Twist or Stick – Jon White, MD of Elmwood: Build your career by finding variety and diversity"
The Drum and Twist Recruitment catch up with Elmwood MD and former Kimberly-Clark marketing director Jon White who shares the story of his career so far, while offering counsel for anyone looking to make it in the creative industries. His advice? Speak up and show your personality.
Jon White likes to get his hands dirty. From building military planes at British Aerospace to overhauling the marketing strategy for Kleenex – via a stint as a manufacturing engineer – it comes as no surprise that White, now managing director at Elmwood, has a stack of advice to offer those entering the industry. At the top of the pile, though, and in line with his own colourful experience, he advocates playing outside your strengths and getting your voice heard as being key to succeeding in the industry.
“A lot of people get stuck in their careers and they believe that they should rely on their strengths,” he says. “Actually, you build strengths by finding variety and diversity. I’ve made this choice very late in my career [ie taking the creative route] but absolutely advocate to people to try things like this early in their career when they don’t have the dependency and it’s probably easier to change between things you do.
“The other thing is just have a voice – don’t be shy. People like people with an opinion, that’s what makes businesses go round. Speak up, show your mind and show your personality.” White started his working life aged 17 taking up an apprenticeship at British Aerospace in North Yorkshire before moving to a smaller company, RB Lincoln, where he could “get his hands dirty” building cranes and excavators for the construction industry.
After experiencing the highs and lows of building booms and busts, White made the first step on what would prove to be a winding road to the creative world when he joined Kimberly-Clark, owner of personal care brands including Huggies and Kotex, as a manufacturing engineer. During that time he helped build a new factory to launch Huggies nappies in Europe in 1992, eventually moving to the role of operations manager. It was this move, and a concurrent MBA, that saw White cross over to “the dark side of marketing”, when he joined the company’s European headquarters to cut his teeth as a brand manager.
After spending 21 years at Kimberly- Clark – driving his way up to become marketing director, working on brands such as Kleenex and Andrex – White set up shop with a business partner 18 months ago, opening a consultancy which operated in “the space between agencies and client” to help the two sides work together more effectively. By chance, White then crossed paths with Elmwood, an agency he had worked with while he was at Kimberly-Clark.
He says: “We got talking and I obviously liked them as I’d been a client, and eventually we decided that we’d have a good time working together, and hence here I am as MD of London.” He describes Elmwood as honest, open, entrepreneurial and dynamic, and reveals that the catalyst for making the switch from client side to agency side was to take the plunge and try something different. But he admits he was bolstered by the agency’s credentials. “I needed some change and I’d worked with so many agencies – in fact, my wife is in the advertising agency business – and I loved the idea of the dynamism and the variety having been in the rigour and depth of a client business,” he reflects.
“The breadth and diversity of the agency world was really appealing, but I wouldn’t have gone to just any agency. I didn’t just sit there and say, ‘I want to go to an agency’. It was really about the time and the moment, and Elmwood as an opportunity that got me there.” White believes that the industry is currently undergoing a period of change both from a client perspective – which he says will see them “wrap their heads around” what design can bring to the table – and from the agency side in terms of the volume of work available to them, despite the green shoots of turnaround being in a “fragile” position.
“From a client point of view we’re in a huge transition. I think design and creativity are still not really understood by clients. Although they’ve now got design teams within their business, I’m still not sure they totally understand what design can bring to their business. So we’re getting there, but we’ve got a few steps to make to have a client and design agency world that’s fully aligned.”
A self-confessed entertainer, White admits that had he not fallen onto his current career path he would be in some form of the entertainment business – one that is “people and social-centric”. Testament to this peopleloving attitude, White reveals that if he could choose any brand to work on it would be a sporting brand, such as a football or rugby club, as they offer the opportunity to entertain and engage people. That or a typically stoic brand. “I’d love to have a crack at something really difficult like a financial brand, like a bank, and just see how much damage I could do,” he says gleefully.
“I’m sure it’s highly restrictive as everyone says, but I’d just love to have a crack at bringing some personality to something that doesn’t seem to have any.” Enjoying challenges and absorbing inspiration led White to experience the “pinnacle” of his career when he took on a difficult brief for tissue brand Kleenex while working at Kimberly-Clark. “The biggest challenge I was ever given was to turn around the Kleenex business in Europe,” he admits. “It was a ubiquitous brand, everybody knew Kleenex, but all our brand and commercial indicators were actually heading down.
That brief was everything from ‘what does the brand stand for’ to ‘what is the next innovation’ to ‘how do we make more money in Switzerland’. “That was the toughest brief, but funnily enough it turned out to be the most creative work I’ve ever been involved in. The campaign that re-launched Kleenex back in the early 2000s is still the pinnacle of my creative career in terms of things I was involved with.”
Interview by Paul Wood, words by Natalie Mortimer
In the next instalment of Twist or Stick, published on 6 August, we are speaking to Dare’s Ben Wilkinson. To put a question to him, tweet us using #twistorstick.
This interview was originally published in the 9 July edition of The Drum magazine, available to buy through The Drum Store.
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