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Leo Burnett’s Rich Stoddart on the moments that changed his career - The Secret of My Success

July 1, 2016 | 9 min read

In a series of interviews in partnership with The Drum, Gary Stolkin, global chief executive of The Talent Business, who has handled multiple c-suite hires around the world for agency groups, talks to some of the most admired global chiefs in the latest installment of The Secret of My Success. Here he catches up with Rich Stoddart, global CEO of Leo Burnett Worldwide.

The Talent Business

The secret to my success

1. How did you end up making this career choice in the first place?

I studied American government in college and had never been exposed to marketing or advertising. While trying to figure out what I was going to do as a career, I wandered into a P&G information session. They presented a case study and I realized, “this is the intersection of creativity and business.” What an amazing alchemy! I’d always had an artistic side and realized this industry could help me scratch that itch while also driving business impact for clients. I was hooked from that moment.

2. Were there epiphany moments that changed the course of your career?

I can think of three moments. When I first joined Leo Burnett, the company was named agency of the year. It was an amazing, powerful, creative environment doing admired work across every brand. Many agencies are capable of putting together a nice reel. But there wasn’t another agency that had the depth we did. Leo Burnett’s reel showed work from every single client on the roster. That made me realize that flashes of brilliance are powerful and important, but it’s all about consistently delivering creativity and results for every client.

The second moment was during my time at Fallon, “the little rocket ship”. It was a really inspiring place to work – the energy, the intellect, the drive, the fearlessness – the agency created outstanding, ground-breaking work that got everyone’s attention. The belief at Fallon in the power of creativity was powerful and unwavering. Just like the man with his name on the door.

The third was when I sat on the other side of the table as a client. Clients know when you have the work or when you don’t as soon as you walk in the room; they can smell it. It’s lonely to be the decider and it’s true that often times, the best part of a client’s day is when the agency walks in the room. It makes you appreciate the responsibility you have as the agency to have empathy for the client role. If the business is challenged, I know what that feels like; if the pressure is high, I know what that feels like. Unless you’ve been in those shoes, you won’t know what that does to you.

3. Do you think that what it takes to be a successful CEO in 2016 differs significantly from what it took when you started your career?

There are timeless leadership qualities that I hope will never go away – tenacity, a sense of purpose, a focus on talent, and the ability to inspire. That said, the world has certainly transformed and the pace has changed. The level of fluency and breadth you need to have across platforms is different, and your ability to adapt to and drive change is critical.

4. Were there ever times when you thought of throwing in the towel on your agency career?

When my wife and I first moved to Minneapolis for her career, I didn't think I wanted to work at an agency any more. But it wasn't that I was tired of Leo Burnett. It wasn't that I was tired of advertising. We hadn't managed our life well. We’d just had a child and we simply hadn’t figured out how to make it all work.

It's always easy to blame the company for your life being screwed up and usually, your life's screwed up because you've allowed that to happen and you've got to take some ownership of fixing it. Quitting your job will almost never fix that.

5. Have you ever been fired or come close to being fired? If so, how did that affect you?

I have not been fired, but I cannot tell you how many times I’ve thought I was close to being fired. Unless you feel the pressure of knowing the expectations are high and you have to deliver, deliver, deliver, I don’t think you can make it in this business. I think the best people are the ones who are most paranoid about never being good enough.

6. How do you go about building a leadership team?

There are two parts to it – one's an approach and one's magic. The approach is super simple -- strategy, structure, people, in that order. It’s our responsibility as leaders to build something sustainable to make the organization successful. Starting with strategy and structure is the key to that. The other piece is the magic; a decision that simply feels right. Hiring for fit, but also a little bit of friction.

7. How do you manage the tension between making this year’s targets versus investing in capability to secure the future?

When I was a client, we used to joke, "This would be so much easier if someone would tell me if this is a market share day or a profitability day." Because it's really easy to do just one, and not worry about the other. Making the year's target is what we are supposed to do, but if we mortgage our future and never invest in creating new capabilities, driving innovation, bringing in new talent, then we're going to wake up and wonder what happened, because we weren't building, we were just farming.

8. To what extent is the CEO’s key role harnessing the energy of the people in the organisation?

I see energy management as one of my primary jobs. Someone said to me once in the middle of my career that I had to be cognizant of the fact that the way I walk out of a room and the look I have on my face has a ripple effect. If you look stressed and unhappy the entire company becomes more stressed and unhappy. You have a responsibility to the organization not to infect it with all of the turmoil that's going through your head. You can't share every fear or uncertainty you have with the entire organization. Managing your own energy is a part of that. The other part is managing the physical energy of the organization, which is to prioritize, identify opportunities, and stay focused. And, of course, knowing when to throw a kick-ass party helps too.

9. It can be lonely at the top. How do you keep yourself motivated now?

Motivation for me is easy in this business because I love ideas and as long as I'm in contact with clients, ideas and teams working together to crack a problem, I'm good. I love to interact with people. I love to solve real problems and see an idea that you know will be transformational in the marketplace. Staying close to people, clients, and the work - that’s what motivates me.

10. What is the secret of your success? // What advice would you give for emerging leaders that want to get into the CEO role?

Success in this business is very hard to define because it’s almost never about the individual. It's almost always about a powerful team that pulls together in the same direction to do something amazing. Where this industry often goes astray is when success is something claimed by one, but earned by many.

That said, resilience, the ability to bounce back in this business, is absolutely paramount. You will have bad meetings. You will not sell work. You will lose business. You will not hit your targets. It will all happen and how do you choose to respond to that?

Genuine care and passion about what we do and the belief that what we do has an ability to make a difference through this unbelievable thing called creativity. What a privilege it is to walk into work every day and think, today we're going to do something that’s never been done before.

We also need to do the right thing for the client and for the idea that’s going to make a difference. Most people have a pretty good moral compass. But it can be easy to lose it in the heat of it all. That's all I want on my tombstone: “He Did the Right Thing” (at least most of the time).

Lastly, resist the temptation to lionize the leaders you've been around. They're far from perfect – we all are. That’s the human condition. We owe it to ourselves to learn not only from what our leaders did well, but also what they didn't do well, and what we wished they'd done differently -- that gives us a chance not to replicate the mistakes of the past, and be even better leaders.

The the above content is editorially independent and is brought to you in partnership with The Drum and The Talent Business.

To check out the rest of the ‘The Secret of My Success’ series click here.

Advertising Success Career

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The Talent Business

The Talent Business is the world leader in executive search for creative businesses. We are the only global executive search firm specializing in marketing, advertising and communications. 

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