Why Greater Than One's Elizabeth Apelles stands firm on independence
Elizabeth Apelles is CEO of The GTO Group, an independent healthcare communications company, which includes nonprofit subsidiary GTO Greater Good.
What's your morning ritual?
My 11-year-old wakes us up at 6:45 a.m. I make breakfast and read The New York Times and the Financial Times, which we have delivered every morning. En route to work, I think about what I've read, the trends that are developing, and how those apply to our clients' businesses.
How did you get into the industry?
Three months after we formed the company in June 2000, a traditional advertising agency asked us to run the search-engine media for one of their clients: the maker of a diabetes drug called Actos, which was a joint venture between Eli Lilly and Takeda. Six months later, Lilly put out an RFP for AOR for all digital media and search and we won it, competing against FCB and IMC2. We were ten people at the time. We knew there was a niche to fill and we never looked back. Seventeen years later, GTO has evolved to become a fully integrated AOR born in digital. We remain 100% independent.
What is the best part of your job?
When we founded GTO in 2000, the field of digital communications was in its infancy and it was exciting to grow a business in a new environment. It's been fascinating to be closely involved with the products our clients have developed and the contribution they've made to society. In addition, our GTO Greater Good foundation has grown significantly and we're leading a challenging project with UNESCO aimed at preventing violent extremism. The fact that we remain independent allows us to chart our own course, which is incredibly liberating.
What is your greatest professional challenge?
This has to be that I am a woman, leading a company in an industry with few female CEOs and even fewer CEOs on the client side.
What is the best career advice you've received?
Never buy into others' groupthink. Chart your own course and figure it out for yourself. Only then will you preserve your sense of self.
What do you do when you feel uninspired?
I exercise, usually to a class called body pump. It's fantastic — lifting weights with other people to heart-pounding music. It's my way of pushing all of the noise out, which allows me to align an idea in my head or focus on finding the solution to an issue.
What is the last thing that inspired you?
The other night I was listening to the Westminister College Choir. The conductor told a story about one member of the choir who wanted nothing more than to sing, but he didn't have enough money. His hard work juggling multiple jobs coupled with his can-do spirit was truly inspiring. Having not only a dream but the relentless drive to make it happen is what it's all about. The fact that his dream creates such beauty is especially fantastic. I can relate to that.
What industry event are you most looking forward to?
I'll answer this one looking backwards: the event was the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce Annual Gala in Washington, D.C., in November. It came on the heels of receiving billion-dollar club status, meaning any sourcing clients put towards NGLCC businesses counts towards their diversity spend. We are NGLCC- as well as WBE-certified (Women's Business Enterprise). I think diversity coupled with curiosity and tolerance is essential to our ability to capitalize on the white space that is thrown up because of change.
What are you reading?
Walter Isaacson's biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. Born out of wedlock, he could not follow the family path and thus had to chart his own course. Working during the Renaissance when there were no lines between the arts and sciences, Leonardo used art, math, and engineering to reinvent and invent so many incredible things — from painting hidden emotion (think the Mona Lisa) to figuring out the mechanism to fire a bullet. Steve Jobs revered him, and I can see why.