Welcome to So You Want My Job? Each week we ask the people working in some of the industry’s coolest jobs about how they got where they are. Along the way, we dig into their philosophies, inspirations, processes and experiences. Hopefully, our interviewees can inspire you to pursue (or create) a job that’s just as exciting. This week we talk to Dani Bassil, chief executive of Digitas UK.
What did you want to be when you growing up? Does your job now resemble that in any way?
A politician. I wanted to change the world. In the 80s there was a huge environmental issue that was felt very acutely in Australia, about CO2 and the ozone layer (and the big hole in it above the country itself). We all had to stop using aerosols and change our fridges to different technology. We were all terrified of skin cancer; it was a frightening situation. I thought when I got to be a grown-up I would help.
I do think to some degree that there are aspects of being a politician in my job, by taking everybody’s perspective into account, managing the tussle between client demands, what people want, what different groups want, what the business needs – and all on an hourly basis. Obviously it’s not the same, but there are definitely some parallels. But I have too many drunken stories now to be a politician.
How did you get your job? Tell us the full story.
I’ve been told many times that I didn’t take a normal path to becoming a chief executive officer. In our industry, it’s usually account director to managing director to chief exec, whereas I came through the production and project management route. I’ve come up against many obstacles along the way and been told 100 times that I’d never get to managing director or above because I’m not a salesy suit. The silos in our own industry really need to be eradicated – anyone can do anything if they put their mind to it, regardless of role or department.
My first job was for the Murdoch press in Sydney in the ad team. I used to deal with media and ad agencies all the time, and after a couple of years I got to know Bates Sydney really well. One Friday afternoon when I was a bit fed up with work, they said: “Why don’t you come and work for us?” I didn’t know much about that world and when I got there I thought, ‘woah, you are paying me to do this?’ I was 23 and I’d struck gold – going on shoots with clients, working on amazing brands like Chanel and Fosters, and having the time of my life.
I came to the UK after six or seven years (I’d just split up with a boyfriend of ten years and had only six months before I hit the age limit for a work visa so it was a quick decision) and worked at Mother and Wiedens as a senior project manager and then I was part of the reinvigoration of Grey as head of operations. My most defining role was probably at Wiedens, because I learned there that I had to always be on my game. I was working with the best talent on the planet and I had to be as incredible as everyone else; I learned how to build amazing teams and that if you have a great team you can do anything.
At Grey, I discovered how to change a culture and that culture is everything, because if that’s right you can go anywhere. I also worked at agencies where I learned how the wrong team can crush a business.
When I came in as chief operating officer at Digitas I was blown away by the capability of the agency and the people. There was a lot of change at the agency and when I was offered the chief exec role I bit their arm off. We’ve come a long way over the last three years: we’re now one of the best places to work in the UK.
OK, so what do you actually do? How would you explain your job to a taxi driver?
In reality, I would describe it as being a coach. My job is to help our team be brilliant and achieve what they need to achieve, and a big part of that is unlocking obstacles for them. I also advise clients on the best way to help their businesses grow.
I would hope that defining and building a culture would be on my epitaph. I’ve helped build a new culture for a company that had lost its way a bit.
Leadership is about providing a group of people and clients with somewhere to go and something to achieve – as well as to grow and make money. I had no senior leadership for the first six months while I made the decisions about where the business should go and who we needed to hire to build the right team. The opportunity I had is so rare – to work out how the business could grow, what the future could be, and then hire the people who could fit together to make it happen. They all got to meet each other and see if they wanted to go on the same journey.
Do your parents understand what it is you do?
They have no idea. But I’m sure they’re very proud of me anyway.
What do you love most about your job?
I love that I don’t get Sunday night-itis. I really look forward to coming to work. I love the team, the clients, the agency. I love helping clients navigate this crazy, complicated world and helping everyone to do their jobs better. I am constantly blown away by the talent and the incredible passion that everyone in the business has, and that they bring to everything that they do. I feel like a proud mother.
What advice would you offer to others entering the advertising industry, especially at this weird time?
What’s great about now, as opposed to when I started out, is that the whole ‘you have to be this to do that’ has mostly gone away. The reason I did well is because I didn’t think like a project manager or a head of operations. I thought about the whole business and how it all fits together – what clients need, how to articulate that, how to motivate people to come along on that journey with you. If you are passionate, dedicated and smart, and you understand how to navigate the new world, see the opportunities and go for them, you can get to wherever you want to go.
Also, as I went along in each role, when I didn’t understand something I’d just go and ask. So if I didn’t get the strategy I’d go and speak to a planner. I always tried to get my head around everything, as much as I could, all the time. So my advice would be not to approach this business in your own silo, to think broadly, and learn as much as you can from as many smart people as you can.
What would you say is the trait that best suits you for your role?
Resilience. An old chief executive once told me that I’m like a Weeble – I get knocked down but I come straight back up again. I try not to take anything personally, it’s just business.
I had some of this in me to start with, but I’ve been coached by incredible people along the way. I’ve learned the importance of resilience and I’ve seen how not being resilient eats away at people and their egos. It’s really important to have a level head and to roll with the punches.
Also, I’m very good at cutting through the bullshit. I have a way of getting to solutions quickly and cutting out the nonsense around it, which is something you have to do a lot of.
Who should those who want your job read or listen to?
I love the Woman’s Hour podcast (for obvious reasons), the Wired UK podcast (tech geekiness at its best), the 80,000 hours podcast (how to use your career to make a difference in the world), and the Thinking Inside The Box podcast (on work and culture).