Detroit was a revelation – and an inspiration. Coming from Buenos Aires, NY, London and Toronto, the city wasn’t anything like we were expecting. We’d all heard the clichés about a city fallen on hard times. But Detroit today was full of surprises. It is truly fulfilling the Life Death Rebirth model—the classic lifecycle model anyone working with brands may be familiar with. It has risen, fallen, but is now emerging revitalized to be the jewel in the crown of Michigan and the ‘Fresh Coast,’ as Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (and rising star) enthusiastically calls it.

This year’s International Women’s Forum was held in this revitalized metropolis— birthplace of Motown and the only American city to be designated a UNESCO City of Design. More than 700 leaders from 22 countries gathered to reflect on how creativity and culture shape our economy and our world, tackling such topics as artificial intelligence and what it means for the future of humanity; the transformation of transportation and its implications for the climate; and how our environment shapes our brains and bodies even before birth.

It was also a stage to give a voice to some women who build leadership from the most remote places: for an activist who works with the aboriginal communities of Mexico, or a trailblazer who focuses on preventing plastic from reaching rivers, precisely the most direct channel of pollution of the seas.

The whole event was about content and trends, but, to really boil it down, it was about inspiration, and regeneration, and busting through outdated perceptions. Governor Whitmer put it well: women are defying expectations and surprising people all the time. A bit like Detroit, now telling a different story that busts the cliché and changes the script.

Such inspiration and sense of how to last through time came from the Motown museum, an ordinary white picket fence house in a residential neighborhood, which inspired us to build these principles that can be applied to leadership, our teams, creative processes and conversation with clients – reminding us that what matters is almost always very simple.

Get Your Formula Right / Focus on Foundation First

  • This was Berry Gordy’s first revelation as founder of the Motown record label. He worked on the production line at Ford Motors and here he started to write songs, finding himself singing to the mechanical ‘beats’ of the production line.
  • He recognized the value of a process (efficiency in production), but with a need for customization (cars were produced to the same core standard, but people liked different looks and models, so you needed room to customize).
  • A uniform process gave brands like Motown firm foundations that helped people stay connected – which helped them stay vital enough to stand the test of time.

Build Bonds, Don’t Break Them

  • Gordy and the original Motown founders were known as a powerful network of musicians, songwriters and producers. They actively committed to work together to create music – and a way of making music – that would allow newcomers in and grow into one of the world’s most iconic brands.
  • Collaboration is the glue to getting things done with purpose and impact, as underscored by Faye Nelson, Michigan Director, WK Kellogg Foundation who said: “It wasn’t you. It was we. And “we” focuses on the incredible collaboration and partnership DNA that exists here in our city (Detroit) today.”

Uncompromising Quality Control (The Hotdog Test!)

  • Gordy had a special power for recognizing hits. But he still sought input from his team and at creative review meetings he’d ask the room one key question, “If you were hungry and only had one dollar, would you buy this record or a hot dog?”. (He was brave enough to take the feedback and be ready to kill what wasn’t good enough.)
  • Decision-making takes bravery, but if you keep your audience in mind, as Gordy did, the quality equation is rather simple.
  • An interesting perspective from Fatma Samoura, FIFA Secretary General, on the process of decision making and upholding quality standards, “it is important to understand when it's time to let others step in because you have become disconnected or de-sensitized from the work.

Talk to Esther: Keep it Personal – Gordy and Esther (Gordy’s sister, executive and ‘Mother of Motown’) kept their way of doing things human and personal.

  • When child star Stevie Wonder came to sing, they always made sure there were coins out on top of the vending machine so he could feel them and pick up his favorite chocolate bar.
  • Diana Ross – along with every artist – got a personal make-over and etiquette training on how to handle herself with anyone she might meet (even The Queen of England)
  • And just like Marvin Gaye, everyone had their 1-2-1’s with Esther, who always knew what state of mind her artists were in.
  • The recording was done in the living room, and as they expanded, they stayed in the street, buying house after house along the road.
  • In speaking about the great work Heartland Forward is doing to support communities all around the US, Angie Cooper, Executive Vice President, Heartland Forward, emphasized on the importance of building trust, listening and getting to know those that we are trying to help. Being personal and having the ability to listen is the key for public and private entities to continue convening to build a foundation for the future.

You Make the Story

  • Motown is a brilliant example of a brand with a story that inspires devotion. And the one big story has spawned a thousand little myths all of which connect to the bigger beats. There have been ups and downs but they didn’t just have a formula, they had a point of view on what they were bringing the world; and the simplicity of this has made it easy for people to buy into Motown, and stay bought in, they’ve evolved and outlived new music genres and countless artists – because they know what they offer, and they bring it to the people.
  • As female leaders, we need to own our story and tell it well. And we must share these stories with others -- to guide, inspire, and help other women see themselves in these stories.

We saw a common thread in Motown, the renaissance city of Detroit, and the rising female trailblazers who are telling stories and changing the world. It all made for an inspiring experience, where we really understood the importance of our role as female leaders in setting the stage for the next generation of leaders. Governor Whitmer couldn’t have said it better at the beginning of the conference: “As leaders, we need to have big shoulders for others to stand on." 

Suzy Kiwala, MD, US Brand & Global Client, Edelman US  
Paola Podesta, GM Argentina, Edelman Latam  
Joanna Tatchell, Head of Strategy UK, Edelman EMEA  
Florencia Casares, Senior Account Director, Health, Edelman Canada