She was going to make it on drive and grit.
Grit isn’t usually a word one attributes to a woman. But for Melissa it fits like a glove.
Born the oldest of four girls, with an age gap between her closest sibling, Melissa was often the babysitter, and "in charge" at home with her younger siblings before her parents came home from work. She took a lot of ownership in the idea that she was oldest and needed to show them the ropes. She would take them on field trips and make up games. She even declared a national Sister Day and each year would give them their own 1 on 1 time where they did things together all day long.
There’s a line in Frank Capra’s classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life” when George Bailey’s father Peter looks at George and says, ‘you were born older George.” It’s not a comment on his age. It’s about how some people are just born to take care and run things well beyond their years of experience. That’s Melissa.
Her dad worked in food service. Her mom did as well when she was in her 20’s, but then moved on to other things. Her mom was always involved in creative endeavors, which probably passed on an appreciation of style and ideas to her oldest daughter.
Her mom’s career mostly involved interior design, and then furniture/accessory retail. Today, she’s finally realized her "dreams" and has gotten as close to making it as Melissa thinks she ever hoped - she's a part owner of a big furniture consignment store in west county.
After five years in Sin City they decided it probably wasn’t the best place to raise a family. So, they looked east and moved back to Missouri.
It was about that time that Melissa stumbled upon something that would change the trajectory of her life forever. One night while flipping channels on the TV she was introduced to Angela Bower. That’s right, Angela Bower the blonde advertising executive who fell in love with her sporty, Italian hunk of a housekeeper Tony. “Who’s the Boss” changed her life.
“I wanted to be Angela Bower,” she says.
Her parents took her to meet a career counselor when she was a sophomore in high school. She filled out personality tests to figure out her aptitudes and she was identified as strong in writing, spoken word and presenting things. Additionally, the tests outlined occupations that would intersect with her strengths and they we’re in journalism, marketing and communications.
It’s not too surprising. Melissa was constantly writing in her journal. It’s something she continues even to this day. “I think taking the time to reflect makes you a stronger teammate, colleague, human and friend,” she says.
“If you don’t take a moment to to reflect back on the things that are happening to you, you just keep moving onto the next thing. I’m always moving fast, going forward and being competitive. So, to counteract that forward momentum I’ve always had, journaling is a way to slow down and stop and reflect.”
She applied and was accepted to Mizzou and their journalism school whose notable alumni include Donald W. Reynolds, Jann Carl, Bob Sullivan and an ugly someone nobody has ever heard of, Brad Pitt.
But I’m sure you’re asking, “I thought this was a story about someone who loved advertising.” Don’t worry, it is.
Mizzou uniquely incorporates advertising into their journalism curriculum.
“Their philosophy is that advertising fuels a free press.” Melissa says.
Zipatoni an ad agency came in to give a presentation to the class her junior year and she was smitten. “They had a great, sexy office space in downtown Saint Louis. They were working on Miller Lite. They were cool people and I was like, I’m getting this internship.”
Luck wouldn’t be enough for the 7 11 baby. It was going to take guts — and the good news was Melissa had plenty.
“It was a competitive internship, but I was naturally competitive so I did everything.” Melissa says. “I was the first to hand deliver my resume and speak to the Journalism school graduates. I got the internship and that was really the jump-start of my advertising career.”
She did the internship between her Junior and Senior year and then continued on to get her Masters degree in Strategic Communications. Zipatoni actually sponsored her master’s thesis and she did some part time work for them as well.
It was sometime during her internship that Melissa took a bit of a detour. It didn’t last too long, only about 16 hours.
An open casting call was announced for the second season of a reality show. This show hosted by a bizarre, blonde comb over wearing real estate guru was a hit and 5000 up and coming entrepreneurs showed up to the Casino Queen for a their shot at getting on the show.
“It’s true. I made it to the second round of the tryouts for the Apprentice.”
She says with a smile. “I was intrigued with the idea of making it big in business and being around people who were as driven as I perceived myself to be at the time.”
Thank God she didn’t make it on the show. Who even remembers who won that season or any others that followed? It may have been one of the few times in her life that luck actually did step in.
After getting her Masters she started at Zipatoni as an account planner. “The research side of things was really interesting to me at the time.” She says. “They were growing their planning team, and a position opened up in Chicago and I took it.”
After two years of researching and running focus groups and all the things that go along with being a planner, Zipatoni lost Miller Lite and it left a huge hole in the agency. And while others might have been shattered, Melissa took it in stride and got a job at the agency that had just won the Miller Lite business.
She was their research and planning lead, which meant she lived out of her suitcase for three years and figuring out how to activate Miller Lite in local markets, mostly through their sports sponsorships.
So, it was off to Dallas and then Pittsburgh — all the while finding out how to get the fans in their markets to choose a beer that was less filling and tasted great. She would visit the stadiums, talk with the fans and buy them beers while trying to find out what made them tick. Then the agency would craft programs, with the help of Melissa’s insights that were specifically tailored to the fan base.
At that time she met a Chicago guy who would eventually become her husband. He was offered a job in Saint Louis and so he was in her city while she was in his. They tried it for a while but eventually someone had to move, and Melissa chose to head back to her old stomping grounds in Saint Louis.
But, something had changed. She was a little burned out from the ridiculous hours and miles. Maybe it was the constant in and out of projects that made her curious about client relationship building. She wanted to commit to accounts for the long term.
Enter Paradowski, a design boutique that was thinking about expanding. Up until that moment it had been a graphic design shop with a fantastic reputation. But, times were changing and they needed to branch out and become more — specifically a full service advertising agency.
Was it luck that brought her to their doors at just the right time? If you’ve been reading along you know it wasn’t. It was a combination of Melissa’s hard work and determination colliding with opportunity. She seized the moment and got the job.
It turned out to be more than just a job. Through hard work she positioned herself as vital to the agencies transition. She became a founding architect in the building of the agency along with Gus, Brad and Andy.
“I don’t think I realized what we were building while we were building it.” She recalls. “We didn’t sit in a room and plan it like, here’s our three-year plan and our five-year plan. We didn’t have a blueprint or a road map for how it would go. But rather, how it occurred was very organic and natural and has clearly worked out so far. We each came at it from very specific view as to what makes our disciplines successful and they’ve melded together like puzzle pieces in a way that we couldn’t have predicted. There were some foundational things that weren’t thrown out. Specifically, account service was pretty intense and it has remained an intense focus discipline of the agency. Treated with as much care and oversight as the creative talents of the agency. Or something like that. It's more than a function of the shop, it's part of the life-blood. It’s based on deep emotional relationships with our clients."
"We become trusted advisors, best friends, consultants and partners. And I’ve never seen that at any other agency.”
A perfect example of this approach to account service was during the first ever integrated campaign for Monsanto’s Saint Louis Grown initiative.
“We built a website and had a big ad campaign running and on the first day it crashed and burned due to a server issue.” She says. “There were a lot of reasons why it crashed, but really we fucked up. So, the relationship I had forged with the client, that trusting friendship I had worked on, was the sole reason why we were able to navigate our way out of out of it and ultimately create a massive success that parlayed into being invited to RFP’s and grew the business. The relationship allowed me to drive to her office, look her in the eye and acknowledge that we messed up, but here were some solutions. She was pissed. She looked bad to her boss. But we had built up enough trust in the trust bank, we had done our diligence and had some solutions which allowed her to give us the benefit of the doubt and we moved forward.”
Melissa is often asked what she looks for in a potential hire. What does she expect from those who join her team?
“I despise the notion that account service is filled with order takers and that we just pick up the order and bring it back to the shop. People who describe themselves as list makers, or have more of a task-oriented mentality, you’re not going to be good at account service, at least not at our shop.”
She continues, “They need to be forward thinking and anticipate what’s next. They need to read the tea leaves of what’s going on with the market, the target audience, the clients and try to predict what is going to happen next, capitalize on it and and sell it in. You have to be well read and intellectual to do this. I think clients expect a certain level of depth of thinking.”
And then she says something that no one would expect.
“You need to be a chameleon. You have to be a student of behavior and work styles and manage those around you to get things done.”
"They need to find ways to be comfortable in a lot of different circumstances. One minute you’re at a cocktail party with clients mingling and working the room, the next you’re talking with a bunch of creatives in a conference room. You’ve got to be comfortable and effective in all situations.”
Notice she didn’t mention being lucky. Why would she? She may have been born a lucky baby, but it’s been hard work, drive and passion that got her to where she is.