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How The CEO Of A Global PR Firm Got His Start, With James Wright Of Red Havas

James was 26 years old when he was promoted to managing director at a 900 person public relations agency. He spent the 4 years after college learning everything he could about the business, adding value wherever he could eventually becoming invaluable to clients that wanted to spend more money with his agency because of the work that he was doing.

In the third episode of our Scaling Mentorship series where we hold live interviews with corporate leaders, we get an inside look into how a leader is made in a business that is heavily relationship based. When James decided he needed a new challenge, he moved to Australia to help turn around a small PR company that was operating at a loss. Within 7 years he grew it from 15 people to over 100 with operations all across Asia Pacific. His experience traveling the world was instrumental in helping him create new business units across new geographies and cultures where the clients and their needs had to be relearned.

In our interview we also learn how the PR business has changed and what companies should be looking for when partnering with agencies today. James Wright speaks to the future of PR, where he sees massive opportunities, and what people should do if they want to break into the industry.

Show Notes

0:22 Today on the show, we have James Wright. He is the global CEO of Red Havas and he has a great story on how he got into his position now. You moved to New York, how long ago?

0:33 January, so five months ago.

0:37 But you’re originally from the UK, right? Welcome to New York!

0:55 I know that you’re from a family who ran a farm for one hundred and twenty years. It could have been you but it was your brother who ultimately was put in charge of it. And so you went the other track. By 26 years old you became managing director. Talk us through that time after college. What do you think separated you to be trusted with that leadership role?

1:43 I think growing up in the family business you learn about yourself, you learn about what’s happening in the real world and money is like an everyday conversation. I always grew up having to work in the farm and do tasks around. You sort of take that knowledge and experience from working hard.

3:36 How was it in those 4 years before you got that opportunity to be a managing director? What were you doing then?

4:35 Actually I started at the same agency but it was bought by a huge PR group. And by that point I was starting to move into the ranks. I think a lot of it was about showing initiative. And so, I was always the first to put my hand up to do other stuff to help and support on new business pitches. I wanted to get as much experience as I could and also kind of tap into the knowledge of the people around me.

06:20 Can you give us an example of how you did that? I want to understand a little more about your process because I understand that networking is important and I understand that knowing your client deeply is important, but when you came to work on a Monday and you had, let’s say maybe a client list in front of you, how did you execute against that list? What do you actually tactically do to make sure that you win business and you get those briefings, instead of somebody else?

07:28 I come to work very early. I’d like to research what was happening in the industry of my clients so I could actually then have a conversation with them first thing as soon as they got through the door about things that happened either through the weekend news or what’s happening and what was broken that morning on a Monday.

09:32 And how old were you at this point?

09:35 Twenty-five

10:01 The way that you stand out and progress and grow and you realize the way that you create value in any role or even a startup that you joined is by taking initiative, solving problems and doing things that other people aren’t doing. Because ultimately that’s what is going to accelerate you at a young age. Like you did. And then so a year after this you got another opportunity to be a managing director. Talk about that story. Would you say that was a pivotal moment in your career?

10:20 I was working on a number of other clients. I had a very large global law client. We’re working for Coke, we’re working for Mcdonald’s. We were working for HSBC, for Sony. So we had the HSBC climate partnership, Sony was doing technology and how technology can improve the lives that we lead. Same thing for another client, where they were very much focused on helping young people in their communication skills. And at an early age, what I said to them, to the group was, well, actually I think we should create this as a specialist division globally.

11:12 So they allowed me to set up.

12:35 When you say you won that piece of business, because we talked about this in the last three weeks with our other interviews. A couple of times we’ve heard that one of the ways that you make waves in an organization and get leadership positions is by bringing in business, bringing in revenue. How did you win that particular piece of business?

13:05 We just went I think further than the other agencies. You know, we really got under the skin of that business.

13:18 When you got the managing director role, how many people at that point did you have reporting to you?

13:59 Probably about 14 or 15, but we were a team about 900.

14:30 How does that, when you’re 26 years old and you get an opportunity to manage people for the first time, I mean even 14, 15 people that can be pretty intimidating if you’ve never done it before. How did it feel to jump right into it or what were some of the first things that you did to get comfortable with that role?

14:46 Maybe it was the arrogance of it at the time, but I felt I deserved it because I’ve worked really hard and I’ve got the relationships and I felt like I should be in that position or given the opportunity to be in that position.

17:44 Over the years, until you were 32 years old. How did your role evolve? Did you end up running that team of 900?

17:54 No, there was a global CEO that we’re sitting above meetings. Guy called Michael Murphy who is still a good friend today.

18:29 I’m a big believer that you can teach skills but you cannot teach attitude.

19:57 So tell us what happened when you got a call to get the opportunity to run a PR firm in the Asia Pacific and you ended up moving to Australia. What happened?

20:09 No, I was looking to move markets. And I was a bit burnt out to be honest. I was looking for something different and something new. I was 31, it was the 11th year into my career and I’ve got this opportunity where the business called Euro RSCG, which was the Havas name before it became Havas.

20:52 So part of the attraction of Havas was the opportunity to also go and play a leadership role within our advertising media agencies there, in addition to doing what I knew which was running PR businesses.

23:12 So talk about that dynamic, because you came from a 900 person agency, right? Effectively to a nine person organization – a very, very different environment. You probably had a lot more opportunity to just kind of drive things in the direction that you wanted to drive. But how did your job change then and what did you do in those coming years to pull them out of that loss

24:17 I had connections already in Australia through sports and also through other people I knew having been in my previous role who connected me with people. So I actually arrived with two accounts already. So I was bringing money with me, but then I just had to like trust some of the people around me, a very young team and a lot of those young team members stayed with me for quite some time as we started to set goals with the business, win awards. And it just kind of spiraled from there.

25:14 So when you’re coming in there, you’re starting with a business with a loss. What were the type of contracts you were getting? How big were they dollar wise, how many of them were you able to get in that first year?

25:27 I just launched the Range Rover Evoque globally, which was a major design change for that brand. And it was like the entire KPI was get this car front page of Design Week, you know, went from a multimillion dollar account to essentially trying to pick up three, $3,000 or $4,000 a month accounts, you know, like $30,000 to $40,000 a year.

26:56 You were starting all of these different business units across Asia and every country that you would go into, it’d be slightly different dynamic, different culture obviously, but also different business culture as well. Talk about that a little bit. How did you figure out let’s say, how to start a new business unit in a new country where you didn’t really know anybody and you didn’t know this is how they do business there?

27:17 I traveled a lot in my time. I traveled the world twice. I’ve done charity tracks in all sorts of different parts of the world. And I think having that kind of knowledge of having to travel back country or knowing something about them that was interesting was quite important because a lot of it in Asia in particular is all about relationships and respect. I just think you’ve just got to be very aware of the people that you work with and know the environment in which they’ve got to operate.

28:43 I want to fast forward to your time here because you have been named to this role to run Red Havas or a Global CEO Red Havas, Havas PR across the world. So from the perspective of a client, if I am even let’s say an entrepreneur or business leader that is just thinking about spending some money on PR right now and I might be spending 5 to 10 grand a month with you, what should I be looking for in the PR company? What does merged media mean now?

30:21 The reality is the future is promised to no one. So you’ve got to go out there and take it. So to me, the PR world has always been experts in the earned media side.

31:14 Certainly the whole world is becoming more and more integrated and you know, to a consumer who is consuming information about a brand, let’s say it’s about Coca Cola for example, you don’t sort of as a consumer go, well Coke is talking to me through a Facebook page or Coke has talked to me through the news channel or Coke is talking to me through a newspaper article. It’s Coke, right? That’s the experience you’re having. It’s one story to them. So media is also merging so quickly that you’re consuming media in multiple channels often now at the same time, think about how many times you sort of on your phone while you’re watching TV or you’re listening to the radio or even tend to even like on conference calls or whatever.

33:50 Taking a step back and looking through your career and what you’ve been able to do. There’s obviously going to be a lot of opportunities now going forward as well in this business. And what advice would you give to the people on how they can take advantage of these opportunities and continue to grow and progress in their careers?

34:29 You’ve just gotta be open to change and also embrace it. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable because things are changing all the time. We’re an agency that’s highly creative, that’s thinking about solutions for clients. It’s a fun place to work, you know, so take it not as a challenge in that way, but take it as a fun challenge.

39:23 James, thanks again for coming on The Mentors, but we’d love to open it up to the folks in this room.

39:38 What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever been given from a mentor or manager?

39:52 Back yourself because if you don’t, no one else will. You cannot expect anybody to back you if you’re not backing yourself.

41:52 James. You do a ton of travel. We all know that. How do you go about balancing your complex travel schedule and also your personal life and your family?

42:00 I tried to make as much time as I can when I can. I might have to get up at five in the morning and work for a couple of hours before my kids get up to make that time.

43:24 So if you had to put in hierarchy in order of importance, what would you rank first – people’s skills, knowledge or initiative? What’s most important in your mind?

43:36 I don’t know about order of importance, but TLC is very important in business. But then actually there is a different type of TLC in business management, which is temperament, leadership and confidence. And so temperaments a huge thing. People that can stay calm in stressful situations are very valued.

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