September 23, 2019

“I decided years ago to just be myself.”

Robin Whalen
Robin Whalen

Meet Robin

Professionally speaking, I have been in advertising now for close to 25 years. It’s funny that for a significant part of my career, probably in my 30’s when I was looking to say, “Oh I’ve been in the business 10 years,” to give myself credibility. Then after the 20-year mark, there is a stigma related to ageism, particularly in a creative field. And now I realize that I’ve stayed in the industry longer than many, particularly as a woman in advertising. Many of us tend to migrate out due to demands of parenthood, limited flexibility in hours, etc. But I teach a lot for the Canadian Marketing Association, and whenever I do an intro in front of the students, I always say I’m agency born and bred as I’ve been in agencies for my entire career. And it’s a passion of mine. I can finally own the experience I have. After all this time, I consider myself lucky to have been able to build a career in this industry while still raising 3 kids: one in university, one going to university, one in elementary.

But the real-life experience that has defined me happened during my 30’s. I was married very young to my university sweetheart. Life and work were well balanced and we were both successful in our own right. That all changed when my husband was diagnosed with Leukemia when he was 30 and passed away at 31. We had two young kids, who were one and five at the time. This obviously had a tremendous impact on my career trajectory really early on. Personal tragedy puts everything into perspective after that. Looking back, getting married at 23 caused a bit of a stir. We were always asked, “what’s the rush?”. Then we had our first child at 26 and had the same flurry of questions. For whatever unknown reason, we were both in a hurry to build our life. Professionally and personally. We didn’t know it then, but time was short. In hindsight, we were using our time together wisely. I’m forever grateful. 

Going through this experience made me more passionate about building something that is my own, and something to be proud of. Because I feel like it’s a lesson for my kids that you can move through what feels like the worst life has to offer and still succeed. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. 

I think the bottom line is that I do believe life is short, and you have to pursue what you love. And that’s probably one of the reasons I’ve stayed in this side of the business as frenetic as advertising is. I enjoy it. I love the culture. It’s a very creative, fun environment. You get one shot at this, so I don’t want to be bored during the day.

Now I am remarried and have my third child, who we named after my first husband so that we would all be connected. It’s our life story. 

What would you say has been the biggest shift in your life since turning 40?

The biggest shift, I think it might sound like a cliche, but just confidence. The agency makeup when you get into management tends to be many more men than there are women, and there are a number of reasons for that. One is the motherhood paradox, and that advertising can be somewhat unforgiving in terms of hours and demands. So it’s really not conducive to having a child and managing daycare. Even taking leave for a year and coming back and understanding trends and digital is a challenge.

I took three mat leaves, and with each mat leave, they got actually shorter and shorter, because I just felt this need to keep my skills current. But at 40, the pressure changes. With 20 years of experience, I realized that people aren’t questioning whether I know what I’m talking about. A few more proverbial grey hairs help to give credibility to the resume I’ve built. I’m at a stage where I’m comfortable standing up in front of anybody and saying, “This is what you need for your brand. Full-stop” That’s the biggest shift in my 40’s. 

At 40, my “give-a-fuck meter” is very low. In my 30’s I was constantly worrying about everything, worrying about offending somebody, worrying about upsetting a client, etc. And now that my give-a-fuck meter is set to zero, I focus on doing the right thing, and that’s really the only thing that drives me. So if I have an opinion on something professional, and the client doesn’t like it, that’s okay, because I’m not worried about making friends. I’m just worried about doing the right thing for my client’s business.

When do you feel you are most powerful?

I have really realized the importance of exercise and fitness. At my last company, I had an executive coach. She surveyed the entire company to get a temperature check on myself and my business partner; probing for leadership skills and management techniques. The one recommendation that came back for me and really resonated was to start saying ‘no’, and to focus more on self-care. Because I’m a type A, I feel very accountable. I need to be seen, I need to be present. That behavior can result in a focus only on work and hours and less on productivity, and efficiency. The result was a lack of focus on myself. So now what I’ve realized is when I feel physically fit, and when I get my weight training in, and my workouts in, I feel much more mentally astute. Better for me, better for my team. 

I also feel most powerful when I’m prepared. Typical type A, I like to be well prepared, well in advance. I’m very much not a fly by the seat of your pants person. I am maybe socially, but when it comes to work, if I’ve slept well, and I have worked out consistently throughout that week, and I’m prepared, then I feel at the top of my game. 

What are the top 3 most important things to you right now?

Health always has been first and foremost, because of my history. Interesting back story —  I mentioned that my husband passed away from Leukemia at 31. His biological mother also had Leukemia and passed away at age 27. Same disease, but it’s not inherited. A very very sad twist of fate. 

I wear my heart on my sleeve, and I think that’s one of the things that maybe differentiates me from a lot of people I have worked with. And I know that my team would say the same thing. So I feel the need to feel grounded and content. As an example, I spent six years as a partner in a shopper marketing digital agency. And it was quite a lucrative position, I had equity, was compensated fairly, and did very well, but was not feeling the satisfaction and pride that I need from my career. After six years, I realized that money was not my motivation. I left my equity on the table and pursued an opportunity that was a closer match for my personality and skills.

What I’ve realized is, as much as I thought I was material or motivated by career growth and gain, the truth for me was that I needed something different, more fulfilling. To have control over my own destiny, and to enjoy the people I’m around, matters more than anything. If you have that, and you have a good personal life, and you’re healthy, it’s really the perfect combination.   What more can you ask for?

I’ve taken a heightened interest in being surrounded by people of substance. I have a really tight-knit, small group of friends because I’m the type that absorbs the energy of the people around me. And when I’m in toxic relationships, it turns me toxic. So in my 40’s, I made a pretty big shift in terms of who I was with socially and being conscious about making sure that they are good for me, and I’m good for them.

How do you make sure your actions are aligned with what’s most important to you?

At Church+State we have a process, or a methodology if you will, for branding. And we typically say brands are known by three things: what they think, what they do, and what they say. And when all three of these things are aligned, you have positive momentum. But if these things are not aligned, if you say something but you do something different, you have an integrity gap. 

Look at Tim Horton’s as an example, they say they pull on the Canadian roots, but then they do things that are counter to Canadian cultural values.

For me personally, I feel like I live that. I would like to think that I’m ethically minded and that I’m honest. My reputation is all I have in this industry, and I’ve nurtured it for 25 years. So I just ask myself with any decision I make, is it the ethical, right choice? 

We just had an experience, we were pitching for a piece of business, and we worked really hard on it, and the client came in and throughout the meeting was on his phone. Completely distracted, scanning Instagram, checking emails, etc. It bothered us. We put in so much time and effort into giving this brand some ideas and pitching our company. And for the head marketer responsible for the brand to spend all this time playing on Instagram felt disrespectful.

So I wrote a post on LinkedIn about respecting people’s time when you’re sitting across the table from one another. It seemed to resonate with the community. It was a good reminder to act in a way that is consistent with your values because if they aren’t, you will be held accountable. 

What seeds are you planting today for the future?

One thing I talk about constantly — I’ve spoken at various conferences on International Women’s Day and such — is this motherhood paradox. And that there is a way you can, if you desire, make it work. First, by ensuring that you’re in a partnership where there’s a balance and that at work you’re delivering value, whether you’re working from home, or a coffee shop, or wherever. I like to encourage women that if a career is what they think they want, that they can have it. It just requires planning. It takes a village!

But also I would say that not all profiles of leadership are cut from the same cloth. I have been on the agency side for a long time and I’m the type that shoots from the hip. As a result, it’s not always as refined or scripted as it could be. But I have learned that there is an appreciation for honesty and candor and that not everybody needs to wear the same suit to do the job. I decided years ago to just be myself. Direct, animated, honest. There is room for this in our industry.  

What advice would you give someone who is interested in redesigning midlife?

As I mentioned, I’m a planner by nature. My advice is to think about midlife before you’re in midlife. It hits before you know it. Think about the career choices you make along the way that will open up opportunities to you in the future. 

How can people connect with you and your work?

They can reach me through our website,, or through LinkedIn.

Welcome to my Power Profiles Series

Here I introduce you to powerful midlife role models in our community. May these stories inspire you, motivate you, and show you what is possible.

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Sara Smeaton Coaching SS-177 Photo by Marina Dempster


Sara Smeaton

Sara Smeaton is a certified professional coach and facilitator who partners with people in their middle years to help them grow and thrive personally and professionally. She works privately with clients in Canada, the US and the UK.

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