Justin Graham is the Group CEO of M&C Saatchi Australia. But Justin’s career as a strategy and planning director has spanned across multiple countries, companies and agencies and several major crises, including the current COVID-19 pandemic, but also stretching back to the Y2K and DotCom Bubble and everything in between. He reflects on the role of strategy and leadership in these times and the importance of focusing on managing people as the core to successfully leading through these challenging times.
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Welcome to Managing Marketing, a weekly podcast where we discuss the issues and opportunities facing marketing, media and advertising with industry thought leaders and practitioners.
Today I’m sitting down with Justin Graham, Group CEO of M&C Saatchi Australia. Welcome, Justin.
Good to be here.
Look I know it’s a bit late but congratulations; stepping up to an even bigger leadership role than before.
And what a time to do it. I spoke to someone the other day and they said they think I might be the first COVID CEO, certainly in Australia potentially. It’s great and I’m sure we’ll get to taking around change and how businesses evolve.
But certainly to be given a platform for change; be careful what you wish but that is certainly what’s happening at the moment so I’m enjoying the role.
Now, where do you fall on this because in leadership there’s a huge amount of pressure to give people some sort of certainty and we have got those people that are already talking about post-COVID when we are still in COVID.
There are those talking about fundamental changes and we have to get ready for the new normal and there are others that say we are just accelerating the changes that were already happening. Where do you fall in all that if you can make such an easy distinction?
Yeah, it’s a great place to start and I think a lot of people are spending a lot of time thinking about this at the moment.
From our experience here as a business the leadership team put down a 5-year plan at the start of this year. We talked about where we were going to be in 5 years’ time.
I went back and revisited that about a month ago and certainly some of the things we thought would take years have accelerated and taken months if not weeks for us to go and implement. Others just aren’t relevant anymore and the conversation we had the other day is this question, can you even write a 5-year plan now with what’s going on?
With the transformation just in the world and technology driving it overall I think you definitely need a plan but you need to stay very fluid within that. I posted something on LinkedIn the other day that we shared in the marketing media around the 5 tenets of change and how we are going to recover out of COVID. The word I used specifically around my post is we are all muddling through this. I don’t think there is a Holy Grail, someone hasn’t come out and said, this is actually going to be the way forward but there is certainly some great thinking out there around how we are going to come out of it.
I say come out of it as if it’s going to stop one day. It’s not going to stop one day; we’re going to be in this world for a long time so people just have to accelerate and get into it.
It’s interesting how people cling to false assumptions like, there will be a moment in time when we will be post-COVID and that will be when we get a vaccine. But even if we get a successful vaccine it’s got to roll out. There’s going to be a global rollout and it’s going to happen at different times and at different places.
Why is it, do you think, human beings are so determined to have certainty or this idea that it has to be precise before we can operate? The world’s actually not like that is it?
No, it’s not. It’s fascinating, I’m sure there is a deeper psychological answer to that. Certainly in our industry, we love to sit within this world of phases, don’t we. We go through and we build ourselves around marketing science and going through those phases and so much of that isn’t the case anymore and consumers out there are looking for certainty in the world.
I was listening to one of your podcasts a couple of weeks ago with maybe Rob Campbell you were talking to around this complete lack of trust that happens out there in the world now. I think because we don’t have trust largely in our institutions, in our governments, in our schools, and all these traditional pillars of society although some have come back over the last little while but overall there is less trust there so I think we are clinging onto things that we can actually see are certain.
So we are looking for any type of certainty, that’s even the framing systems that we were using. I think Jacinda Ardern did a great job around this, we are at level 3, we are at level 4, now we are back to level 3 and everyone was very clear around what that looked like.
Some people were almost mocking that. I was talking to our team over there and when we went from level 4 to 3 or 3 to 2, I can’t remember what it was, I said what are the differences around those two levels and they said level 3 is basic and level 2 is basic but with fries.
I think that is interesting and we do grab on to those areas and I think we will for a long time.
Maybe when we feel we have no control we are looking for some sort of framework to give us control but even in that, the whole idea of control is a fallacy isn’t it.
It really is. No one was expecting what’s happening this year. I think Bill Gates was predicting it but for us mere mortals this has come as an incredible shock, so we absolutely are looking for control.
We are looking for control around our home dynamics. We are looking for control around our relationships with the things that we love whether it be sport or the arts, and also the people around us as well.
When there is no stability there, that’s where you start to find some real fractures in society and certainly when it comes to brands, fractures between the customers and the brands and the relationship that exists there.
It must be interesting from your perspective because you’ve got a great career as a strategist and in some ways strategy is about identifying the opportunities and then planning for me is then implementing that.
So you’ve gone from identifying strategic opportunities and developing an implementation plan to now running what has to be considered a major business. You’ve got hundreds of employees; you’ve got millions of dollars’ worth of client investment and that type of thing.
I’ve got two perspectives on this, first of all, what are the strengths of being a strategist going into this major leadership role and what are the shortcomings of it, if any?
There are the pieces that you pick up along the way that make you the leader that you are. I think good strategists and I’ve learnt from many over the years, are very good at seizing the opportunity, understanding the trends and looking at where that opportunity is going to exist and then making the decision to go and act on it as well.
I’ve moved around between consulting and client-side and certainly within the advertising industry as well and I think it’s been for me this constant tension and jumping between the thinking and the doing and that’s why it’s set me up for this position well to also think about who you need around you.
I said to someone recently I’ve felt like the last 3 months has been an MBA in operational and logistical excellence. Certainly for someone that came from a strategy background I knew this business well. I’ve been in this business for 6 or 7 years but when you actually have to go and analyse every line item on the P&L and actually understand the levers that you can pull at this time, there’s nothing that can replace that. That’s when you very much move from the theoretical to the practical in the space of minutes.
So I think the idea of being a strategist and coming to that role and there have been some great ones in this industry as well and there have been some people that haven’t succeeded as we thought they would. I take the learning’s from that overall and say look you’ve got to take the idea that strategists have this ability to gather a bunch of people, a crowd and move them forward. Paint a picture for what the world can look like in the future and then start moving people towards that, so I think that’s a real strength.
I think the weakness will be exactly as you said that strategists aren’t always strong around the operations and so to have people around you that are that other full brain experience is what I’ve had to do.
The quote and I can’t remember who said it was, the great thing about great strategy is that it always falls to bits when you try to implement it. That strategy can sometimes exist in the ideal bubble.
You did mention there that you’ve had a number of different perspectives on the business world. You were a consultant, I think Arthur Anderson, and then you’ve been client side at The Commonwealth Bank and you’ve got a good solid career in the agency world.
During that period there’s been some major crises hasn’t there. At Arthur Anderson, you were there during the Dot.com bubble.
That would have been an interesting time and fairly early on in your career I would imagine.
It was really my first significant job. The consultants back then loved to poach people out of university and promise them trips around the world and all the training you’d ever need whereas I thought about it at the time as becoming a major consultant when you are younger is almost the job for people if they are okay at what they do but have no idea what they want to do.
It is a great training ground and I was fortunate to go into Arthur Anderson when I did. It was the late 90’s going into the millennia where dot-coms were just firing. People were making extraordinary amounts of money from ideas that never actually eventuated, just off promises at that point.
The area I was in, in particular, was around business strategy. It was around transformation and there were some ex-partners that had come in there from BCG and McKinsey and they really wanted to go and accelerate the idea how Andersons could make that link exactly as you were talking about between strategy and implementation and I sat between that.
In reality, the movie about Enron which talks about the fall of Arthur Anderson is the smartest person in the room, I was the shit kicker in the room. I was the youngest person in the room and I was just absorbing, I was just learning at that point.
It must have been fascinating in that position, almost like a fly on the wall without being a fly. To see the things that were going on because we also have to remember it was also off the back of Y2K and businesses had poured millions of dollars into becoming compliant for the day the clocks turned 2000.
Then you were in New York with BBDO in 2007-2008 and we call it the global financial crisis, I find the Americans just call it the recession that almost had to happen. What was that like being in New York? With BBDO just being up the road from Wall Street, what was it like being so close to the financial action.
There are a couple of major global financial moments aren’t there. So back to the Arthur Anderson piece, that was a business that went from 70,000 down to 5000 employees in 3 months and I remember the shock at those people moving on, either losing their job, being sold on to other consultancies and I learnt a lot from that.
Then fast forward to exactly what you were talking about, I arrived in New York in 2007 amid really the start there of Obama’s race towards his first term and so you had this incredible feeling of hope that he was coming through when obviously that was the line and then you had Lehman Brothers hit.
And that was about October.
It was, so I’d been there for about a year at that point and in terms of the geographical footprint, BBDO is on 6th avenue and Lehman Brothers is about 3 blocks away. There are very famous scenes of the Lehman Brothers employees walking out with their boxes of gear and going into the subway. I saw that live going back to the subway that night and it was such a shock to the fabric of New York and the reverberations went around the world.
At that point, I remember BBDO went from 600 to 450 people overnight and even just processing the people that were leaving that agency went into 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning just to be able to make the cuts that they had to make.
That was a real eye-opening experience overall, again it was a shock around what value meant in the world and we did some really famous work which was looking at how you reframe the value.
At the time I was leading the Proctor and Gamble relationship with BBDO and specifically working on Gillette which was a brand they bought 5 years earlier for 60 billion dollars, trying to sell razors to men through a recession that cost a lot of money and trying to convince people to be able to trade up to these things was pretty fascinating actually.
Definitely, some big moments and some really confusing moments between Lehman Brothers, Obama going in and trying to drive healthcare and drive the economy and we were in the middle of it all which was fantastic.
So in the US, we had Obama with hope and in Australia, we had Kevin 07 pushing his own message of hope and both of them being hit fairly significantly by an unprecedented time of what was driven by the financial markets and many of the banks.
Earlier as I mentioned you actually worked at The Commonwealth Bank for a year.
Yeah, I did. When I got out of consulting I went to the Commonwealth Bank and they were fortunate to have me in their retail strategy unit. So nothing to do with marketing, and nothing to do with communications. This was the pure business strategy around how that bank was investing in technology at that time.
It was I think 2001-2002 from memory and it was at a time where their previous CEO Ralph Norris had really doubled down on investment to say banking will be differentiated through technology and the stacks moving forward as opposed to the necessary customer experience at that time. We were trying to make sense of that with a legacy business trying to move forward into a new world and it was great to be a part of that.
Again those learning’s were pretty interesting around where M&C Saatchi finds itself now around a legacy business, 25 years young this year and how you take it forward through the change.
Now Comm bank at the time brought it upon themselves to change to try and get ahead of the game, that’s why they were moving so far ahead of their competitors from a tech perspective, and from a customer experience perspective.
The interesting thing coming out of COVID is going to be we are all in that situation together. This is a global crisis and can’t be underestimated, certainly an industry crisis for us. The people that move forward, act first, don’t follow but lead, are the ones that are going to drive forward.
What seems to be happening is the uncertainty and the desire for certainty is actually causing some paralysis isn’t it.
It is and what we do on a daily basis when we are talking to marketing leaders, they are all looking for certainty and they are all looking for guidance and stepping into this role relatively recently as we talked about before, I find the most common conversation I have with marketing leaders is ‘what is everyone else doing’.
What phase are they in, how are they moving from that phase to this phase? We’ve put some literature out recently around this in the marketing press that you can’t sit there in phases with that certainty. There are functional operational needs and then that’s moving now to more of a reinvention story around business models.
When I say functional operational, you have this incredible inertia that existed when COVID started and we saw it with some of our largest clients but you had in some places life and death situations.
You had the disadvantaged elderly that just couldn’t get down to their grocery stores and Woolworths, our client created longer hours just for those people.
Yeah, I remember that.
Yes that came out very early in the piece and some people found ways to criticise that but that was a phenomenal logistical effort to be able to get tired Woolworths workers who were already working around the clock to be able to go and create these new operating times.
There was another piece that didn’t get as much press which I think was called community pickup which we supported through communications which were normally you had to go and pick up your groceries if you did click and collect whereas community pickup was granting friends, family etc to be able to go and do it on your behalf.
I loved the naming around that in that the community has to support each other through these pieces and that was really the certainty through that first piece. But once people got past that, yes we’ve got hand sanitizer, yes we’ve got Perspex screens, yes it’s going to be a safe environment, I think that’s where we have gone into this messy middle period of this and that’s where some people are really pushing forward by investing in the brand and other people are hesitant in trying to work out what game to play.
So this is almost the reason why it’s important to have a strategy isn’t it. You may have noticed earlier I differentiated between strategy and planning. Some people think they are synonyms but I actually think the two are quite different.
One follows the other in that strategy is about identifying the opportunities and setting up not just what you are going to do but what you won’t do.
Then implementation is the bit where you have to be incredibly nimble or agile as people like to say. Once you’ve got a strategy the implementation can flow within the guidelines that you have set up for the strategy.
One of the best thoughts I’ve seen on strategy is, the most important part of the strategy is not what to do but what not to do. It’s easy to do everything, the trouble is none of us has the resources to do everything so what is it that we are not going to do.
It’s great to do everything but it’s the ability to go and over-deliver with the constraints that you’ve got which will define the great outcome. So the strategy that recognises those constraints as well and says we can actually get from A to B and further is certainly where people are pushing forward in that space.
It’s interesting when we talked about the banks before; they’ve been through a really challenging period with the royal commission as well. Certainly, CommBank which you mentioned is one of our clients here who we have worked with for a number or years and we are really proud of the work we’ve done for them around Cannes and this idea about moving forward and forward progress.
They’re in a very interesting position at the moment because they came out of some challenges that they had even pre royal commission which people forget around the insurance scandal and there was obviously the Austrac ATM issue as well. This got them into a mode of who they wanted to be before they were forced to go into the Royal Commission.
We saw a couple of weeks ago Roy Morgan put them in some of the top ten most trusted brands in Australia. When we were in the middle of the Royal Commission we weren’t thinking we were going to get to that place. Exactly as you said it’s a key pointer where we need to be moving forward from a strategic perspective, where we can’t play as well and some of the big structural changes they made. And then having the plans to actually move through this period and actually move towards that.
I think that is just an example of the kind of leadership I need to be showing in this business but also we need to be showing as an advertising industry as well.
One of the things you shared a moment ago where a lot of marketers and a lot of business people are saying, well what’s everyone else doing. The danger with that is that you end up just all moving in the same direction and of course not every business is the same, not every business has the same strategy. You really see the ones that are very strategic. Strategy is one of those words and you’re a strategist, you’ve had the title.
Chief Strategy Officer.
But how many times have people talked about strategy when it’s clear they don’t really have a clear strategy because the implementation is all over the place.
They’ll zig and zag and they’ll follow the crowd and none of that is actually helping them achieve their ultimate objective because they are just doing what everyone else is doing.
That’s actually right and I think there’s a big difference between words on a page and the behaviours behind that as well. We’ve seen that in parts of well-documented strategies as well that are moving organisations towards purpose as well.
You can see a lot of those have faulted through this time as well as people have stumbled. They’ve feared changes around the commercial realities of where they’ve got to get to whereas others have really accelerated forward.
I think TAB, one of our clients who we work with and who we implemented a very clear strategy. Their platform is, long may we play and we really wanted to move against the wagering industry that had become very transactional.
It was very much around the bet and very much centred around the digital experience and we wanted to be the leader in the category that was far more around connection. It was moving people forward again and actually wagering plays a part but not the only part in often men coming together.
Men coming together in sport, men coming together in social situations and because that strategy was so clear going into this COVID experience it has allowed us to go and use that and support TAB in their conversations with Government, in their conversations with venues and certainly their conversations with customers overall.
That’s allowed us to go and pull out work and create new initiatives that have led us towards that. I haven’t seen the latest brand matrix but I know we were heading in the right direction around being able to differentiate ourselves away from that category.
It’s times like that where people are faltering around where they are trying to get to and actually even though the plans go off-kilter you can still move towards that north star and I think in the end that comes down to strong strategy.
It’s a great case study isn’t it for why it is important not just to have a strategy but to have the strategy almost embedded in the organisational culture.
That’s right, into the operations of it all otherwise it’s an advertising idea which is fantastic but they are fluid and can become very transactional and it needs to be a business idea.
It goes back to this idea that none of these strategies that exist within organisations, you know the corporate strategy, the sales strategy, the marketing strategy, the technology strategy, the media strategy, the advertising strategy, in actual fact they’re all part and should grow from one platform, shouldn’t they?
The fact is that ultimately the root of all those strategies comes down to the organisation and what the overall objectives are.
It’s a very simplistic thought. It’s the philosophy of M&C Saatchi. It is when people don’t take the time to align and continue to take the time to refine and refine and refine what that is, it just creates opportunities for people to move off in all those different areas.
It’s almost like you just need the river to be pushing forward. It’s when all these little estuaries come in off the side, that’s where things can falter. That’s where back to the fundamentals in strategy, funds get allocated to areas that aren’t on that core purpose.
People’s time gets allocated to things that aren’t really going to add up to the strategy at the end. The communication doesn’t represent where we are trying to get to and then the customer experience importantly doesn’t actually fulfil what you are trying to do.
We can all think of businesses, and brands in particular that haven’t been able to go on and connect those areas together and that’s where you see the fault lines.
So the other area was that you did some time at Droga5.
So you were Head of Strategy there.
That’s an interesting brand, now it’s been bought by Accenture Interactive because as an agency brand it’s had such mixed success outside of New York. It’s interesting and I don’t want you to comment on Droga5 but just on the lessons from that. It does seem to hark back to the idea of strong brands, strong strategies, doesn’t it?
It does. David Droga, what a phenomenal leader and what talent as well.
A couple of people have asked me around that and I thoroughly enjoyed my experience there and have an incredibly close connection to a lot of the people that worked there, both in Australia and New York as well where I originally started having conversations with that business. He was really clear around a business that is strategically led and creatively driven and I think there’s something quite interesting around that. He is an exceptionally strategic thinker for a creative leader as we all know and really invested in that.
I think around my boss there, Sudeep Gohill who hired me, he was uncompromising around talent and I think the Droga brand has always been in that space as well. You always think you’ve just got an unfair share of the best people in this industry, how do they do that.
So for me, that’s great learning around how you go and take that forward. How do you create a brand and environment that you can continue to get your unfair share of the best talent out there? And they certainly were able to do that.
It’s interesting from an agency branding point of view because we’ve got a lot of multinational agency brands in WPP, in Wunderman Thompson, and VMLY&R and while they are global networks they are not necessarily strong brands.
M&C Saatchi, global network, strong brutal simplicity, Droga5 is very strong in the US but never really translated, the UK has always been sort of underwhelming. BBDO, strong brand. It is interesting, what does it take from an agency point of view to lead and grow a strong brand?
You’ve had experience; you’ve worked at some of these really strong brands.
Certainly, I think there is a core philosophy. There are definitely strengths with some of the brands I’ve worked within different areas. BBDO were the work, the work, the work, right, as we know and they clearly prioritise that.
I think one of my old bosses, the gentleman that actually gave me my first job in advertising, Todd Samson, he always talked about those common levers as we know around, you can focus on the product, you can focus on the people, or you can focus on the clients overall.
I think everyone has a different theory around what you focus on and what will follow after that piece. I think it’s just being very clear around that for business overall. Certainly back at BBDO days they were just around the work, the product will attract the best people because they will want to be associated with that and that will attract the best clients because they will want to have that injected into there.
Whereas Leo Burnett where I started was very much around the people. You get the right people in there overall and give them the best environment to go and be the best version of themselves then that will actually allow them to go and do the best work and the clients will follow.
It’s constantly that evolution there but I think the other part as well is consistency, and consistency of leadership. So commentary around those brands you’ve talked about there’s more of a cycle of CEO’s and leaders that move through those organisations and get moved around the holding companies, certainly that hasn’t been the case at M&C Saatchi.
It certainly is not the case at Droga and we think about the consistency of that leadership, certainly in New York in particular. There’s something around those brands, the DNA just lives in those people and that’s something that can’t be replaced.
Sitting here listening to you there seems to be a consistent theme through this, whether it’s a strategy, dealing with a crisis, building brands, or people.
Yeah, I think people that are around me and have worked for me and I’m fortunate that a number of people have worked with me and for me in multiple places now and I take that as a real compliment and a responsibility as well that they trust their careers and their opportunities that I and we as leaders can give them.
This is a relationship business overall and I really pride myself on those relationships.
So, Justin, we say that. We say things like it’s a people business, we say that people and talent are important. We say all these things and yet in a crisis, we cut the people, we make them work ridiculously long hours. It’s also an industry that can be all-consuming so as a leader how do you balance it out? It strikes me that the best strategists are the ones that understand people.
Adam Ferrier is a consumer psychologist; to understand people seems to be absolutely essential to doing any sort of strategy.
Yeah, I think that’s right, and I certainly know our experience here has been to try and pull every lever in the business before we need to pull the lever around cutting people as a way to get ourselves through all of this.
I think strategists are just more curious around people aren’t they and that’s not just people with a strategy in their title by the way because there are a lot of people in this business that I would count as very strategic that don’t have a strategy in their title and they are fantastic.
That’s what makes our industry brilliant overall but back to your point, it does sound trite to say we are a people business when there are so many challenges within our industry at the moment that are really hurting people, hurting people around their ability to do their job even around what’s more important than their job which is around their mental health as well and we’ve certainly seen it over the last 3-4 months.
I think the responsibility of leaders and leadership overall is to get ahead of that and say why are they working every weekend here at the moment? Why are they working these long hours?
Something we are looking at very actively at the moment is you can’t just try and compress the same way of doing things into a shorter time. If the only lever you are pulling is less time, then people are going to blow up around that and that’s not good for anyone.
So it’s the leaders turn to sit back for a second and observe and look at what’s going on, look at how the incredible constraints around time that are being put on us, I guess over the last 4 months and how that is starting to affect our best resource which is our people.
So we need to start changing those processes and there are parts of our business that we’ve implemented very well actually. There are parts of our business which have leadership teams that haven’t physically met each other because we’ve hired them during this period.
They haven’t been in the office for 4 months, certainly, our Melbourne team haven’t been in that space and they have led and won significant pitches through that time and they have just worked out new ways to go and do it that allows people to still get their rest and inspiration and recuperate and come back together and do their best work.
We haven’t got that right across the board but I know we will have to come out of this stronger.
Look you mentioned time and unfortunately, we’ve run out of time. I really appreciate you making time. Thanks, Justin for sitting down and having a chat.
Thanks, Darren it’s great.
One last question before we finish up and that is, of all the people and all the leaders that you’ve worked for which one is the one that has most inspired you?
Ideal for marketers, advertisers, media and commercial communications professionals, Managing Marketing is a podcast hosted by Darren Woolley and special guests. Find all the episodes here