How Ballet Prepared UniWorld’s CEO Designate to Lead an Award-Winning Multicultural Advertising Agency

UniWorld’s new CEO Monique Nelson has a lot in common with Judith Jamison, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s artistic director emerita. Not many people are aware that Nelson is a trained vocalist and dancer.

In early May, it was announced that Nelson would succeed UniWorld Group, Inc.’s founder and CEO Byron Lewis Sr., whose swift thinking and sound ideas led to the company’s founding in 1969. This story sounds vaguely familiar. When Alvin Ailey asked Jamison to succeed him in 1989, he was prescient, having full confidence that Jamison would take the company to unprecedented heights. She proved him right, by making two historic engagements in South Africa and a 50-city global tour to celebrate the Company’s 50th anniversary.

Nelson — who has been performing since she was a precious pigeon-toed 2-year-old — has made good use of the grace, precision and the confidence she gained from performing arts to present UniWorld on a stage of global prominence. The agency’s client roster includes CVS, Home Depot, Ford Motor Company, and U.S. Marine Corps.

Here, the 15-year entertainment, lifestyle and youth marketing veteran shares how her mother’s determination to “straighten her feet” via signing her up for ballet lessons, set her on a path that prepared her for leadership and the helm of UniWorld, overseeing the day-to-day operations of the agency as well as leading its expansion. –yvette caslin

What are the five attributes critical for moving up within a company like UniWorld?
1. You have to be focused.
2. You have to understand how to work with others, both internally and externally.
3. You absolutely need a vision of how to get projects done, whether it’s been mapped out for you or not.
4. You have to have an entrepreneurial spirit.
5. You have to want to win in a way that isn’t necessarily given. Our marketplace has been built on entrepreneuralism, being visionary on roads that weren’t [paved] before. It’s creating that bridge to get you where you need to be.

How did your academic career prepare you for corporate life?
I was so blessed to be a part of a diversity scholarship program in leadership that trained me at the age of 17 to work dynamically in groups, to work on conflict resolution, and to then be able to start something and finish. That means being able to come up with a vision, then implement and complete it. There’s something to be said about doing it over and over again. When I got to Vanderbilt University, I was able to start a dance company called Rhythm and Roots. It is still on campus. I am really proud of that. My degree is [in] human and organizational development, which is all about the dynamic of group, team and organization and being thoughtful about the effective ways to utilize them. I can honestly tell you my education, especially from my collegiate days, prepared me to do what I am doing now.

What preparations, if any, are you making to carry the company into the global marketplace?
There are many steps for that. A lot of it is already built. It’s a refinement of our vision. It’s taking UniWorld to a level that is contextually available for everyone and taking it out of the bounds of where we are now. From the perspective of everything we do now. We do traditional marketing from TV, radio, print and digital. But I think it is taking that messaging to a channel strategy that is really robust and that’s really engaging. The one thing that we really know now is we are in an environment where your clients can talk back, whether you want them to or not. I think it’s really important to have a true understanding of a consumer and to understand where your brand fits into that consumer’s life. That works globally and locally. That’s where a lot of our work will be and what will take us to the next level.

What would you like your legacy to be?
I continued the legacy of a great man [Byron Lewis Sr.]. I took it to a level of ultimate greatness, that it will live forever. Ultimately, I want us to be known as the best advertising agency that just happens to be black.

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