Growing up in Puerto Rico, Ingrid Otero-Smart was so introverted she rarely spoke in school.
Yet as President and CEO of Casanova McCann, Otero-Smart runs one of the largest multicultural advertising shops in the country. The firm works with blue-chip clients including Nestlé, U.S. Army and the California Lottery. This year, it was the most-awarded U.S. Hispanic agency at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, the second year in a row Casanova earned that recognition.
Twice named one of Hispanic Business Magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential Hispanics, the senior executive talks about how she overcame introversion and grew into the successful business leader she is today.
This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What was your childhood in Puerto Rico like?
I was painfully shy and would sit in the back of the classroom. I always got good grades and teachers didn’t push me to speak.
I was about to graduate from high school and realized I was going to get lost in college if I didn’t get some self-confidence. I felt maybe taking modeling classes would help and enrolled in a San Juan modeling school.
A local designer noticed me and talked with the school’s general manager, who asked if I was serious. I said, “No, I’m doing it for the classes.” She said, “If you can commit to modeling, I’ll be your manager.”
She was good and pushed me. I ended up in beauty contests in Latin America and got contracts as a runway model for designers in Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Colombia. It gave me the confidence that I could stand in front of a crowd.
How did you get your start in the ad business?
I was going to be a doctor or a teacher. I got to the University of Puerto Rico and realized I didn’t want to do either. A friend was studying communication. I said, “I’m going to try that” but I didn’t fall in love with it until I started working at McCann.
How did you end up at McCann?
I started talking to one of my friends. She told me about a temporary job at McCann’s traffic department. I had no idea what the traffic department did. Back then, we didn’t have the luxury of being able to Google and see what the position was.
I’ll go. Maybe I’ll be parking the senior executives’ cars. At least I’ll be working.
[Note: In the broadcasting industry, the traffic department handles scheduling of program materials, especially the advertisements.]
The traffic director was the one on maternity leave. She gave me the job. Then, while she was out, we won a big account, Eastern Airlines. When she came back, she asked me to stay.
I worked in traffic for a year and a half. Then, I went to media for a year and then to production. Even though they had just transferred me, a job opened in account services. That’s where I was until I left McCann after about seven years.
But I always wanted to work in the U.S. mainland, to understand really how business was done here. A job opportunity came open in an agency that I’d never heard of, Mendoza Dillon, in the Hispanic market, which I had also never heard of in Puerto Rico.
The guy doing interviews was in New York. He told me the job was in Orange County. The only Orange County I had ever heard of was in New Jersey.
Again, I couldn’t Google where that was. As we were talking, he said, “I have a couple more interviews today, but you know, I think you’re a very strong candidate. Could you move to California?” I got the job.
Two weeks later, I moved with a couple of suitcases to California and started my career in the US Hispanic market.
How did the experience at Mendoza Dillon change you?
It made me the person I am today. I had incredible mentors at McCann, like the creative director and the president of McCann Puerto Rico. They invested time and effort to help me.
But I also wanted to know I could do it on my own. I came out here not knowing anyone. I had no family, no friends, and had to learn the US Hispanic market pretty quickly.
I was exposed to the kind of clients I wanted to be exposed to and got to know how people worked here. There were much larger budgets than I was used to in Puerto Rico and more access to resources like research. It really helped me grow.
I started as an account director and then left as the president and CEO 18 years later.
I know your son is a huge part of your life. What’s it like to be both a mom and a senior executive?
It wasn’t easy. I felt I was pulled in two different directions, but I always knew he was my North Star. Everything I was doing and everything I do is for him.
He came when I was a little older, so I was already more established in my career. I had a little bit more flexibility. He always knew I was a better mom and a happier mom because I worked.
What advice do you have for other working moms?
When he was little, I would always feel guilty because I never saw that I was doing enough. I was traveling. He was home. But I made an extra effort every time when I was home to be present for him. I always felt guilty—and almost physically in pain—because of it.
My son did a video a couple of years ago when I won a “Mother of the Year” award in New York. He says he could not remember one time when I wasn’t there for dinner before anything special. I wish I’d known that when he was little. I’d have had so much less guilt.
I tell the young women here at the offices, “If this is what you want to do, your kid will be fine, even better off—as long as you make an effort to be there for him or her.”
Don’t let guilt take over.
What keeps you up at night about the multicultural space?
One of our challenges is ourselves. We don’t give ourselves enough credit. There’s always, “But the general market agencies are coming after our business” or “The clients don’t believe in the Hispanic market.”
Clients are seeing the power of the market, but their general market agencies have tried and cannot and will not do what we do. We need to be more self-assured.
The opportunity is just so big. I see it in all of our 15 clients and every time we go on a new business pitch. People realize this isn’t an opportunity, but a necessity.
What’s the difference between total market and cross-cultural?
The total market concept? Some people use it as an excuse to say, “I don’t need to do anything specific for any segments. I can have a one size fits all solution.”
When we start talking more about cross-cultural marketing, it’s about making sure what you’re doing to target the general market is still relevant to the multicultural segments.
We need to make sure you have communication that is targeted to the different segments. Not every client is going to target every segment, right? Every client needs to understand what their top segments are. No one has unlimited dollars to go after every single segment. There must be priorities.
What advice do you have for women, Latinx folks or historically marginalized groups as they make their way through the business world?
Help each other. Women should give the woman next to them or behind them a hand up. It’s the same with Hispanics or any group.
When you start climbing the corporate ladder, don’t just look ahead of you. Look next to you, look behind you and offer help.
Is diversity important? If so, for its own sake or for business reasons?
It has to start with the business part or if not, it goes away. Studies prove that diverse companies do better. Their bottom line is stronger, their stock market price is higher.
There are more case studies we see of companies proving that diversity has impacted their bottom line. That’s how the conversation is going to change. That’s how it’s going to stick. If not, it’ll go away.
Are there other hurdles you’ve faced?
I’m not 30 anymore. Ageism has traditionally been a negative part of our industry, probably almost every industry. It’s time we all acknowledge the fact that there is power in experience. I’m having as much fun—if not more—doing my job today. I am better at it than I was when I was 30. The age is just a number.
Some of my friends ask, “What are you planning to do next?” Whoa, I’m doing what I want to do next!
It’s important we talk about diversity in not only skin color and sex, but also age.
By Court Stroud