How sports, traveling the world, and fatherly advice helped shape a CEO
Chris Weil was nervous.
The 21-year-old college graduate was about to get dinner with his father in Chicago to talk about his future. Chip Weil, who was in the newspaper publishing business, had long been an influence on his son, and had asked that they meet for a meal.
“He wanted to know what I was going to do after college,” Chris Weil tells me, while sitting in his office overlooking Hudson and Canal streets in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood.
“I told him I was thinking about going back to school for law or an MBA. He said, ‘If you could do anything, what would you do?’ I sat there for a bit and then said, ‘I’d get an around-the-world ticket and go travel.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ Go and take your older brother with you.’”
Weil and brother Scott spent the next 14 months spanning the globe, working their way across the world. It ended up being the perfect training for a young man who would later become CEO of Momentum, a global agency with more than 2,000 employees operating in 29 countries and with an estimated $3 billion in sponsorship rights and activations under management for such top brands as Verizon, SAP, American Express and United.
“When you are on the road and you do not have a place that you have to be or you have to find some work, you find people. You talk to people from all walks of life and you learn about people. In the end, I ended up in the people business. If you look to what we have in the agency world, that is all it is.”
From working on boats, to delivering a sailboat from Maui to Alaska, to working in Southeast Asia, Nepal and Thailand, Weil experienced a life completely different from his youth in Colorado and New York City.
“My days on the road allowed me to grow into a global job. I took over as global CEO at 37, and a huge part of that was I was able to travel at a young age and look at the world in a different way. As different as it is, it is also very similar. My dad encouraged it, and said it was the single greatest thing that happened to me because I got a world perspective.
Weil was born in Asmara, Ethiopia, which is now Asmara, Eritrea. His father was serving as a U.S. Navy officer before joining the family’s publishing business. At 3, Weil moved to the States, first to Michigan, then Indiana and on to New York City. At 12, his parents divorced, and while his father stayed in the city, his mother moved him and his two brothers to Colorado.
“Growing up between New York City and Colorado was a good balance,” he says.
While an OK student, Weil put a lot of energy into sports.
“I played football, baseball and skied. In football, I was strong safety and slot back. I was a catcher my whole career in baseball. My coaches were great influences. It is easy to lose your way in high school. Sports were grounding for me.”
He attended Westminster College in Ohio, where he dabbled in baseball. But when he was elected student government president, he gave it up for good. “I just didn’t have the time.”
After graduating with an economics degree and traveling, Weil moved to Chicago where he joined a friend who started a direct mail company, Chicago Marketing. “He offered me $15,000, which I thought was a lot of money at 22, and we started this company.”
He refers to his time there as getting his MBA in 2 1/2 years.
“I learned that cash flow was key; managing cash flow is something more complicated than you think when you are starting out running on a shoestring. But we got out by the skin of our teeth and we sold the company.”
Turning 25, he stayed in Chicago and landed at another startup, Regency Productions, backed by the Pritzker family of the Hyatt chain.
“That’s where my career started in sports. I started in sales and we were selling hospitality and sponsorships and we were winning all this sports business. We started the original NFL Experience around Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, and the original NBA Jam Session. We ran everything — ropes and stakes — for the PGA of America and the PGA Championship and Ryder Cup. We ran the on-land venues for the America’s Cup. We were killing it, and having fun.”
After seven years, Regency Partners was sold in 1997 to PGI, a company that was rolling up experiential companies.
Still in Chicago, and now married, Weil received a call from Mark Dowley, whom he had met during his America’s Cup work and other sports efforts. Dowley’s agency, Ad:vent, was working for AT&T, but parent company McCann Erickson ended up merging Ad:vent with another McCann agency, Momentum. Dowley persuaded Weil to come to New York and join him, and an enhanced Momentum launched just before the Atlanta Olympics, with clients that included AT&T, Coca-Cola and American Express.
“I was headed there to run the AmEx account, but I ended up running the New York office. The only problem was that Mark didn’t tell anyone else in the office that I was going to do that, so there were some interesting days. We were 55 to 60 people at the time, that is all we were.”
AmEx had a new CMO, John Hayes, who called Weil immediately.
“He said, ‘We got this U.S. Open sponsorship and don’t know what to do with it.’ That was the beginning, I was 33 and took over the AmEx account.”
Weil’s global itch remained, and after two years in New York and seeing growth — “we were buying companies and feeling confident” — he moved to London to run Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
“I figured I had a good five years at least where I was going to be in Europe, and I was excited,” he remembers.
While excited, Weil faced a big corporate challenge in his new role.
“The charge in Europe was in pulling together a network of agencies. I did not know how hard that job would be. I negotiated out most of the ex-owners, people in different parts of the world who had been in their roles a long time, and I was putting in the next generation of management. A lot of those people are still here, so I feel good about that, but that was hard work.”
While walking back from a long lunch during a vacation in the south of France in 2002, Weil received an unexpected call from McCann CEO Jim Heekin, who told him that current Momentum CEO Harlan Stone had just quit.
“He said, ‘I need you to come back to New York. I want you to be CEO.’ I asked if I could finish the vacation, but he said to come to New York immediately. So I got a battlefield promotion.”
It wasn’t an easy trip back to the States.
“I was thinking a lot about the change. We had a brand-new baby. My wife had a great group of friends. Everyone was really, really happy. The work was hard. Europe is very hard. It hasn’t gotten any easier.”
Weil peppered Heekin with questions. “I asked, ‘Can I do this? Can I do that?’ He said, ‘This is your company, you can do whatever you want. Just make it happen.’ I learned they will leave you alone if you do what you say you are going to do. So, I came back.”
But the 37-year-old would have to draw on his travel experiences as a 21-year-old and more advice from his father to build on his success.
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Life as CEO did not come easily. Where Weil loved brainstorming for ideas, he found as CEO that innovation was stifled because everyone agreed with him.
“Suddenly, when you are CEO, every idea you come up with is a great idea. Especially when you are a new CEO.”
The other factor was that the buck stopped with him.
“People turn to you. The decision is sitting on your shoulders. You can’t defer it anywhere. At first, that is awkward and tough. You may not be positive about every decision. You make calls, some right, some wrong.”
Struggling, Weil again got some life-changing advice from his father.
“He goes, ‘Just remember one thing. The pace of the game is set by the pace of the boss.’ That freed me up. I thought I had to be something or be like someone to be a CEO, but I realized, screw it, I was just going to be me. It took a lot of pressure off to be something that I was not. I was able to be me. I said, ‘I am going to make the decisions. They may succeed or they may fail. But I am not going to sit and second-guess anything.’ When I did that, I felt able to create a culture and define the culture how I wanted it. This is the agency I want to be.”
With a new sense of freedom and focus, Weil began changing Momentum, trip by trip.
“It was getting on your horse and going out to the offices. Those were the hard travel days. I had two young kids and I was on a plane. It was constant, constant, constant. Hard, hard days. But we got there.”
He never forgets the moment it become evident that the plan was working.
“I was going out to dinner with our group in Asia. I had the team together, and I looked at them and asked, ‘What are the Momentum values?’ In unison, they rattled them off — ‘Be one. Do great work. Have fun. Give back to the world. And if we do that we will continue to grow.’”
He smiles with his recollection, “I knew then we had made progress.”
“They are the same today,” he adds. “The only one that we have added over time is, ‘Be fearless.’ We are trying to be more aggressive.”
After nearly 14 years of being CEO, Weil has the polish of someone comfortable and confident in his role. His early struggles as CEO seem like long ago, and they are, but he’s quick to admit his current failings.
“I am not great at managing up. I know my world too well and I probably have been in my job for too long. So I know this, and not a lot of people can add value to it. If they can, I am all ears.
“I listen, of course, I listen, but they allow me to run the business. Mind you, you have to deliver the numbers. If you miss the numbers, then all of a sudden a bunch of people who do not know how to run your business are going to tell you how to run your business.”
Hitting the numbers has been possible because of a stability rarely found in the agency world.
“There are two things I am really proud of here. One is my management team. Most of us have been together for much of my tenure. I’m equally proud of our clients. We have had American Express for 15 years. We have had Coca-Cola for 15 years. We’ve had U.S. Army for years. United Airlines and UPS, we have had for so long. We have added Verizon. We lost them, but got them back. Last year, we didn’t lose a single client. That, in the agency business, is what I am most proud of.”
When asked to reflect on the key people and moments that shaped his career, Weil immediately cites his father as a massive influence — from pushing him to travel the world, encouraging him to be himself as a young CEO to helping him navigate the balance beam of corporate life.
“He was CEO of a company, so he has been very helpful. I’m able to bounce things off him with no agenda. I am a black-and-white guy. Are we doing this or are we not? Do you believe in this or not? In corporate America, there is still a lot of gray. He has helped me play the game.”
Weil also cites sports — in addition to the character building of travel — as roots to his success.
“There are two components that have truly helped me in this business. Playing catcher and traveling. When you are catcher, your whole job is to lead and get the whack job that is on the hill to throw the ball to a certain spot. Pitchers can be crazy. That is no different than trying to lead and get work out of my creative department about where we need to go. In traveling, you completely learn about relationships and getting along with people, which is the core of this business.”
When I asked his advice to young people looking to get in the sports business, Weil cited a familiar path.
“Go travel the world. If you are 21, go do something else. This business will be here. It is not going to change in a year. Go do something that makes you really uncomfortable. This is an uncomfortable business. We are constantly being asked to do shit. I am asked to do stuff that nobody has ever done before. A client needs something that has never been done before. That is an uncomfortable brief. So go do something that makes you uncomfortable, so you can go live in your own skin and live in the turmoil of the agency business and enjoy it.
“A lot of people look at it as, ‘Hell, these deadlines are stressful. These clients are crazy. I don’t have a big enough team.’ Well, maybe. But it is also one hell of a good way to make a living and a lot of fun.”