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 interview series; the Secret of My Success. Here he catches up with TBWA\Worldwide President and CEO Troy Ruhanen.
1. How did you end up making this career choice in the first place?
I decided I wanted to work in advertising when I was 14. It's the only job I ever wanted. My mother worked at a production house, and one of my best friend’s fathers was a copywriter. As a kid, I'd go over to my friend's house and his dad would give us live creative briefs. I think I wrote my first ad for The Salvation Army at age 15. I have always been drawn to this industry for its mix of creativity and business, and I’ve never wavered.
2. Were there epiphany moments that changed the course of your career?
Years ago in Sydney, when we were agency of the year and at the top of our game, we were fired by a client that had been with the agency for 17 years. The client’s stock price was at an all time high, they had the best sales in years and the work was highly awarded. But they cut a deal with another agency for a 50% fee reduction, and that was that.
From that moment on I never lived in fear of being fired. You can be operating at your best and it can still happen. So I try to be the best partner I can be, every day, and let the chips fall where they may.
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?
When I started my career, the mediums were traditional – TV, Print, Outdoor, and Radio – and they were easily understood. The task was to understand the consumer and generate insights. That hasn't changed. But the way the consumer interacts with media has changed dramatically. Today, the role of a CEO is to be aware of consumer behaviour trends, not just how they think and feel, but how they behave — and then determine how to evolve your practices and talent base.
4. Were there ever times when you thought of throwing in the towel on your agency career?
Never. I continue to love this business. I look at many of my friends who are on Wall Street, and I’m reminded of how lucky we are to be in a field where we get to deal with things creatively and operate as a business. We work with great companies and are surrounded by imaginative, selfless, results-oriented people. To this day, I feel lucky to be in the industry.
5. Have you ever been fired or come close to being fired? If so, how did that affect you?
I’ll say I was 'retired early' by my uncle. He built highway systems throughout the Australian Outback, and I worked for him for a summer. He threatened to fire me (and subsequently did) because I didn't complete a task properly. I was a teenager and skimming on the job. My laziness meant that he had to do the job all over again. He said “If you do it right the first time, you’ll never have to do it again.” That lesson stayed with me.
6. How do you go about building a leadership team?
Résumés can be deceiving, so for me, finding and keeping a strong bench of capable leaders comes down to chemistry. There’s a famous quip from Saturday Night Live about how to know when you’ve found the right talent. It’s a simple test: If I pass this person in the hallway at 2am, do I want to stop and have a conversation? If yes, then that person is the right fit. If not, then I know that they’re probably not going to make it.
Second, another key to building a great leadership team is diversity. And this is not about optics. You simply can’t construct and grow a business by looking through one lens.
Lastly, it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t hire for the company that you are today. You need to hire people to lead the company that you WILL be in 3 years time.
7. How do you manage the tension between making this year’s targets versus investing in capability to secure the future?
You must prioritize investing for the future. I don’t like to think of turnover as a dirty word. Turnover is an imperative. There is no way you have 100% of the world's best talent at any given time. It can be a really healthy thing and an impetus to find new ideas and capabilities. So I encourage turnover as a means to fund innovation, the next great wave of talent, and the future of the company.
8. To what extent is the CEO’s key role harnessing the energy of the people in the organization?
You have to have an incredible amount of energy to be in this role. But energy comes easily when you believe in something, and I fundamentally believe in the future of TBWA and in Disruption®.
Energy also comes from ideas and the possibilities of what we can do. I’m drawn to the passion I see in all of the creative people in my company, not just the creative department.
Culture is the sum of your actions. If you have a culture that is decisive, action-oriented, innovative and creatively driven, then everyone will be energized.
9. It can be lonely at the top. How do you keep yourself motivated now?
I only find it lonely when I’m flying. The rest of the time, I have a really tremendous group of people around me. We have a rotating group of leaders from around the collective that I meet with four times a year, and there are always new faces, new projects, and new clients to get excited about.
10. What is the secret of your success?
The golfer Greg Norman always talked about taking your wins and losses in the same vein. The same applies to success in business. Clients will hire me and fire me, and colleagues will come and go. I don’t let myself get distracted by what others would like me to do, or what they think I should do. The most important thing is to have a clear picture of where you want to go, surround yourself with the right people, stay the course, and act.
I also had a boss who gave me some good advice early on: "Take care of today; and tomorrow will take care of itself". Many people are focused only on what’s next in their careers and getting to the next level. But when you only think about the future, you’re at your weakest. I’ve tried to focus on being the best partner to my clients every day, and my best self in the present. Live in the moment.
To check out the rest of ‘The Secret of My Success’ series click here.