Belle Frank, a 2019 MM+M Hall of Femme inductee, has vast marketing communications and insights experience across nearly every category. She oversees strategy for VMLY&R’s health and wellness practice and is responsible for insight work for a number of major global companies and brands.
Why did you get into this industry? Where did you get started?
I knew nothing about working in advertising. Nobody in my family had ever worked in business, but when I was looking for a job, as a feminist, I knew I wanted to avoid a traditional “woman’s career.” I came from generations of schoolteachers, and as a French major, people assumed I would teach. Instead, I got a master’s degree in human development from the program that conducted the research for Sesame Street. When I wasn’t hired by Children’s Television Workshop, I landed at a tiny research firm specializing in testing commercials. I decided I’d rather make ads than test them so I moved to Y&R, now VMLY&R.
It took time to find my voice, so I had quite a few gigs at the agency — starting in new business and then moving to account management. At the time, the CEO told me I would be happier in research, which became account planning, now called strategy. He was right, but I didn’t listen.
Any interesting events/stories that changed your career? Who helped you out along the way?
My career changed when I had a baby. I was the first woman at Y&R in account management to come back to work after having one! With no email, voicemail or even a personal answering machine, I decided I wanted to work less than 40 hours per week. So, I moved into the research department and was mentored by the amazing Stephanie Kugelman, who ran the department (and eventually the agency) and had worked three days a week when she was a new mom.
When did you know you were in the right place?
Once I understood I could have a career leveraging research, I never looked back. I joined the team responsible for the 1993 launch of Brand Asset Valuator, the largest brand equity model, and built expertise using research to drive creative development. I love being the person in the room with insight, the person who can explain data without jargon. I started my doctorate to get grounded in multivariate analysis and learned what I needed to thrive in our data science world. I decided to become the president of the PTA rather than finish my degree, and I credit both experiences with making me the consumer insights person that I am.
Flexibility and curiosity are the secrets. When DTC healthcare marketing began, I helped colleagues Robert Grammatica and John Morris successfully establish our health practice.
With creative director Richard Butt, I inspired our pharmaceutical clients to do innovative work.
In 2014, I began teaching research in the branding program at City University of New York. (I guess I was going to teach after all.) Once my kids grew up, I needed a way to help other young people achieve and, as the program is quite multicultural, I think that in some small way I help to diversify our industry.
Do you wish you could have done something differently in your career?
I love to work. The only thing I would have done differently is to have been more confident about forging my own path. I did it, but I worried. I wish I hadn’t. It would have probably been even more fun.