An Hour of Advertising with CEO Jamie Elliott

30 January 2020

Jamie Elliott began his advertising life at Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper as a graduate account manager in 1998. He fully admits that, at the time, he had absolutely no idea what an account manager was.

Yet he’s gone on to run some of the industry’s biggest accounts at agencies notorious for their account management prowess. He spent seven years at Euro RSCG, working his way up to board account director, before joining Delaney Lund Knox Warren as client services director in 2006.

As DLKW evolved into DLKW Lowe and then Mullen Lowe London, Jamie’s role changed too. He went on to become deputy managing director, managing director and then chief executive in 2015. During this time, the agency was consistently named one of the most effective agencies in the industry.

At the end of 2016, Jamie left DLKW to take on leadership of The Gate London. Full disclosure, The Gate is part of my group, MSQ Partners. But Jamie was one of the reasons I was attracted to the role.

Because Jamie is able to place huge emphasis on agency culture, without compromising client relationships or sacrificing great work. He understands the necessary requirements of building a great team and does it all by being thoroughly decent and empathetic along the way.

They’re still frustratingly rare qualities in this business. So I was keen to sit down with him for this series. And, of course, to find out more about the times he really fucked up…

Part one: the changing nature of account management, why it can help to be an ‘all-rounder’ and when client drinks go wrong …

Do you remember the first time you really fucked up?

Oh yes. We’d just finished a retail Christmas campaign, which involved producing about 60 ads in three months. A really intense experience for all involved. At the end of the production we went out and had lunch and it was a great ‘letting off of steam’. Lunch drifted into more drinks and everyone was getting a little worse for wear. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the creative team slapping our wonderful client on his head, saying with some earthy Anglo-Saxon flourishes ‘repeat after me, I’ve been a very naughty boy’.

It was clear to me that what one person was thinking was a joke, the other person was thinking ‘this has gone way too far’. It was like watching a car crash happen in extreme slow motion. Knowing that as the account man you had lost control of the situation and that you were – because you and everyone else had had a lot to drink – incapable of completely sorting the situation out.

I got a text at 1am that just said, ‘could you come and see me and bring your boss?’.

How did that meeting go?!

Well, I was extremely hungover, and had already had to debrief said boss on what had happened, so was pretty quiet and very contrite. I knew things had gone wrong and I’d lost control of the situation. He was firm but, thankfully, fair. It was a chastening experience and I learnt the lesson that the moment when you think you can relax and that everything’s fine is the moment you most have to keep your wits about you. After all, as the saying goes, trust takes years to build and seconds to break.

Is that a delicate balancing act then, as an account man, knowing you’re responsible for every facet of the agency relationship?

Yes, it’s an odd role. Some describe it as being the conductor of an orchestra but account management is also a little bit like being a football referee. When it’s all going well no one notices you, but when the shit hits the fan, that’s when all eyes are on you.

I remember being with a client in a voiceover recording early on in my career. We had an expensive celebrity in the booth doing the read. It was quickly clear she was drunk. We’d paid a lot of money to get her there and the client was excited about her involvement, but it was apparent that she was completely incapable of doing the job that was required. I remember thinking, “this is a bit awkward, wonder who’s going to sort it out” and turning around to see the clients, producer and creative team looking intently and expectantly at me.

How did you approach that dynamic of needing strong relationships with both your creative team and your client? And how does that change when you then take on an agency leadership role?

Certainly when I started it was quite an old-fashioned experience. The job was to create trust and buy time and live the ‘under promise and over deliver’ mantra. The expectation was that we’d ‘sell’ every idea signed-off, protect the creatives from having too much client contact, and make sure that the strategy person could have enough time to craft their elegant strategy. It was a very old-fashioned delineation of responsibilities, and you were always expected to do whatever it took to make others’ jobs easier. We were referred to as bag carriers and you’d always be bumbling around paying for taxis and booking restaurants. Anything to take the pressure of other people.

I suppose that sense of creating a climate where people can flourish and great work can happen is the link between the craft of account management and agency leadership.

I spend a lot of time one-on-one with our senior clients now and those sessions are as much about career or stakeholder management as specific issues with the work we’re doing for them. But, they’re important for me to help steer the relationship, underline the value of the work we’re doing and help create the maximum time and space for the team to create the best possible solutions to current challenges.

Were you always interested in getting into the industry? Were you a budding account manager from day one?

I was always drawn to advertising, but after university I wanted to explore some options, so I learnt to touch-type. Being able to type at 75 words a minute is one of the most useful skills I’ve learnt and enabled me to go and get a bunch of work experience in different places. So, I spent some time at the BBC working on the Breakfast News, I worked at Grey in the TV department, I worked at a film production company and, randomly, taught a term of English at Harrow School. Of those I enjoyed the buzz of the agency and the combination of art, commerce and culture that it represented the most.

I scraped on to a grad programme at Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper and started without really knowing what account management was. I suppose I knew I wasn’t creative, didn’t feel I had the brain to be a planner and had always been a good team player and all-rounder with an interest in people. Account management is the natural home of those, to misquote The Great Gatsby, that think life is most successfully seen through many windows.

Part two: the changing nature of agency loyalty, when mergers kill culture and why pitching is still the lifeblood of the industry…

What do you look for in an account manager today then?

There are three things. Firstly, someone who’s got a point of view and puts it forward. Because that is all you really are in your business – your point of view. No one really knows anything more than anyone else does. It’s just a collection of views.

Secondly, there’s an energy that’s important, a sort of fizzing enthusiasm. In a fast-moving world the modern account person needs to make an impression and form a bond with clients and the broader team quickly to enable them to be productive.

Thirdly, empathy. Emotional intelligence is paramount The ability to listen and interpret and use two ears and one mouth in that proportion is the most undervalued of skills.

Do account people get the recognition they deserve? There’s lots of creative and planning awards but no account awards, for example…

And, there shouldn’t be. You have to accept that there are other people who should get more credit than you, it’s an integral part of the role.

The role is being a brilliant team player and, in the modern agency, creating an environment where diverse teams across multiple disciplines can create great work together.

You’ve been at three places throughout your career – though that does amount to six different agency brands when you factor in mergers etc – that’s quite rare now isn’t it?

I was very career-minded and was always thinking about what was the most direct route to the top job. I listened to some advice from my then chief executive, Brett Gosper (now CEO World Rugby) which went along the lines of ‘Think long and hard about moving company if you’re progressing and learning where you are. If you move you have to start again, you have to build trust, new connections and goodwill from scratch and there’s an inevitable loss of momentum in terms of career progression that comes with that’.

I’d take a broader view of things now and there’s obviously a value in variety of experience. But it’s good to ask what your priority is and to recognise that the grass may well be greener in the field you’re already standing in.

Did you ever feel the need then to be an ‘agency champion’? To learn to love the agency you’re in and try and be a lynchpin within your agency culture?

Always. I left Euro RSCG (now Havas London) when Ben Langdon was hired from McCann and my heart wasn’t in the new culture. And, I left MullenLowe as the flame of one culture was going out and the Profero culture came to the fore.

The first question we asked when we were brought in to transform The Gate was ‘what sort of culture do we want it to be?’

Is it easy to become conscious of an agency’s culture? Or is it just talk?

Oh I think the success of an agency completely comes down to chemistry and culture. This is a human endeavour. Yes, there are technological advancements and yes, we’ve got data, but this is a human endeavour and you walk into an agency and know immediately if that group of people get on. The quality of work and the culture is what makes people, on the whole, want to be part of a company. You want to feel like you’re part of something.

I think you can see it in the industry at the moment that with all this consolidation and restructuring, you’ve got collisions of cultures coming together and for some businesses it won’t work for a very, very long time. If you look at any ‘major’ merger of the past 10 years, then the only people who have really got it right is adam&eveDDB. They’ve nailed the merger in a way that almost every other merger has failed, because they’ve clearly thought about the cultural aspect from the start.

Do you enjoy pitching?

Well that’s the lifeblood of our industry. I think you have to love that to endure in this industry. And I know that if we’ve got the right team in the room then we can beat absolutely anyone in London, because the chemistry is really good. You feel amazing as part of that collective – and I’ve had that at other places too, where you just love being part of a team and thrust into that situation.

What often makes it better is that quite often, you’re actually in situations where you’re presenting to client teams who won’t have the same relationships and chemistry as you do as an agency, and that makes you feel even more confident and more bulletproof. You feel like you can do anything, that you’ve all got each other’s back and that you’re going to thrive.

Part three: DLKW’s ‘account man’ reputation, the intricacies of agency recruitment and the art of knowing when to leave…

What’s your take on hiring? It still baffles me today that, a bit like when you’re buying a house, what is a huge move for both parties is something that tends to be decided with a 45-minute meeting…

It’s an interesting question and I think there’s two sides to it. If you’re part of the agency doing the hiring, you already know your culture and you have a good feel for the people you think will thrive there.

I’ll give you an example – a long time ago I was desperate to work at BBH. And I spoke to lots of people about how you get to work there. I was told by someone that what you need to do is have absolute focus on the work, and give the sense that because their work was, at the time, the best in the world, that was why you really wanted to work there. And it wasn’t much more difficult than sticking to that line.

So like a mantra I repeated it for about 12 interviews. And I kept getting invited back. But I suppose after a while, they and I worked each other out. Because in the 13th interview, which was purportedly the last, they broke me. Having gone on and on about it being the best work in the world again and again I thought ‘I can’t continue with this’. And I said ‘but do you have any fun doing it?’ And I knew immediately, just by saying those words, that I had lost the job. They’d outplayed me in terms of showing me that I wasn’t right for their culture. They knew their culture intimately, and they knew they had to test people, because that was so important to them.

There’s risk in every person you hire, I reckon if you get two-thirds right, you’re doing better than most.

Has that approach changed now though? People are spending less time at a company etc…

I don’t think you can do that now to people in the same way. And there’s much more a case of having to ‘live and learn’. But as a candidate, almost immediately I think you know whether these are people you can work and spend a lot of time with, or not. At DLKW I immediately knew that that was a place I wanted to work, and that I would work and fit well there. And I knew absolutely immediately when I met Pete (the chief executive of MSQ Partners) and Beri and Kit (The Gate’s executive creative director and chief strategy officer) that it was a group of people that could work perfectly. For me that really is the most important thing.

DLKW was synonymous with exceptional account handling. When you were there, was that something that you guys were conscious of? Did you know that one day a whole bunch of the suits would be running agencies?

Successful agencies have a strong sense of what they are and what they’re not. DLKW was the ‘anti-adland’ agency. Campaign gave it more Turkeys of the Week than almost any other agency, and often for campaigns that were hugely effective. Things like Halifax. Regardless of the work that Adam & Eve have done on Halifax – they, or most other brands – have never come up with a campaign structure that’s as effective as the ‘staff as stars’ Howard Brown campaign was!

People will disagree with me – even lots of people at DLKW will – but DLKW’s great strength was being account management-led. Richard Warren was a strategist who used to be an account person. Greg (Delaney) was a great creative but was also a great client presenter. To some degree the main focus was always ‘what’s going to make this a very good meeting?’ One of the MDs had a phrase ‘tough on creativity, tough on the causes of creativity’. It was very tongue-in-cheek and it did help produce a lot of very populist and successful work, but it never really fitted with the rest of ad land.

There were lots of senior leaders at DLKW – you had the four founders but then you had a lot of other senior management too. How do you manage that?

I think if you were to describe that setup and culture – it was collegiate. Everyone had in some ways grown up together, everyone got on and therefore it worked as a collective. People took responsibility in different ways. It was an optimistic, chatty type of place. And it grew really quickly, so there was always a lot going on and plenty for people to do.

It was probably an issue for everyone who didn’t quite get along in that environment. But for those that did it was a very strong culture. You either liked it or it wasn’t for you. That was probably its great power and strength. But it did make it quite difficult when things needed to change. The merger with Lowe and when people left, it went through a protracted period of change where the culture was affected, and the agency struggled.

On a personal level, how do you cope when you’re at a place when there’s a stream of people leaving – as does happen. And then, when that person leaving is eventually you, were you conscious of how you acted?

I think when a culture starts to dissipate, it becomes really difficult. You’re trying to reformulate something at the same time as the thing that lots of people really loved is disappearing. And it disappears very painfully because it disappears person by person.

And looking back, I should have left much earlier too. I think I was so hellbent on becoming a chief executive of a leading advertising agency that I was willing to battle through, when really there was a cultural change happening that I didn’t want to be a part of.

I don’t think I coped with the merger very well at all. Losing the ‘DLKW’ brand (when the agency became Mullen Lowe) actually felt like a bereavement. It was an incredibly tough thing for lots of people to deal with. And I think lots of us left it thinking ‘are we ever going to find something like that again?’ Some of us have, some haven’t, but it’s tough.

Part four: the benefits of getting a coach, the differences working in a small agency and the pride in a campaign sneered at by the rest of the industry…

In the period that Lowe was changing, you’ve got a new level of seniority, you’ve got young kids…how did you deal with the work-life balance?

Really badly! For a long time, really badly. I was on this one-dimensional mission to be CEO of a top agency. When we had our first child I was doing an MBA in my spare time, on top of running a department, which was my day job at the time. I worked late, worked weekends and was only really thinking about work. It was daft really and was only going to lead to burn-out at some point.

Knowing that something had to change, but no having the bandwidth to work out what, I got a coach. For the period I was CEO at Mullen Lowe and for the period I started at The Gate I worked with the brilliant Alison Chadwick. And a lot of what we worked on was work-life balance. The balance was totally non-existent at the start – I was getting into a sort of ‘boom-and-bust’ in terms of my energy, in that I’d work incredibly hard towards the point of going on holiday, I’d crash on holiday and then come back and go again. Not healthy and not sustainable.

What did you learn?

That being a leader of an agency is all about getting the best out of others and not kidding yourself you can sort it all yourself. That you should be properly delegating and letting other people do their thing. That you work at ensuring your energy levels are consistent across the year so you can make good decisions whenever required, rather than these horrible spikes and crashes that I think a lot of the industry used to see as the norm. It was totally obvious in many ways, but I wouldn’t have got there without help.

It’s clear with this outlook and the fact you’ve taken on things like MBAs that you’re a big advocate of training. Does the industry do enough when it comes to training?

I don’t think we do it enough. Both my parents are teachers so maybe that has something to do with it, but I’ve always felt that you’ll do your best work in the future and so you’re always a work in progress capable of further development. That’s my mindset.

And, I want our folk to feel the same thing – to feel they can develop at The Gate, to have the opportunity to develop their craft, to expand their horizons, to develop intellectually. But I don’t think agencies thought like that for a long time. They put people in boxes – you’re good, you’re not.

Was empowering people one of the drivers of joining a smaller agency?

I think that the world that I had been in had become very political and complicated. At Mullen Lowe I had got myself into a situation where I was accountable for a lot of stuff that I didn’t actually have responsibility for. I think it’s actually common in a lot of these larger agencies with complicated structures where people get held to account for the performance of an agency, but you look at the bigger picture and there’s a lot of things that you can’t affect. And I wasn’t experienced enough to say ‘hang on a minute, I’m not in control of those budget numbers’. So I think there was a desire for absolute simplicity in terms of who I reported to and what I was genuinely responsible and accountable for. I wanted to be at a place where I was able to agree what the definition of success was.

Now, we can do whatever we need to make something happen, providing it’s in the confines of the budget. Brilliant – I can live with that. I can live with failing if the equation is that you were able to do what you wanted to meet the objective. The Gate was a smaller place, it had a very clear transformational job that needed to be done, and we as a team have the freedom to tackle it.

Was there a particular moment you realised you needed to that MBA, that you needed to learn more about business?

Yes, I was a business lead in a meeting with the marketing director of Cadbury and he was prattling on about EBITDA and I was thinking ‘EBITWHAT?’ It dawned on me that I wasn’t going to progress much further if I couldn’t speak that language as well. It was joylessly hard work at times but gave me a lot of confidence and the ability to ask informed questions.

Let’s get on to the really hard-hitting questions now – you’ve always been immaculately turned out – how deliberate is that?

Entirely deliberate. As Anna Wintour says, “if you can’t be better than the competition, just dress better”. We’re asking clients to trust us to produce something that is intangible so looking vaguely competent helps provide reassurance for sure.

But I think I also have a psychological need to do it. I played a lot of cricket as a kid and I was an opening batsman for a long period. An important part of the mental preparation of going out to face fast bowling is putting on the ‘armour’ – the pads, box, gloves and helmet – to go into battle. My mate Charlie Snow (the former chief strategy officer of MullenLowe) is amused by my pernickety attitude to appearance but I feel that things like wearing a tie is like wearing my ‘battle clothing’. It makes me feel comfortable, confident and is part of being well-prepared.

Someone recently told me that you have to always remember that clients should see their time with agencies as ‘the fun part of their job’. Is that the case, and how do you approach that?

That’s the historical view, yes. But, it’s led to us being seen as lightweight and lacking commercial value. As someone once said to me, if you don’t take yourself seriously no one else will. So, yes we still need to create an environment – both mental and physical – where clients are in the right frame of mind to receive our ideas and openly discuss them and we need to create excitement around that. But we need to take seriously and convey seriously the power of what we do and use the growing evidence base to back that up.

What’s the campaign you’ve been most proud to be a part of?

Unquestionably the ‘Act F.A.S.T’ campaign for Stroke Awareness that we did at DLKW. It’s not the creative highlight, but it would be odd not to choose the one that has saved thousands of lives and helped thousands more respond to the signs of a stroke quickly enough to avoid severe disability.

Because it dramatises – graphically – that a stroke is a fire on the brain, it received a record number of ASA complaints, but wasn’t banned because it was demonstrably helping people. Much more gratifying than the IPA Effectiveness Gold it won were the touching stories of thanks we received. I remember one were a parent described their four-year-old girl knocking on the door of her neighbour’s house, saying to them ‘Please can you help? my granny is having that thing that’s on the telly, can you call an ambulance?’

And what about the campaign you wish you’d done?

I’ll pick one that’s very different to ‘Act F.A.S.T’! Having heard the story of the way it came about, being part of a team who threw lots of colourful balls down the streets of San Francisco for Sony would have been amazing. The fact they resisted overcomplicating a very simple script and got someone to buy it is something I still love. I love the sense of emotion that it evokes. It’s utterly frivolous, it’s for a product that the world doesn’t need more of, but it was a totally joyful expression of what is a brilliant piece of advertising.

This interview appeared in The Drum on November 25th 2018