Eliza Esquivel on beginning as you mean to end

Eliza Esquivel is Vice President of Global Brand Strategy at Mondelez International where she is responsible for nurturing the $36 billion portfolio of high growth brands including Oreo and Cadbury among others. Eliza is a progressive thinker with a strong foundation in classical planning derived from an academic background and planning roles at advertising agencies DDB, JWT and Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam. What people might not know about Eliza is that she has a strong spiritual core that anchors her as she strives for perspective and positivity.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
As a child I fantasized about being a nun. I loved the quiet contemplative life, the stain glass and gardens.  Of course, once I discovered boys that kind of went out the window! As a teenager I went through an MTV-inspired big hair phase when I thought it would be cool to be an image maker in Hollywood, but like becoming a nun that one didn’t last for long.  After that I wanted to be a writer and a critic, and even worked in scholarly publishing as a way of pursuing it but clearly got sidetracked once I hit graduate school.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
I’d love a really big dinner party with a dozen or so of my most treasured friends and colleagues where they each get to invite a dream guest. My dream guest would be Elon Musk but I’d be so fascinated to see and meet the guests my friends bring.  I’ve been so fortunate to meet many wonderful people in my life and career, and it would be lovely to bring some of them together to share their dreams and interests.

What single book had the greatest impact on you?
Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar. This book got me to focus on simple things I could do to live a happy life.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
It varies, but what I will say is that I love to sleep.  When I lived in Amsterdam I used to sleep for about ten hours a night, probably because it’s so much quieter than New York.  I know it sounds indulgent, but I need nine to 10 hours to be at my best. If I need to catch up on sleep I have no qualms taking a two hour nap in the late afternoon, if I can get away with it. Sleep is a big priority for me.

What is your favorite time of the working week?
I can be extremely productive on a Tuesday morning. I’ve gotten past the “weekend is over” blues of a Monday and have set my agenda for the week ahead so I can really rally.

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
This is how marketing and advertising happened to me: I applied to graduate school at UT Austin to write cultural theory about advertising, to explore the world of advertising the way film theorists explore the world of film or literary theorists analyze culture and humanity in literature.  My graduate program was so excited to have me they gave me a full scholarship. However, once I started I quickly learned there was no professor who had ever done that before so I had to build my own program from scratch.  I was starting from ground zero because I had not studied advertising at all prior. 

While I was taking the foundation courses and working for the university as a research assistant, I was assigned to assist Dr. Neal Burns to start the first graduate account planning sequence at UT Austin.  Neal had been a partner at Carmichael Lynch and had a PhD in Neuroscience from McGill University. The university thought I would be a great person to help him acclimate back to the academic world from agency life.  Dr. Burns and I were a great team. He introduced me to Account Planning (its origins, history, connection to behavioral psychology etc.) while I helped him build the program. I quickly realized I could probably do 50 times more studies of advertising and human behavior in the real world than I would ever get funded to do as an academic.  Even when I was sure I would pursue planning, I completed the creative sequence in copywriting in grad school as well.  I thought understanding what it’s like to be a creative would make me a better planner. 

I started my planning career at DDB and then went on to JWT. It it was not long before I became keenly interested in the creative itself: the process of creativity, and figuring out how to connect with and inspire creatives.  That led me to Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam where I will openly say I had one of the peak experiences of my life and career.  W+K’s commitment to creating an environment that fosters creativity and a community of people dedicated to that pursuit was such a pivotal experience for me.  I was sad to leave, but returned to New York to start a life with my new husband in 2008. 

The best balance of great creative and high level planning in New York at the time was at TBWA\ Chiat Day. I was excited to join them and help win new business and was eventually put in charge of running their planning department.   However, over time I grew increasingly frustrated with how little I was truly able to impact the fortunes of the companies I worked with.  When I got the opportunity to join Mondelez, it felt like a perfect opportunity to make more of a difference – both for Mondelez and for the marketing industry at large.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your industry?
At different points in my career it’s been a challenge to find a balance between being my authentic self and being the person I felt I needed to be in order to succeed in the business/corporate world.  One colleague once described me as “a hippie” which even now makes me chuckle. In many ways it’s kind of true but it’s just one aspect of who I am.  I have a really rich personal story and a set of very unique values and beliefs that are not the norm.  I’ve travelled the road less travelled.  Some people might find that fascinating, others might find it just plain “weird.”  I’ve learned to be more accepting of that fact over time and continue to explore ways to let my true self out.

What motivates you?
Everything. I am deeply curious.  I care.  I am interested in the big picture, the little picture and all the ways different people see and experience life.  I am fascinated with the future – the fact that we are creating it everyday.  I like having a vision and making it happen and I like people who like that too.  I have a lot of time for “crazy” if talent is involved.  I really love imagining, creating and transforming things with equally open-minded and passionate people.

What advice would you give to someone at the start of their career?
I will borrow a quote from one of my favorite bosses of all time Paul Parton (who is now a founder at Brooklyn Brothers).  Paul used to say, “Begin as you mean to end.”  When you start anything, your career or a project, have a successful endpoint in mind. Live up to that ambition from the first step to the last.  Excellence is a practice, not an ideal.  So for anyone starting out I would say, no matter what you do, do it with excellence.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
In my twenties, when other people I knew were either partying or nose-diving into a career, I joined an ashram.  I spent 6 years meditating twice daily (sometimes for hours at a stretch).  I dedicated myself to my own self-development and inquiry about the big picture. I taught meditation classes and did other kinds of volunteer work.  The fact that I developed the discipline and practice of meditation and self-inquiry early on in life and have stuck with it, is what I consider to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. 

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
I persevere and strive to focus on the positive.  I have certainly made some choices that were not always in my best interest but I’ve always found a way to recover and move on. 

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Life is a mixed bag – you don’t choose what’s in it, just the way you carry it.  You can carry it with style and grace or like it’s filled with stones.  The choice is yours.

What do you believe are the personality traits of people in leadership positions within your line of work?
I’ll be honest not all the personality traits of leaders are good – every organization has someone at a senior level who is a narcissist, control hound, bully or borderline sociopath.  Sadly these types also seem to get all the attention.  I think the best leaders are those who believe in shared leadership, transparency, sponsorship and win-win-wins.  They are a rare breed, but they are around. We should all do more to tell stories about them so we have better role models.

Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
My husband is my go to person, followed in short order by close friends and advisors. But in the end, I try to meditate, get centered and make a call for myself about how I am going to handle something.

What's next?
I’m really interested at the moment in how creativity with a big “C” plays a role in growth for companies and societies.  There are so many sectors of business and society that are being disrupted by rapid social and cultural change, and I’m curious to know how creativity can help.