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Inspiring Female Leaders: An Interview with RAPP CEO Gabrielle Ludzker

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Gabrielle Ludzker is not just any CEO. The current head honcho at customer experience agency RAPP has spent her career breaking away from the traditional corporate CEO stereotype. and leads to inspire rule breakers. Gabby is an inspirational rule breaker with a quirky leadership style and a woman who champions diverse voices within her teams, creating a dynamic and inclusive environment.

Her interesting career journey saw her transfer the skills learnt in her languages degree to the creative space, before dropping everything to pursue her passion for Aikido in Paris, full time. She then returned to the creative world, and her journey took her from managing global brands to becoming an agency CEO while pregnant, then leading through a merger just as she returned from maternity leave.

I sat down with her on International Women’s Day earlier this month to discuss her journey juggling being a CEO and a mother while leading through a major merger.

Tell us about your career journey and how you became the CEO of RAPP UK. What were some of the challenges and opportunities you faced along the way?

I started out in an interactive agency at the dawn of digital. I made the first ever email for Olay, the first website for Pantene, the first database for Aussie, and the first interactive game for Max Factor. It was so exciting and super fast-paced. I ran the P&G account across Europe at a very young age and my bosses at the time told me I needed tips on how to ‘look older’ - the suggestion was black trouser suits!

After seven years I took a short sabbatical to live in Paris and train for my Aikido black belt before deciding to stay and work there – which had always been my secret plan! Back in the world of work, and before I found a dream role at Proximity Paris running the international business, I had a blip at a startup who convinced me to take a huge pay cut because they said Europe-level salaries were different. I will never make that mistake again!

After three years in Paris, I moved back to London and Proximity UK and spent eight years pitching my heart out, creating a new global proposition, and the industry’s number one Best Place to Work. A piece of my heart will always be Prox-shaped!

I was very lucky there to have two bosses who supported me and pushed me up and up. I became CEO at 36 years old, while pregnant, and was able to take 12-month maternity leaves after both my daughters. I am so grateful for that balance.

Six weeks after returning from maternity leave with my second, I was told we were merging with RAPP. And in the two weeks of confidential discussions that followed, the world quickly spiralled into the greatest pandemic of our time. Just as the ink was drying on our new leadership structure (the leader of RAPP Chris Freeland and I were both asked to stay), we had to transition both agencies to remote working within 24 hours and complete the entire merger remotely. Only two years later did I finally meet some of the 600 people we had become. A crazy whirlwind. But given that 70% of mergers fail, I am still intensely proud that ours succeeded.

So, you became an agency CEO while pregnant and led through a merger just as you returned from maternity leave. How did you manage these transitions and what advice would you give to other working mothers in similar situations?

I was so grateful to my bosses and the organisation for supporting my promotion to CEO after I told them I was pregnant. The day they told me I went home and cried because they were the two things I had always dreamed of and they happened at the same time – I was convinced they would say I couldn’t do it anymore. But they just said CONGRATULATIONS! Now find an amazing number two.

I know it sounds idyllic and I also know I was very lucky to have healthy pregnancies, but my advice is to lean into the moment and use that time to propel you! I don’t think I have ever or will ever be as productive because I had this enormous unmovable deadline hanging over me.


I had to get the agency ready, get my succession ready, and establish the governance. There was no way I was leaving it in a state. But I think I put a lot of pressure on myself and, on reflection, working 9 weekends in a row and doing weekly 2am finishes on a giant and quite horrific pitch was probably NOT a good idea…

The merger was hardcore. We were three weeks into lockdown. I had a one-year-old and a three-year-old at home and was stuck in my box room doing the unprecedented in the unprecedented! Ok. It was actually super s**t! Let’s be honest. I think I survived on a combination of chocolate biscuits and micro naps. And making more loo roll animal figurines than I ever thought humanly possible.

You are known for breaking away from the traditional corporate CEO stereotype and leading to inspire rule breakers. What does this mean to you and how do you foster a culture of innovation and creativity at RAPP UK?

I was a little surprised to have tested 1 out of 10 on a scale of ‘Rule free’ to ‘Rule Bound’ in the Personality Profile tests that we use at work. But on reflection, it explained a lot! I know it is unusual for a CEO, but I cannot stand to be suffocated by meaningless bureaucracy or legacy ‘traditions’. I will always bring blue sky thinking to the table and will deliberately ‘positive challenge’, even with crazy ideas so that others around me feel the psychological safety to also ideate ‘out of the box’.

Within our RAPP Pledge we talk about creating an atmosphere where no one fears failure, where we can try new things without worrying about the ramifications. In an industry like ours, we have to learn and evolve on a daily basis. This can be so intimidating and overwhelming. So I do everything I can to set a tone of informality and safety to alleviate as much of that pressure as possible.

You have a passion for Aikido, a martial art that emphasizes harmony and balance. How has this influenced your leadership style and approach to work?

Shortly after my 30th birthday, I went to study Aikido full time for 3 months to train for my black belt. And going from never having done sports to training six hours per day every day nearly broke me physically and mentally. However, carrying on (my teacher nicknamed me La Tueuse - The Killer) and the sense of achievement at the end gave me a taste for relentless perseverance that has never abated. Without a doubt, this has translated to making me a resilient leader.

It also deepened my love and desire for teamwork. Aikido may be a martial art, but it translates from Japanese as ‘The way of love’ because to defeat your opponent, you have to use their strength against them. I definitely lead by seeking counsel and working closely with different teams to achieve our goals. I am frankly sad and ineffective when left on my own for too long!

But more importantly, it taught me that there are no limitations to being smaller, shorter, female or different in any way. Precision, vision, ambition and bloody hard work will get you victory on the mat and in the meeting room.

You champion diverse voices within your teams and create a dynamic and inclusive environment. How do you ensure that everyone feels valued and heard, and what are some of the benefits of having a diverse workforce?

I am such a fierce believer in psychological safety and try so hard to engender that at RAPP. I suppose I lead by doing – I try to be as approachable and ‘non-hierarchical’ as possible within the confines of leadership. But honestly, I believe that this is the only way to harness the collective genius of the agency. People have to feel able to challenge and think out of the box. And you only get out of the box thinking from a diverse workforce.


That means diversity in all the ways that immediately spring to mind but also - and this is hard but important - people who don’t fit into traditional agency boxes/roles. Sometimes you have to create new rules and new careers to keep the people that will help shape an innovative and inclusive business.

As a female leader in the creative industry, what are some of the challenges and opportunities you face in terms of representation and equality? How do you support and mentor other women in your field?

I think this is a bit of a theme in this interview but again I would say by modelling behaviour…We have a female CEO, COO, CPO, CSO. We have women leading giant marketing science teams, tech strat teams, orchestration and automation teams and huge client remits. And all of these women have the ability to flex their hours and days and hybrid working patterns.

To go off on maternity leave and come back to welcome back bonuses, coaching, and L & D programmes. Living through my own pregnancies, maternity leaves, return to work, a pandemic, and six years of sleep deprivation as a leader has made me completely empathetic and supportive. We are very lucky this isn’t an issue at RAPP, and I am happy to share our stories and strategies with anyone.

What are some of the women’s networks and support systems that you are part of or have benefited from in your career? How do they help you grow and connect with other women leaders?

I was so, so lucky to be managed and mentored by the wonderful Dame Cilla Snowball for many years. She was a one-woman female network! She pushed me and enabled me and match-made me with other women in the organisation so that we could learn from each other, help solve each other’s challenges and just counteract the loneliness you can feel as you progress through the ranks. We should all make this happen for the women in our teams.


But also, she introduced me to Omniwomen - Omnicom’s ERG for driving and supporting women in leadership. I have been lucky enough to attend these summits for years, networking and learning with some of the brilliant women in our network. And last year I handed over the mantle having been Chair of Omniwomen UK for two years. The work the ERG does is so impressive and has had a huge impact on the network - 60% of leadership roles at Omnicom in the UK are now held by women!

How do you balance your personal and professional life, and what are some of the tools or strategies that you use to achieve this? How do you cope with stress and maintain your well-being?

This is a tough one – it’s harder and harder these days to split life and work I think, especially with hybrid working and Teams enabled on your mobile!

I have two big solutions that work for me. The first is that I have two phones, a work phone and a personal phone. And the work one is switched onto silent and put face down on weekends and switched off for a few days at a time on holidays. It’s the only way I can truly ‘switch off’ if you’ll pardon the pun.

The second is chopping vegetables into very small pieces! You will laugh, but after a very stressful day, this process is a miracle cure.

What are some of the trends or developments that you are excited about in the creative industry, especially in relation to customer experience and data? How do you keep up with the changing landscape and the evolving needs of your clients?

I am currently obsessed with the power of connecting data to create deeply personal relationships with customers. And the power of connecting 1st party and 3rd party data to reach those people at scale whilst still being utterly relevant and empathetic.

And then, using the power of AI and automation to create beautiful and resonant creative content, in millions of variants to reach them all at a speed previously thought unimaginable. Precision and Empathy. At scale.


Thank goodness I am surrounded by resident geniuses who not only invent these new possibilities, but have the patience to sit down with me and take me on the journey with them!


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