Kate Howe: the transformation of Volkswagen shows us how to make the agency elephants dance

Kate Howe is CEO of marketing communications agency gyro London. With 25 years of agency and client-side experience, she was previously UK CMO of Burger King and managing director of Leo Burnett London.

Volkswagen's woes and what agencies can learn from its turnaround

Looking back at January — a miserable month for some, but that time of the year when most of us are seeking a resurgence and a general sense of rebuilding.

This revival story in the FT recently about Volkswagen (VW) and how it has risen like a phoenix out of the emissions scandal and now outselling rivals, is more profitable than before the crisis and investing €20bn in electric cars, made me think about our creative industry and what lessons we could learn to hold it together for the future.

It has been a brutal few years for agencies, but maybe like VW, our time of crisis could be the accelerator we need to address some of the real issues that need fixing. What we are facing is quite phenomenal, and I’m not just talking digital disruption. I’m so over that phrase. There is no going back, folks. That is the new normal.

What I’m talking about is the crisis of trust, the crisis of diversity, the ugly truth about gender bias and add to this list, the issues around ad fraud, ad blockers in the era of ‘post-truth’ and the list seems endless. But what this comes down to it really is the crisis of leadership. Which sees real change as being too expensive, too time consuming and of course, too disruptive.

Is this because, like in the case of VW, we continue to impose the control of hierarchies, rather than harness the freedom and energy of our creative industries? Continue to be singularly obsessed with outputs rather than be able to think strategically in terms of sustainable outcomes? Are still in awe and under-prepared for everything digital? Are we getting distracted by meaningless words (bandied around with an ever-increasing frequency but alarmingly used without purpose) asking as to be brave and bold, original, cutting edge, and innovative? And are we ageist? It’s notable that the individuals credited with turning around VW are all aged 58 and over. The new group CEO is 64 and is quoted as saying that the crisis “worked as a kind of accelerator to address issues that, before, were unable to be addressed.”

What VW has been doing, since after the emissions scandal, is to try and get rid of the old unquestioning culture and give the power to the various brands to decide for themselves. Would that have been easy? Of course not. But nothing worth doing ever is.

Our creative industry is all about people and their ideas. As leaders do we genuinely believe in the power of people to make a difference? That requires an intent and a clear vision from the leader. Also, how much are leaders investing in making sure that this intent is followed by leadership impact that, instead of micro-controlling people, empowers people to thrive and be the best they can be towards one common goal — embrace creativity that creates value.

Peter Drucker, an influential thinker on management once wrote: “Knowledge, especially advanced knowledge, is always specialised. By itself it produces nothing… Without commitment (to common goals) there is no enterprise, there is only a mob.”

So, what should the role of leadership be in uncertain times? We are in danger of turning into Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi — cloistered in our own little bubbles and only passionate about our own isolation and challenges. The one I remember growing up, is the Luke Skywalker who was so full of promise and hope for the future, driven to venture out in the galaxy. That is the kind of leadership I’m talking about. A visionary, much like the ‘new’ VW management, ready to teach the elephants to dance.

Kate Howe is the CEO of Gyro UK and a regular columnist for The Drum

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