum. She found that staying curious about the work her managers and associates were doing served her well.
“I remember very vividly,” said Olson, “sitting in my boss’ office, she was on the phone, and I was just listening. And then she’d hang up, and I would say, ‘Okay, when you said this, what did they say?’”
Asking questions demystified the ins-and-outs of the business for her. Olson then eventually moved to StarCom, where she spent almost 15 years building her skills and rising through the ranks to become a Senior Vice President.
How Olson got to A+E, however, is a true testament to this executive’s desire to constantly learn and grow. “I was ready for a change,” Olson shared. She knew she wanted to stay in the media and advertising business but was looking for a new journey within it.
Using her connections, Olson managed to get a meeting with the A+E Ad Sales team. She moved to New York and took a major demotion to join A+E as an account executive. Reflecting on the move to Kim, Olson knew she “had information and perspective that was valuable to them” since she was coming from the agency side of the business, and she also knew she had to prove that she could do the job to earn respect within the company. The gamble paid off. Within 18 months, Olson jumped from Account Executive to Vice President, and in 2020, she was promoted to SVP.
On leadership, Olson thrives on a collaborative style. During the COVID pandemic, she and her direct reports started having shorter but more frequent meetings, and they realized that “it drove more collaboration and enjoyment of the team.”
Olson has also learned to ask more questions to illicit feedback and make sure everyone feels connected. “People may not always speak up, so I try to ask the questions more about how it’s going, or should we adjust certain things,” she noted.
Listening and asking the right questions are skills that have also helped Olson serve her clients well. She is constantly investigating and digging deeper into what advertisers are after when they’re purchasing airtime. “Are you really trying to target an age or are you trying to find someone who wants to buy a mattress? And how do we get to the behavioral insights?”
Olson encouraged the student audience to explore how their passions can be brought into their careers. “Lean in where you see a need.” She also advised them to take initiative; reach out; ask questions; and show interest.
Olson cited the example of how two employees at A+E, Kirby Dixon and Amira Lewally, pitched a podcast to management about cultural achievements made by Black people, and got the greenlight to move forward. Now the award-winning show The Table Is Ours, funded by the company, is in its second season on Lifetime.
Olson specifically highlighted how Dixon and Lewally leaned on each other for support. “Find those people that can build you up when you need it,” she encouraged, “because that’s what gets you over the hump.”