Barby Siegel likes to talk about her father. It is an endearing trait, personalising a presence that — if judged solely by her 5am weightlifting videos — might come off as a little daunting. Siegel lets her guard down when she talks about family, though, especially her father — a World War II veteran who built a career in Brooklyn as a peddler, selling clothes door to door.

Peddlers of that type are now a extinct breed, and that’s part of the point Siegel is trying to make. "He would go door to door in Brooklyn and sell sheets, socks, underwear — people would pay on instalment,” she recalls. "Every time he went back to make a payment, he made another sale. Growing up, I didn’t understand how he could make a living doing this. Talk about having a work ethic and customer service.”

Yet, even if there are no peddlers anymore, it seems pretty clear that Al Kogon’s hustle and drive lives on in his youngest daughter, who has led Zeno through a period of transformative growth since becoming CEO 10 years ago. It is no surprise, perhaps, that Zeno colleague and chief culture officer Grant Deady — who has known Barby Siegel for almost two decades, refers to her as “the peddler’s daughter”, a nod to the relentless energy she continues to display to this day.

"Every day he had to be out there hustling, putting different deals together.” says Deady. "That has what Barby has done at Zeno and she’s essentially done them one by one. Those mannerisms and that style are also what were key to her father’s success. It’s an acknowledgement of her roots and essentially how far she has come. Barby is young — this has all happened at an accelerated rate."

"She is the most driven person I’ve ever met,” says Angie Moxham, who sold her UK firm 3 Monkeys to Zeno in 2015. "She’s got more drive than Jack Nicklaus. I’ve never known anybody so committed, passionate, disciplined. There is no off switch.”

Siegel’s drive manifests itself in different ways. When she arrived at Zeno it was considered the ugly stepchild in the Edelman family, a glorified conflict shop that couldn’t necessarily be relied upon even for that. In the decade since it has grown to become one of the industry’s hottest shops, netting marquee clients like Lenovo and Salesforce on the way to $75m in annual revenue.

“I’ve never seen anybody as competitive as she is in the agency world,” says one former colleague, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s an extraordinary strength.”

That competitive sprit also explains why, when I ask to observe Siegel in her natural habitat, it is suggested that I visit a White Plains gym at five in the morning. Naturally, I demur, but the consequent video makes clear Siegel’s remarkable capacity for intensity.

"You cannot deadlift 135lb if you’re not focused on the job at hand,” says Siegel. "What happens in the gym translates directly to the boardroom — that strength of mind is so important.”

As Zeno continues to grow into a genuinely global agency, Siegel’s strength of mind will be tested like never before. So too will the unique culture she has ushered in at Zeno — the #fearless bracelets, the colour green (in obvious opposition to Edelman), all overseen by Siegel’s hands-on approach to all aspects of the agency.

"I was at Ogilvy when Barby left and you could feel the void,” says Zeno SVP Jackie Cox,
who was hired into her first PR job by Siegel 15 years ago. "When she comes into a room, the energy changes immediately." 
"Many leaders are removed from the process,” explains Suresh Raj, an agency veteran who joined Zeno to lead business development seven months ago. “Barby Siegel is in the trenches. She’s in the meetings, in the pitches. She doesn’t just turn up, she actually works behind the scenes with the team.”

How Siegel sustains that intensity across Zeno’s increasingly global presence will likely figure as a defining challenge for the fast-growing firm. "One thing was very simple. Barby never asks anyone to do something she would not do herself,” points out Deady, who recalls the excitement that greeted Siegel’s arrival as Zeno CEO. "She has essentially willed this agency to the place where it is now.”

"I would say that she’s great at motivating her staff because she actually leads from the frontlines,” adds Richard Edelman. “She’s not one of these finance-driven CEOs, she’s actually going to see the client.”

That, says Edelman, has helped transform his own aspirations for Zeno. "Barby’s really exceeded any dream I’ve ever had, but now I can dream bigger. I think they are definitely on the path to $100m but now they can get to $200m."

"Zeno is still at a size where you can still be command and control,” cautions the former colleague. "At $100m you cannot be command and control. The culture will be tested.”

‘Leadership was always in my blood’

Siegel wears her working class Brooklyn roots with pride. Born in Bay Ridge, she lived in Flatbush until her family moved to New Jersey during her teenage years. Barby’s mother worked in the fashion industry, and her three daughters were raised in a strict but highly ambitious environment. 

"None of my sisters and I were ever told we couldn’t do something,” says Siegel, the youngest of the three. "My sisters and I are intense at everything — even a game of Monopoly, we are very competitive."

“It wasn’t about competition,” adds her older sister Kory Kogon. “It was about being the best you can be, no matter what the circumstances.”

Barby majored in English at Barnard College, where her leadership abilities were recognised early in her roles as editor of the student newspaper and class president. "Leadership was always in my blood,” she notes. "My mother was not perfect but she put something in us that has given us incredible drive and ambition, but not to the exclusion of being human. It’s not about pushing other people aside.”

Upon graduation, Siegel targeted jobs in advertising, but few were available. Public relations appeared to be the next best bet. "I wrote many, many letters to PR firms trying to get a job” recalls Siegel. "This one had a typo and I almost didn’t redo it but I thought this could be the one.”

That attention to detail paid off and Siegel landed her first job at McGrath/Power Associates (MPA). Her first day saw her visiting Campbell Soup Company in Camden, NJ, as Siegel’s precocity immediately marked out her out as one to watch. "I quickly got a lot of responsibility,” she says. “It became a running joke that I had to lie about my age.”

Siegel rose rapidly to VP. "I think it was the first place that taught me hustle. Just going after the clients.” She was also afforded considerable leeway by her boss Mary Ann Mills, a trait that she has tried to incorporate at Zeno. "One of the things we say at Zeno is we’re going to figure it out,” she explains. "PR…it’s common sense. And today it’s become more strategic. Back then, in hindsight, I’m not saying it was easy — you had to be smart  but I was able to move things along.”

By that point, Siegel was moving things along so well that MPA wanted to sell the agency to her. Yet Siegel was unconvinced about her own readiness for the role. "I needed to see how a big global agency operates,” she says. "I wanted to work on big, important clients.”

Siegel’s transition to a bigger agency was not as seamless as you might expect, particularly after an interview with one major firm that she declines to name. "They got back to me and said they really liked me,” she recollects. “But they said ‘we think you wear too much makeup’. I was very young but I thought — that’s not the place for me. I think about that and tell that story a lot — you can’t compromise.”

After meeting Richard Edelman in 1991, Siegel joined the firm as a VP, working on such clients as American Greetings, Hershey, Apple and Ericsson. "I travelled the world,” she says. “My time at Edelman was like getting an MBA. But leaving Edelman was the best thing I ever did.”

Even so, Siegel never thought she would depart Edelman, where her own attitude melded well with a culture she describes as “hard-hitting and competitive”. Still, after 11 years at the independent agency, Siegel admits to "feeling a little stuck in terms of where I could go”, specifically in terms of upward elevation after reaching the deputy GM position for Edelman’s New York consumer practice. 

Meanwhile, Ogilvy wanted Siegel for a role that seemed both opportune and somewhat uncomfortable. "Ogilvy was recruiting me for a job that I had no idea how to do,” she admits. "People were surprised then. Ogilvy had no consumer practice.”

“I remember my husband saying to me — and he’s a huge champion of my career — do you really know how to do this job?” adds Siegel. “There was a sea of empty tables, desks and chairs, and they told me they were excited that I was going to fill them up. I had a phone list, a computer and a telephone. And nobody telling me what to do.”

Siegel’s six-year tenure at Ogilvy, where she turned the consumer practice into a genuine force to be reckoned with, not only stands as an emblematic example of her ability to build an successful business, but also firmly established her as one of New York’s top PR talents.

"It is a good lesson about going out of your comfort zone” she says. "I believe in promoting people before they are ready. There’s a certain energy and and adrenalin for not quite being ready and figuring it out.”

At Ogilvy, Siegel recruited the entire consumer team. She says she enjoyed her "working partnership” with  CEO Marcia Silverman — “I remember her saying early on ‘don’t mistake my kindness for weakness’” — and focused her efforts on “working harder than the next person.”

"They had not had someone who looked at consumer the way I did and shook things up,” says Siegel. "When I do something, I’m all in. I was very happy and on quite a ride at Ogilvy when Richard called.”

The anti-Edelman

By 2008, Richard Edelman had every reason to be satisfied with his eponymous firm’s progress. Edelman had exploded over the previous six years, tripling in size and establishing itself as a genuinely disruptive force. But not everything was rosy in Edelman’s garden. PR21, the firm that he and his father Dan Edelman had launched as a conflict shop a decade earlier, continued to flounder.

“I had tried a couple of corporate-oriented people. I had tried a healthcare person,” recalls Edelman of Zeno’s management missteps. The firm had rebranded in 2004 and appeared to have stabilised as a $10m business, even as Edelman sought new leadership. "What I really thought is it should be a consumer or brand facing business. I was arguing my own logic by not doing that."

Neither was Edelman oblivious to the agency making waves on the other side of town, particularly given his penchant for cajoling departed staff into returning. It was August 2009 when he invited Siegel to breakfast, but even his legendary powers of persuasion were initially fruitless.

"I thought, oh my god, Zeno, what is it?” recalls Siegel. “It was a conflict shop of Edelman that was so up and down."

"That wasn’t so easy, but I said why do you want to be a practice leader when you can be your own boss and own some of it?” explains Edelman. "I had to persuade her a few times and take her to a few dinners.”

"I did think, Richard Edelman is asking me to be CEO and I didn’t know another CEO opportunity would come along,” adds Siegel, who recalls calling close friend and former PR21 executive Bridget Brennan for advice. "She said, 'what’s your question?' I don’t know what to do. She said,' Barby, the most famous man in PR is asking you to run one of his companies, what’s your question?'"

Ultimately, the presence of Dan Edelman in the recruitment process proved decisive, and Siegel signed on. "I’m not a member of the family but I take very seriously that I am leading an organization that is so important to Dan. Whenever Richard walks into one of our offices, he talks about that."

At Ogilvy, unsurprisingly, Siegel’s decision was greeted with dismay. “Paul Hicks said to me: 'I never knew you wanted to be CEO,' and I said 'neither did I’,” recalls Siegel. "They were shocked. Marcia was disappointed but happy for me."

It is probably safe to say that Ogilvy’s North American consumer practice never quite recovered from Siegel’s departure, with Hicks' and Silverman's exits in the following years serving to further weaken the agency. "I felt that everything we had worked so hard to build had started to tumble down,” said Siegel. "That was upsetting. It was a lesson — nothing should ever be dependent on one leader.”

But Siegel was also keenly aware of how to translate her Ogilvy experience to the challenge at hand at Zeno. “[Ogilvy] didn’t have nearly the profile of Edelman, or the people,” says Siegel. "We were going into pitches as a wild card and underdog. The underdog is more passionate, will work harder and is hungry. At the end of day, clients hire people.”

That underdog mentality may help explain why Siegel has thrived at Zeno. Indeed it is easy to overlook the scale of the task that confronted her when she arrived at the 55-person agency in 2009. "The problem with Zeno when I arrived was it had no rep or profile,” says Siegel. “It was considered a conflict shop, nobody paid attention to it and it had a very storied past.”

"I think they had had a lot of leaders before me — six or seven,” she adds. “Understandably, people might ask 'why is it going to be different this time?’”

Siegel is not exactly one to betray a lack of confidence, but she admits that the early days at Zeno were “a little scary”. "I needed to give people reasons to follow me and believe we were going to do something different.”

That bias towards action over rhetoric, a recurring theme in Siegel’s career, proved critical. Particularly when it came to one of the key decisions that helped to unlock Zeno’s potential — an obvious move in hindsight, but one with considerable cultural ramifications at the time. 

"One of the first things we did was shed the conflict agency identification,” confirms Siegel. On a wintry day after just three weeks on the job, that decision was communicated to Richard Edelman over lunch at the latter’s New York flat.

“I said: ‘If I wait for the phone to ring from Edelman for referrals, we’re going to be out of business,” says Siegel. "He let me from that day do our thing. He wanted to finally make Zeno a real shop.”

Today, Siegel is relatively diplomatic about the need to distance Zeno from Edelman. Yet the success of that move and the passage of time since should not devalue a decision that was, by all accounts, more than just symbolic for the fledgling firm. 

"We have got great referrals from Edelman, but you cannot build a business on referrals” she explains. "The world does not need another Edelman. I love Edelman but we’re going to go off and be something different.”

Not that Siegel sees much point in being unduly deferential when it comes to discussing the 800lb gorilla in the Daniel J Edelman family.  "I certainly don’t wake up in the morning thinking we’re going to compete with each other,” she points out. “But I report to Richard. We have separate real estate."

Zeno Europe MD Steve Earl recalls his first meeting with Siegel in 2012, when — for reasons best known to him — he wore a suit that was “almost Edelman blue pantone.”

“The first thing she said was why did you pick an Edelman suit to wear with me?” notes Earl. "She’ll often open by saying that we are a DJE company but we are not part of Edelman — we’re a separate company and we do it our own way."

“I wouldn’t say I was surprised when she got the job,” adds the former colleague. "She drove the notion of a fearless culture. She co-opted the colour green. She also made it the anti-Edelman. She’s not really loved over there, but she is respected."

‘There is no off switch'

To the untrained eye, Siegel’s leadership style can appear intimidating. The word “relentless” comes up with every person I talk to; no stone, it appears, is left unturned when Siegel sets her sights on a challenge.

"Fundamentally, stuff needs to happen,” says Earl. "When I first met her, the first thing I’m thinking is she is so punk rock compared to most agency leaders. There is no messing around. So direct — she tells it how it is and gets shit done.”

It is easy to see the trajectory of Zeno’s rise as somewhat analogous to Siegel’s weightlifting prowess; instead of deadlifting 135lb, she strapped a $10m agency to her back. "While she had this incredible vision for what Zeno would become, we kind of did it one client at a time at the beginning,” recollects Deady. "In those early days, the first several years, she was at every big meeting, visiting every office on a regular basis. She knew every member of staff — in the early days we kind of did it, one by one.”

Siegel’s famously competitive attitude is perhaps best observed in her pitching prowess, says Deady. "When we go in for a big pitch — often times the way it’s coordinated, all the agencies are are stacked up in the lobby or holding area. That makes them uncomfortable. Barby seems to relish it. She likes other agencies to see our name on the ledger. She likes running into the other agencies. She wants them to see her. She wants them to see the people that she is with. That is all part of her competitiveness.”

It is an approach that appears to have paid off in droves, starting with her first win at Zeno — Seattle’s Best Coffee — all the way through to the blockbuster assignments (Lenovo, Salesforce) that have defined Zeno’s more recent success. To hear agency executives tell it, this attitude reflects the ‘fearless’ culture that is an intrinsic part of Zeno’s story since Siegel’s arrival.

“My daughter came home with a Fearless bracelet, and I started wearing it,” recalls Siegel. Soon, she had contacted the manufacturer and everyone at Zeno was sporting one. ‘Fearless pursuit of the unexpected’ became the agency’s mantra, along with the ‘green machine’ positioning that reflects the kind of unstinting commitment Siegel wants from her staffers.

"I am intense, I know I am,” admits Siegel. "I would hope people find it inspiring. I do try to keep it in check but, ultimately, the leader needs to put a little juice in. I think a lot about the people who have taken the leap to Zeno and who have a given a lot to this place. I don’t take that for granted.”

"Barby’s energy is constantly there and sometimes that’s what’s needed,” adds Raj. "She knows she has to play that role. When the CEO is driving from the front and is constantly fired up it is quite telling and it gets everybody on board."

Yet to view Siegel as some kind of one-dimensional winning machine is to unfairly overlook the familial culture she has built at Zeno. Her office wall is regularly cited by her staff, plastered with photos of her staff and family, but that commitment extends beyond appearances. “If that’s the culture of this business, it would be a great place,” Raj recalls thinking when he first entered Siegel’s office.

“She is driven, but very compassionate, incredibly thoughtful,” says Moxham, who ended up leaving Zeno after just two years of her four-year earnout. "She’s got that gift where you are thinking of everybody all the time. She would do little gestures that meant a hell of lot.”

“She cares about you and the work that you're doing,” adds Cox. "But she cares about you as a human — that is why people follow her and work with her for years. You feel valued as a person, rather than just an employee.”

Not that Siegel’s leadership is all about work either. She is a fervent advocate for the importance of family, regularly sharing her working mother schedule in a bid to set the right example for her staff. "As intense as I am about Zeno and our clients, that can’t be everything. And I want the staff to know that too."

“She’s got a huge heart”, notes the former colleague, while everyone I spoke to was quick to note that Barby has, in the words of Moxham, “no side to her.”

"She’s like a freight train,” says Earl. "She wears her heart on her sleeve and tells it how it is."

'You can tell this is not just another stop on the tour'

The fear of failure is hardly an uncommon trope in the business world, explaining why so many corporate leaders choose to play it safe rather than court derision. Yet if there is anything that sets Siegel apart, it is a total rejection of this concept, an attitude that encompasses much more than just the Fearless bracelet she proudly sports.

Indeed, the Zeno CEO's focus is all-encompassing. There is none of the self-consciousness that might stop another executive from making every possible call or sending every potential email. “She tends to use capital letters a lot,” muses Earl. “Not because she’s particularly stressing a point, it’s often because she cares about something, so you know where you stand. We used to joke the caps lock is sticking."

Siegel also sends out heartfelt notes on national holidays and tragedies alike, often sharing anecdotes about her life as a working mother. This, says Deady, helps to explain why so many find Siegel’s presence uplifting rather than daunting. 

"Even for people who don’t have same competitive spirit or swagger that Barby has, I think it rubs off on them,” he said. "After you’re with Barby for a certain amount of time, it’s hard to imagine what it might be like working for or with someone else. This lifestyle can be a bit gruelling at times — you just know that Barby is just somewhere picking herself up and bringing an incredibly positive attitude to what she is doing. That’s very inspirational.”

Clearly, Zeno is an agency built in Siegel’s image. But can that approach be sustained as it outgrows its US roots to become a genuinely global player? Siegel's extraordinary presence, says one current Zeno colleague, can sometimes tilt decision-making, often through no fault of her own. 

“You're only going to get a certain type of colleague that will work with her for a while,” says the former staffer. “It can sometimes seem like it’s Barby’s way or the highway.”

Other senior executives, though, dismiss this notion. "She’s pretty inspirational for people internally,” says Earl. "I don’t think she intimidates, but they can be a little bit caught off guard about how direct she is. But she’s certainly not the kind of dogmatic leader who says it has to be done this way. She will be purposeful, but it’s a very inclusive approach.”

"I think it’s a much better path to endearing yourself to Barby by pushing back and challenging,” adds Deady. "She has much less tolerance for people that might just roll over and not have an opinion.”

"She actually listens to advice, meaning from me,” says Richard Edelman, who suggested a couple of years ago that Zeno needed a chief operating officer. After initial pushback, Siegel accepted the argument. “So Nancy Ruscheinski comes over from Edelman and she’s made a real difference.”

That kind of talent acquisition is likely to prove the pivotal challenge for Zeno if it is to fulfil Edelman’s elevated ambitions for the firm. The firm still doesn’t have a presence in China, but almost half of its revenue now comes from clients that it works with in more than one country.

"Finding the right talent is the big challenge for Zeno,” accepts Raj. “People who can keep up with the pace and with the energy. Barby’s very aware there are gaps in the skillset we need to really grow.”

Not that Siegel, you imagine, is hiding from the challenge, tapping into the spirit that helped Al Kogon build a vibrant career on the streets of Brooklyn. “We will grow but we will never lose our soul, the values that got us here,” she says. "We will not turn into another kind of agency. You have to work at that." 

“She believed in the potential of Zeno right from the start,” adds Cox. "She has dialled up a culture. She has dived into extending beyond the employee and really getting into us as a family. You can tell this is not just another stop on the tour."