"Everyone has a plan—until they get punched in the face."
This quote feels like a pretty accurate summary of my first year as CEO of DDB Hong Kong. As I shake off the right hooks and uppercuts my face has absorbed over the last 12 months, largely due to two crises that were out of my control, I'd like to share what I've learned.
1. The long and the short of it
When I first wrote my change plan for the agency, I was convinced that a focus on consistently generating world-class work would solve multiple issues at the same time (I still do believe in this). However, when budgets suddenly get cut, and people’s jobs are on the line, it’s really easy to push the idea of world-class work back to the bottom of your priority list, and make everything about new business and pitching instead.
I have to make an extra effort to continually remind myself that going after new business is a pragmatic move that will not—that must not—change the overall long-term vision for the agency. While it’s easy to give in to short-term solutions, I believe it is crucial not to lose sight of the end-goal. The way there, however, might not be exactly, or probably never is, as originally planned. And that’s ok, as long as you course-correct again and again and again.
Another aspect that helps me to get back on track is having my creative leaders work against a clearly defined plan that specifically focuses on our product. Whenever I lose sight of this, they remind me of what our bigger ambition is. Which leads me to my next point.
2. Build a gang
Every captain needs a crew that he or she can rely on, because tasks like creating culture and driving better work can never be just one person’s job.
My first week in the new role, I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to shadow Marty O’Halloran, CEO and chairman of DDB ANZ, on the job in Sydney as well as Auckland. The one piece of advice he gave me right off the bat was to build a management team that respects, gets along, and supports each other. He said, “Don’t just create a team, create a circle of trust, a gang, the gang.” The chemistry of this group and its spirit of camaraderie will help to weather any storm and also set an example for the rest of the agency.
Becoming a 'gang' right away is rare, so I started by expanding the leadership team to reflect a more balanced representation of various functions within the agency, and then defining clear roles for everyone on the team, including myself. We religiously hold weekly management meetings, which in the past were cancelled far too many times because everyone was always “too busy”. But for a group to eventually become a gang, we all aligned that we had to meet, communicate, and do so not only as often as possible, but also as visible to the rest of the agency as possible. After all, you can only be an example for others, when your behaviour is also seen by them.
3. It’s how you show up
When I attended Omnicom University back in 2017, I read an extremely simple, yet highly meaningful quote by TBWA New York’s Rob Schwartz that stuck with me until now: “It’s how you show up.” As a naturally optimistic person, this message resonated with me, so I also decided to do my best, every single day, to show up positive and hopeful. This is probably even more so important during times of crisis.
Someone once told me that when you sit in the proverbial big seat, people will not only look for your leadership, but they will also always interpret your actions as well as inactions in a certain way. Every encounter, every facial expression sends a signal that can be overinterpreted or misinterpreted. So, coming into the office with a positive frame of mind, I hoped that at least some of it would rub off to our people, during times when optimism was likely not their default emotional state.
4. The power of symbolism
For our people to not only overcome the challenges of 2019, but also to thrive through them, I knew we needed something bigger than just updated perks, beanbags, pool tables and PlayStations. What we needed was a shared ambition—something big that everybody could believe in and rally behind.
Hong Kong people are known for their perseverance, their grit. So, I thought, why not use this grit to also put our agency’s creativity on the world stage? Hence, our shared agency ambition: "Hong Kong grit. Worldwide hit". We want to be among the best in the world.
All of this meant we first and foremost had to re-focus on creative excellence. So, we emptied our awards shelves, which were packed with trophies from the past, many of which were not won by the current teams in place. We got rid of all of them, and then I told everyone that we would fill them up again—together. While we are still far from achieving our ambition, we did manage to win more than 20 creative and effectiveness awards within less than six months. Not all because of an empty shelf of course, but it did play its part in bringing everyone together, working towards a unified goal.
5. Celebrate the small wins
In times of crisis, you will start questioning whether some of your culture or team-building initiatives might be deemed inappropriate. For example, when the city is literally on fire, and families stop talking to each over differing political views, is it still ok to go ahead with your all-out, crazy dress-up Christmas party?
I have quickly come to the conclusion that it’s best not to overthink things, but instead go with your gut and provide a bit of an escape within the four walls of the agency. I’m not saying that you should forget about everything that’s happening around you. What I’m saying is to create some sort of safe haven to give your people the opportunity to take a break from negative headlines and for a change just experience a bit of carefree fun.
Over the past 12 months, we have made it a habit to celebrate our wins, big or small. I’ve learned that when faced with business challenges and a city-wide emotional tension, sometimes it’s the small things that can make a difference—albeit for a short moment.
It’s probably the understatement of the decade to say that a lot has gone on over the last year. On top of everything else, I also had put in place a few internal changes and developments right after being appointed as the agency lead. So, change management was of the essence. Based on the premise that you cannot overcommunicate, I activated a series of internal comms efforts that would keep everyone informed about where the agency is, and where it is heading.
For example, in the past, all staff town hall meetings would happen on a more sporadic basis, so we switched to a monthly format where we now share new work, new joiners, pitches won, and also the not so easy to talk about, such as finances and lost pitches. I have also started a regular email message to all staff, which I call ‘Reply All’. This keeps everyone up-to-date on management decisions. And, as the name of the email implies, all staff are encouraged to hit the ‘reply all’ button with their questions, feedback, comments, or sometimes just interesting references they would like to share with the rest of the agency.
The ‘overcommunicate’ advice might be an old trope, but judging from my interactions with our people, I sincerely feel it is a must.
7. Find your 'retreat'
In my transition from planning to management, my schedule and tasks have definitely changed tremendously. There are a lot more spreadsheets to look at, a lot more admin work, and also a lot more time I just spend with our people. Logically, on the other side of the spectrum there is a lot less of the type of strategic and creative work I had entered the business for in the first place.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am certainly not complaining. I am very grateful for where I am and for what I get to do day in and day out. Having said that though, it still can get a little much, a little overwhelming from time to time.
So, what I have learned helps me to clear my head, and power through some of those rougher patches, is to occasionally go back to my comfort zone: good ol’ planning work. This reminds me again of the bigger picture: why we’re doing what we’re doing, and what my role in it is.
8. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid
While some of the above admittedly might sound like I’m tooting my own horn, I actually do make every effort to remind myself not to drink too much of the Kool-Aid.
When you make certain decisions or put specific initiatives into place, I have noticed that it becomes really easy to just think of them in the most positive light possible. You might be right. But you should also be open to the possibility that you might not be. So, ask your management gang for honest feedback and input. After all, not everything can always be rainbows and unicorns, and it takes constructive criticism (which includes self-criticism) to make something better.
Bloodied but unbowed
All in all, I am obviously saddened by the circumstances we have and are partially still experiencing, but at the same time, I also believe that all those punches to the face have taught me a few valuable lessons. Lessons I probably would have otherwise needed years to gain. So, I say, 'Bring it on, year two!'
Andreas Krasser is the CEO of DDB Group Hong Kong.