Profile: Sarah Cunningham, Chief Growth Officer, TPN
Sarah Cunningham has been in the trenches with global brands her entire career, first with Leo Burnett and, for the past nearly 22 years, with TPN. She’s led initiatives that have generated significant sales results, opened new channels for distribution and increased brand awareness. She joined TPN at a time when the agency was building out the team for a new office in Chicago and preparing to launch the shopper marketing practice. She helped cement the foundation for shopper marketing at the agency. Prior to becoming chief growth officer, Cunningham was its senior vice president of client service, leading the Chicago and West Coast offices. She is one of three Women of Excellence honorees in the “Leadership” category.
What are your current responsibilities?
Cunningham: I’m focused on strategies and initiatives for both internal and external growth. We have a great story to tell – about TPN’s own three decades of growth in our revenue and capabilities; all the innovative and creative ways we make the buy happen for our clients; and our truly one-of-a-kind, human-centric culture, “TPN Soul.” I also lead some of our client teams, which allows me opportunities to leverage my experience across many commerce channels and help our clients understand how digital and technology advances are impacting our industry, the marketplace and their brands.
What makes you a strategic and seasoned builder of brands?
Cunningham: The key is developing meaningful relationships with my colleagues and clients. I become trusted counsel to my clients and other agency partners, going beyond the scope of work and day-to-day to analyze how we can deliver the most impact and influence and elevate multiple areas of their business. My job is also to help clients achieve their professional goals and support them in building out a portfolio of work that matters (“career selfie” moments for them), as they are recognized for their positive impacts on their own organization’s business and cultural goals, along with the industry.
What leadership qualities do you employ in your daily work?
Cunningham: Empathy, respect, collaboration, curiosity and drive – the core values that are TPN’s guiding force and North Star – what we call TPN Soul. These values are a set of beliefs and practices that define our culture and the way we show up for each other, our clients and the marketplace we serve. Empathy is one of the most important qualities to me. Every day we come with a story, and understanding what drives my clients and colleagues, their core context and challenges and what they may be struggling with (both professionally and personally) allows me to better understand their perspective and offer more informed solutions. Curiosity is also critical. I’m a naturally curious person and I believe a curious leader will always be looking for and finding new ways to improve.
When have you been pushed to be a strong leader?
Cunningham: Working on the Cricket business (before and after they were acquired by AT&T) really catapulted me into a leadership position. As part of a cross-agency team, we launched Muve Music, which radically changed the music-sharing industry. We had to create a new language – a way of talking about music and wireless across all the conversation touchpoints. One of most successful brand launches at that time, it served as a huge career milestone for me. I’m also proud of my nearly two decades of work across many PepsiCo brands and helping to launch and build many successful brands in the portfolio. When PepsiCo began labeling products to help consumers make informed choices in response to the rise of childhood obesity, it was an important initiative internally and with their customers’ executive leadership teams. The learnings helped inform and define the need for an evolution to label transparency and education, which has only grown more relevant and important today for brands of all kinds, large and small.
What motivates you most in this space?
Cunningham: The opportunity to understand a shopper’s journey, and why they do or don’t make decisions to engage, how to influence and change behavior, and curating the shopping experience is exciting to me. Each shopper has a very particular and personal set of needs. Understanding them and matching them quickly and efficiently with relevant solutions is both a science and art, and I find the process fascinating.