About 20 years ago, Leslie Wingo was a marketing student at the University of Texas at El Paso in need of an internship.

Her dad, Robert Wingo, was president of one of the most influential advertising firms in El Paso. Perfect, she thought.

Her father’s response when she asked about internships?

“There is no nepotism, not with me. Go create your own path,” Wingo remembers.

So Wingo went to one of her dad’s competitors, Nancy Laster, and promptly received an internship offer. Offer in hand, she returned to her father, who relented.

“That is a true story,” Wingo said, speaking last week from the agency’s office on the 9th floor of the Wells Fargo Building in Downtown.

Wingo, 43, succeeded her father as president and CEO of Sanders Wingo the beginning of this year. Wingo’s father, who has been with the company for 30 years, became board chair and remains active in the business.

Sanders Wingo, which employs 90 people, has offices in El Paso, Austin and New York City, where its subsidiary, SWK, makes more than $100 million worth of ad buys every year.

Wingo’s first job with the agency was as a media buyer, and she’s steadily worked her way up the ranks. She has directed and managed brand development for top brands, including State Farm, United States Postal Service and Burger King. In 2001, she led the agency’s expansion to Austin on the eve of the dot-com crash.

Those were tough times. The agency lost its largest client, Sprint PCS, but persevered, winning accounts with Fuddruckers, Shell, American Heart Association and others.

In 2008, Sanders Wingo became an agency of record for Chevrolet and State Farm and had a role in the relaunch of the new AT&T brand. The following year, Sanders Wingo was named Advertising Agency of the Year by Black Enterprise Magazine.

The agency was founded in El Paso as Sanders Advertising in 1958 by David Sanders. Robert Wingo joined the agency as president in 1985. Sanders died in 1992, but his pithy sayings survive him, decorating the walls of the agency’s El Paso offices.

In 2013, Sanders Wingo launched what it calls the Behavioral Science Lab to probe into consumers’ minds – to discover precisely why people buy the things they buy, and to better understand “human instinct and all of its ‘predictable unpredictability,’” according to Wingo.

When Wingo graduated from El Paso’s Eastwood High School, she thought she’d become an electrical engineer. She had been inspired by a program in middle school that encouraged young women to go into engineering.

But after some calculus classes, Wingo said she realized engineering was not for her, and she graduated with a degree in marketing from UTEP in 1996.

Wingo now lives in Austin but said El Paso is where the agency was founded “and will stay.”

She was named one of the nation’s top women in advertising and marketing by Black Enterprise Magazine in 2012. Her sister, Shana, is a gynecological oncologist in Phoenix.

Wingo sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about her vision for the agency, her favorite ad campaigns and how the agency gets inside consumers’ heads.

Q: When you became CEO, did your father pull you aside and give you any advice?

He has a lot of advice, but my favorite thing that he says is, “Pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered.” That translates to treating people the way you want to be treated. Don’t be greedy; there is enough for everybody to share.

Q: How important is succession planning?

It reminds me of a wedding. A plan is always important to have because it takes the guessing out of it, especially if something happens. For us, we’ve been planning and planning and planning for as long as I can remember.

Q: Since you were 3?

I don’t remember 3, but I remember 5. Not so much business but in life, you have to have a plan to fall back on. Succession planning has been something we have been talking about for a very long time.

Q: What is your vision for Sanders Wingo? Where do you want to take the agency?

When I took the role, I started asking other CEOs that exact same question. What I would like to do is have Sanders Wingo be the agency that other industries talk about – that they know who we are and are excited about the work that we do.

Q: You talked to CEOs in advertising?

CEOs of random businesses. When I would talk to them, I would ask: What is your vision? Everybody had a different take on it.

I sat down with a consultant so I could really articulate what I wanted to do. Part of the challenge of being a CEO is knowing what you are really great at and where you need help, and I needed help with that.

We sat down and talked about it – his name is Chris Nieto – and he made me do a lot of things outside of my comfort zone. It was great. That was exactly it: How do we become the agency that other industries talk about?

Q: How?

That’s the vision, and we are working on the how. Part of that how is starting with our Behavioral Science Lab, which allows us to understand more precisely why people make the decisions they do.

Q: How does the Behavioral Science Lab work?

We were totally geeking out on some of the BSL stuff earlier. One of the tools they have is called “mind guide,” and when they presented it to me I was like, “this sounds like a bunch of….” You’re recording this so I won’t say the word, but it sounded like a bunch of smoke and mirrors.

But I tried it. Basically the mind guide will tell you why people make decisions. They had us do all this stuff. You’ll have to go through it, because it is mind blowing.

In this case, we all agreed that we like the movies, but the reason I won’t go is because I want to be by myself. If I go, I don’t want to talk about the movie, have a social interaction about the movie and I’m not tweeting about the movie. I just want to go watch the movie.

But another person in a similar demographic wanted to go to the movies because it was fun, she could take her kid, get together with friends and so on and so forth.

If a theater knew that and they wanted to reach more people like me, who want to geek out and be by themselves, or reach those who go to the theater for the social interaction, they could do that.

Q: What is your sense of what the trends are in advertising?

Ad agencies are going through an interesting place, because people no longer watch TV networks – they watch TV shows. TV shows can be on your typical networks, but they are also on Netflix online. People are creating their own content. There are people who don’t even watch TV anymore. So how do we as advertisers reach them? We’re trying to figure it out.

Q: Do you have a favorite ad campaign? One that is not Sanders Wingo’s.

The ad Oreo did on social media after the lights went out during the Super Bowl in New Orleans. Fantastic. There was a lot of work put into that to make it look easy.

Q: The ad they tweeted that read, “Power Out? No problem. You can still dunk in the dark.” Any others?

Apple’s too easy; all of their stuff is good. So is Nike’s.

Another of my favorites is a Cheerios spot, because it made people talk about things they probably would have never talked about. In it, the dad is African American and the mom is white, and they have a biracial kid. It’s fascinating that a brand like Cheerios can get people to talk about race in America.

Q: Is the advertising industry today still a “Mad Men” world – a male dominated environment?

Yes, it is, to be very honest. The industry is doing a lot to change that.

Sanders Wingo is ahead of the pack in that regard. Of our senior leadership, the majority are women. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but I haven’t seen that anywhere else.

We work very hard to make sure the agency is a reflection of what the United States is. I’ve never done a census, but we have a number of people here who speak both Spanish and English. It fascinates me when people can go from Spanish to English and English to Spanish in the same conversation and not lose a beat.

I just want us to be better human beings. If the work we do here can make people better human beings, I think that is great.

Q: Do you know any other advertising agency CEOs that are African-American women?

I think there are a couple. I haven’t sat down and had a round table with them. We could do that; that would be interesting.

Q: What are some of the agency’s largest accounts?

GECU, AT&T and AARP. We have a lot of acronyms don’t we? Those are probably the three biggest right now.

Q: What about in El Paso, GECU being one?

GECU is huge. We also do a lot of work with Las Palmas Del Sol Healthcare. Those are probably two of the biggest. We’ve also done some work with El Paso Water Utilities and the El Paso DA.

Q: The district attorney’s office?

So we did a campaign for district attorney Jaime Esparza, “Out for Blood,” which was to let everyone know: If you drink and drive, we will take your blood. He won some recognition from Mothers Against Drunk Driving for it.

Q: What does the agency’s subsidiary in New York, SWK, do?

Ad buying.

Q: How much ad buying does SWK do a year?

More than $100 million.

Q: What makes a great advertising campaign?

The best advertising campaigns I see are those campaigns that understand consumers and understand what consumers are looking for in brands.

Q: How do you get at that?

It comes from doing a lot of homework on the back end. There is a lot of research that has to take place. We go in with a hypothesis, we research it, and in the end, when you see it, you know it.

Q: How do advertising firms typically approach market research and what does Sanders Wingo do differently?

Most advertising agencies, they go out and do the focus groups, they do the qualitative and quantitative studies, they look at how people are spending time with their media devices. But what we’ve done is invested in the Behavioral Science Lab.

Traditional research will tell you what, when, where and how – the things you would expect from census information. But what we are trying to do a better job of is knowing the why – why people buy or make the decisions they do.

For example, people lie. If your doctor asks you how many sodas you drink and you say five, the assumption might be you are not telling the whole story.

We know that consumers lie, but why are they lying about some of the decisions they make? Or why do two people in the same demographic go to different grocery stores to shop? That is what we are researching now – the why.

Q: What is an example of how you might put together a successful advertising campaign?

A creative solution for one client might be a TV spot and a print campaign and so on and so forth. For our GECU client, that works for their brand. But we also work with a brand out of our Austin office called Bee Sweet Lemonade. She’s an 11-year-old company founder. She makes lemonade.

Q: From the TV show “Shark Tank”?

Right. Mikaila. It wasn’t that she needed a TV campaign. Her creative solution was she needed to redesign a bottle. Every client is different and it is hard to measure success.

Q: Founder David Sanders had many sayings, and a number decorate the walls here. Do you have a favorite?

“Your job is to make things happen right now.”

Q: I clicked a link at the bottom of one of your emails that said “join our wolf pack.” It took me to a webpage with a series of recruiting videos. Sanders Wingo is looking for those with the “killer instinct,” they say. Is the advertising business that ruthless?

It is pretty ruthless, but it is also interesting how you can have a group of misfits that don’t seem really to fit together anywhere else but somehow all work together here. We have a CPA on staff who has killer instincts when it comes to staffing plans and what you can and cannot do.

On the account service side, you have to have people who can listen to the client but also are comfortable to push back and have a discussion on how best to solve a business problem.

You have to have a lot back and forth between the account service folks, strategy folks and creative folks to make all of this work.

Q: How do you all deal with stress? The agency seems to have a somewhat quirky company culture.

It’s always interesting to see how people deal with stress. Some people want to walk to Starbucks. Some people want to goof around. We had a foosball tournament for the Men’s World Cup and again this year for the women’s World Cup. We take everybody to the movies.

Q: Yoga?

Somebody suggested yoga and I’m like, “I’m not doing yoga with people I work with.” I just can’t. I’m too clumsy. I don’t want people seeing me falling down.

Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at rsgray@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105. Twitter: @ReporterRobby.