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about 8 years ago by Emma Love

Lessons in leadership: Agency CEO, Leigh Thomas

Leigh Thomas

Leigh talks about the importance of integrity and shares her advice on how to make it to the top of agencyland.

Leigh Thomas famously started off life as a classical ballerina before joining the family business of advertising. She quickly rose through the ranks of some of the world’s most respected advertising agencies, eventually becoming MD of Saatchi & Saatchi. In 2013, Thomas became CEO of Dare and has steered the agency back to its digital roots and through the recent sale to OLIVER.

Leigh, you’ve had key roles at some of the most respected agencies. What’s been your secret to the top?

Well firstly, it’s never been about job title for me. I didn’t set out to become a CEO but I have always been incredibly interested in what I do and I’ve always been someone who commits. I don’t like mediocrity. I’m hard on myself, and have high expectations of my team. But I’m also not afraid of failure. That experience makes the successes all the sweeter.

Have you had a career strategy?

God no! My north star has always been creativity and that’s what has driven me. I genuinely believe that creativity is one of the key skills human beings have. No matter how technically advanced, no matter how many ones and zeros we’re using, creativity is the uniquely human attribute that can make the world better.

What’s been your best career decision?

To come to Dare. My understanding of customer experience, content, data and creativity has moved on exponentially. With the return to our digital heritage and sale to OLIVER Group, I’ve learnt more than I could have thought possible in the space of three years. It’s been a breathtaking challenge, and my best career decision for sure.  What are you most proud of?

Dare’s shift back to its DNA in digital is something I am immensely proud of. We got lost for a few years aspiring to ‘integration’. The fact was that 90% of our work was digital anyhow, so from a positioning point of view it was the right thing to do. It was just being truthful.

More importantly, the energy and commitment from our team at Dare has also totally surpassed every expectation. They are setting their own standards and continuously raising their game. The culture of Dare has always been very humble, yet exceptionally smart. I am incredibly proud and humbled to be a part of that.

What’s the biggest lesson you have learned the hard way?

Surrounding myself with the right team. It’s about chemistry as much as it is about skills. You can find talented people anywhere, but how people gel together as a team is the magic.

There’s a great quote from Bill Bernbach about this: 
"When we started our agency, we had in mind precisely the kind of people we wanted with us. There were two requirements: You had to be talented and you had to be nice. If you were nice but without talent, we were very sorry, but you just wouldn’t do. We had to ‘make it.’ And only great talent would help us do that. If you were a great talent, but not a nice person, we had no hesitation in saying ‘No.’ Life is too short to sacrifice so much of it, to living with a bastard."

Who has most inspired you?

By their nature, agencies can be exceptionally demanding environments, so you have to find people that you respect and can be totally honest with.

I’ve had some great sponsors all along my career. At Dare, Mark Collier and John Bartle have both have given me wonderful support. As a boss, Mark provides support, guidance and has huge belief in this business; a lot of my commitment to Dare is because of him. John’s been very engaged with Dare right from the beginning and is a great sponsor of many women in our business. I’m very lucky.

Outside of the agency world, I recently heard Sheryl Sandberg speak, who is a total mensch. Totally inspiring. Her achievements in Silicon Valley are extraordinary and she’s done it with such EQ, clarity of thinking, incredible courage and a sense of humour. Eric Schmidt famously advised her "if you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on". Embracing that attitude is very cool.

What do you wish you had known upon joining the industry?

Don’t try and please everybody. Particularly as you get more senior. If you genuinely want to create change, and do what’s right, then sometimes you have to stand up and say it. Done in the right way, people will ultimately respect you more.

What are the key attributes a CEO needs?

EasyJet’s brilliant CEO Carolyn McCall hits the nail on the head: you have to make sure you know your numbers. In order to run a P&L you need to be obsessive about the numbers and the details behind them.

The ability to listen is an incredibly important attribute. If you have good listening skills you can probably do a pretty good job of being a CEO. I see too many people charge into meetings with their own agenda; not listening and therefore not learning. There’s so much wisdom to be gained when you stop to listen, for the vision and reality of a business to be brought to you rather than imposing it.

And you should not, for one moment, ever consider yourself above anybody else.

What are the key challenges facing agency CEOs?

The business world we operate in is increasingly procurement driven. Agencies have traditionally always left finance for the end of the conversation but that landscape has changed. Commercial reality has got to be in the first part of the conversation, as is reflective of the macro economic environment around us. That’s why I’m so excited about being part of OLIVER Group, because we have a radical, innovative commercial model that allows us to genuinely solve our clients’ business issues. It is also a model that allows creativity to once again flourish.

On a wider note, the whole question of diversity is still a challenge for our industry. Are we so introspective as a business, that we are unable to address such a fundamental issue? It’s time.

How do you know if you’re doing a good job as CEO?

Well the numbers never lie. The P&L has to work.

On from that, the work is always an excellent indicator of agency health. Good work suggests that agency and client relationships are strong and people are pushing themselves further.

What about work / life balance?

I’m achieving more of a work life balance now. I don’t think anyone expects people to be bound to their desks all hours. Being a slave to our corporate job is not something my children will ever have to put up with.

Nothing makes me happier than when a father says ‘I’m not coming in today because I have my kid’s school play’. One of my team is doing shared parental leave with her partner. It’s happening. I’m delighted. I see it in our clients too – people arranging their lives in a way that suits them. I’d rather work with people who are genuinely happy in their lives as a whole.

What would be your advice to someone starting out?

It’s a small industry and you will be remembered by how you behave. Keep your integrity, no matter what.

What’s next?

For me now it’s about the work, as always, and international scale-ability of Dare. We’re in good health.