Life after Profero: Wayne Arnold on legacy, lessons and letting go

Wayne Arnold on leaving Profero and taking a break from the industry

Putting 20 years into any business is a rare story nowadays but founding an early digital disruptor of the agency world, as is Wayne Arnold’s story, is quite out of the ordinary.

After a quiet three years of planning, since Profero was acquired by IPG’s Lowe in 2014, Arnold is letting go of his founding partner badge to spend time with his wife and young child, being a full time dad and learning new skills travelling around the world. Before embarking on his travels, Arnold sat with The Drum to reflect on the end of this part of his career, as the industry faces some of its biggest challenges to date.

Arnold’s exit was announced officially in December of 2017, along with it the plan for succession. While saying good bye to a business after 20 years has been hard, he says he and others, were surprised at how happy he felt.

“It got announced and everyone was saying 'you must be really sad', but then one person then came up to me and said ‘Wayne, you look really happy’ and it really confused me. It really personally confused me because I was quite taken aback, because I didn't know how to react. Profero created memories, friendships, marriages and babies and it did that across 15 countries around the world. It brought people together around one set of common values, of being ‘globally curious’. Secondly, it was like losing your family, friend or team member, in way. And yet, the day it got announced, I was happy. It didn't take me until the next morning to work out why. I was trying to not look that way but It was actually because we had a plan and we executed that plan. It links to this idea that our job, as digital disruptors, is to do ourselves out of a job. It just took me 20 years,” he explains.

For Arnold, a part of this sense of ease at leaving is because the way Profero settled into IPG was always with one eye on the group.

“The one guiding star we had, when Profero became part of IPG, was about doing what was right for the group. It wasn't about doing what was right for Profero, or for Wayne, it was about the group and because we took that North Star approach, which many people don't do, it meant that actually it became more bulletproof,” he says.

This is important, he believes, because its success isn’t now reliant on any individuals and the legacy of a disruptive agency can continue within the IPG Group.

“We got the business, or at least I hope we've got the business to a point where it was established enough to stand up on its own two feet. It didn't need the energy of one individual to keep it going, it was part of a bigger thing and we positioned it in a place within the industry where I believe all the growth is. It wasn't like we've taken our cheque and ran, we did everything. We planned it for three years, in a way, it's just that most people didn't know about it. I was happy because it felt like we'd achieved what we'd set out to do. Very few people get a chance to do that.”

The sense of completion and gratitude is palpable in Arnold. It’s perhaps the timing of leaving the industry indefinitely, at a time when it’s most challenged, that’s adding to this.

According to Arnold, Profero was created because the writing has been on the wall for a long time in the industry but it’s really only just starting to play out for major multinationals.

“It is a bit like the stock market, in a sense that the industry is really due for a correction and a crash. But nobody really wants to do anything about it, as long as you are enjoying the ride. That's what happened in 2008 and we are seeing it now. If you speak to anyone in the financial industry, they'll say it's going to happen, whether its six months to a year, to two years, but while the good times are rolling, let the good times roll.”

“Our industry is the same, the warning signs have been on the wall for 20 years. That is the reason Profero existed and why we were successful. We took advantage of the change, which was then digital and the internet. It has taken nearly 20 years, which I think we got to last year, where pretty much every holding company is missing its numbers - suddenly the hen's come home to roost. The truth of the industry changing suddenly hit everyone's numbers and, because the numbers are the KPI, that’s where you look at to see if the industry is successful or not. Because everyone was still riding the good times, it allowed disruptors like Profero to come in and make a name for themselves but a lot of the big players didn't have to change and now they radically are. That's clients as well as agencies, it's easy to bash the agency but clients haven't changed, they are still not educating themselves enough about digital transformation. Everyone is feeling that nervous energy because they are not quite sure if their jobs are going to be there tomorrow. I always think that's a good thing for the industry because any correction creates new routes and new opportunity,” adds Arnold.

New opportunity is now Arnold’s life, or at least for the next year. His plans, which are currently only really planned for the next three months, involve travelling around the world, spending time as a dad, learning new skills and taking time to work out where he can really add value in the next 10 years.

“I'm becoming a full time travelling family, so we are literally getting everything sold and given away. Two suitcases, my wife, my daughter and I are going travelling around the world. We have three months planned and nothing else planned out. We are going to travel for a minimum of 10 months to work out where I believe that we can add the most value in the next 10 years. Being able to take 10% of your time out is a massive luxury to have, so I am very fortunate for that, but unless you take the time and invest in yourself and understanding what else is out there, the danger is you don't really add the value. I'm at the fortunate bit of my career as I am more worried about the value that I can add, either personally or to other businesses, or society, rather than going and doing another start-up immediately or get my hands on another business,” he says.

Whether or not he’ll return to the industry, he doesn’t yet know, and he muses that perhaps there’s another industry that he can help disrupt, using what he’s learnt. This, he says, is also a key skill that is undersold by our industry and the talent within it.

“People in the industry, controversially, sell themselves far too short. So they do the job of agency 'A' and then they go and do the job of agency 'B'. I imagine there's a lot of challenges in our business but the exposure you get in industry to client business problems is huge. That is probably where I will end up in some way, in taking the skills that we've learnt and help the younger, smarter talent, disrupt the next generation,” he explains.

Such freedom ahead, he says, is actually one of the hardest parts of leaving a job after 20 years.

“I also have the chance just to be a full time dad to my one year old, a lot of us don't get a chance to do that. That's as hard a job as any. The hardest thing that I have found so far, from leaving a company of 20 years and being a CEO for a very long time, is that it creates a routine. You hear these stories about people who come out of prison and not knowing what to do, it's like that but on a very small scale. Not having a structure 24/7 is liberating and on the other side really unsettling, we are creatures of habit and we suddenly don't have that.”

His first stop is to Burleigh Head in Australia because he wanted to visit somewhere in which he can concentrate on really understanding fitness, the mechanics of it. After getting feedback that Burleigh Head was the place to go, it became stop number one. Following Australia, the plan is Japan, followed by LA. Arnold says they are trying to stay at least a month in each place, so as to really understand the different communities and use the time to learn and absorb the new people and places.

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