Five questions for Elaine Gillespie, president of The Gillespie Agency
Elaine Gillespie – president of The Gillespie Agency (an advertising and public relations firm) and executive director of the Sandlapper Society (publishers of Sandlapper magazine) – refers to herself as an “unconventional” woman.
Perhaps she’s right. Gillespie’s career path has indeed been less-than conventional. But it was that lack of convention, early on, combined with her personal drive for success that led the USC-trained studio artist to open her own graphic design studio at age 27. Nearly three decades later, Gillespie’s studio has evolved into one of the top advertising and public relations firms, serving clients regionally, nationally, and around the world.
Having represented everyone from professional wrestlers like Ric “Nature Boy” Flair – negotiating high-dollar appearances and endorsement deals for Flair and several other famous wrestlers over the years – to Ducane Gas Grills and BellSouth Mobility DCS, Gillespie and company have not only weathered the recent economic downturn, but expanded in the process (purchasing Sandlapper among other ventures). Gillespie herself acquired a contractor’s license years ago, has since rehabilitated several condemned residential and commercial properties around Columbia, and – for her savvy business acumen and leadership – she has received special recognition from the S.C. Senate, an Athena Leadership Award, a Tribute To Women In Industry Award from the YWCA, a Women of Distinction Award from the Girl Scouts of America, and myriad others.
“A human dynamo in a skirt and heels,” is how one agency associate describes her. But it’s not all business and bottom lines for Gillespie. Community involvement and a love of animals have equal places in her life.
“I have a soft spot for strays,” says Gillespie, who has served as a vice president of The Animal Mission since 2002. When she moved her residence from Columbia to Winnsboro last year, she took her animal welfare efforts with her, spearheading the building of a new cat adoption facility in Fairfield County. She also heads up the newly formed Fairfield County Animal Advisory Commission.
Recently, Gillespie discussed with MidlandsBiz.com the challenges of business leadership, the formula for business success, and the importance of balance.
Based on personal experience, what do you believe to be the biggest challenge(s) in business leadership?
I can honestly say that not being able to predict the future has been my biggest challenge. Sounds funny, but if we all had the same information about trends and changes in the marketplace, ahead of time, those willing to work that information would move forward with confidence and excel at breakneck speed. The lazy among us would remain in the dark.
Unfortunately, modern-day soothsayers are not always accurate, so we are destined to misstep in our leadership decisions occasionally. A wise leader makes a decision and doesn’t look back.
We see the future most clearly if we make adjustments and corrections while looking forward.
If you were speaking to a group of female leaders from various professions – business, military, government – what would you make sure to tell them?
I would be sure to tell them that there are no boundaries. If you aspire to run a business that requires your physical strength, there will always be competitors who are stronger. But if your business requires brains, not brawn, there is very little a female leader cannot accomplish given the necessary training and experience along with enough hard work and natural talent. Personally, I had little very encouragement from my parents. But then that meant no one took the time to tell me I had limitations either— so I didn’t know! Then once I was up and running in the business world, no one dared warn me of my limitations.
Secondly, I would recommend they find one cause they are passionate about and nurture it.
Women are genetically programmed to take care of something or someone. If the business leader is also a mother, it’s easy to decide who they should nurture. If the business leader is not a mother, finding a cause to support is essential to a balanced life.
For me, it has been working with homeless pets. So I have offered up my agency’s talents and my time through the years. This has been very fulfilling for me personally and I enjoy looking back at all the animals’ lives we’ve saved or improved. It’s probably a poor substitute for raising a child, but it has kept me balanced nonetheless.
Is there a magic formula for business success?
Work, work, work — everything else be damned. This would be my formula for business success, but also my formula for failure in other aspects of my life.
If you had the opportunity to do it all over again from a business perspective, what would you change?
I had no experience running a business before I jumped in with both feet. Being naïve and fearless probably helped me. When I was young, I thought nothing of swimming with sharks— now I understand the dangers. But given the opportunity to do things all over again, I would seek out the advice of my elders. Being older now, I realize how little I knew then. If I had been lucky enough to have a mentor, who knows how successful I might have been.
What special or unique skills and strengths do you personally bring to the table in terms of being able to run a business (again, unique is the key word)?
I think I have the ability to see the big picture. In advertising it is unusual for a creative type to run an agency. I recognize the value of great graphics, clever text and persuasive public relations, but I also look at every project with an eye to the return on investment for the client and agency. Why do I have this second skill? Because, personally, I’ve had good times financially, as well as those when I clawed my way out for just a little air. You can’t understand the value of a dollar if you haven’t ever needed one.
Likewise, I have many friends and probably many enemies. Therefore, I have learned to quickly recognize who loves me for me— and who loves me for my assumed money or influence. I am fiercely loyal to those in my inner circle including clients and staff members. I think this instinctively helps me protect my business and alert my clients to red flags in their world.
Lastly, my “second careers” have been personally enriching, as well as having taught me to manage my time well. I was a licensed residential contractor, a talent agent, and now the executive director of a 501(c) 3, all while running The Gillespie Agency. Each business has taught me something I would not have learned otherwise. I think these kinds of diverse business experiences certainly help me see the big picture in my advertising business.
– W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a New York Times bestselling military technical advisor and editor. Visit him at uswriter.com.