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Industry Influencers: Chris Hirst

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Prior to being named global CEO of Havas Creative, Chris Hirst was CEO and chairman of Havas UK and Europe. As UK CEO, he led 1,800 people across both creative and media disciplines, so he knows a thing or two about management.

Recently, he wrote a book on how the world needs more everyday leaders which suggests that everyone has it in their power to be one. Here, Hirst offers more empowering advice as well as expanding on Havas Creative's work and culture.

What makes your company unique?

We are doing something very different as a network right now. We’re combining our varied skills and expertise to become a one-stop shop for our clients. It’s streamlined, effective and forces creative collisions every single day in our villages around the world. As a creative network that makes us a unique business and one fit to survive whatever the coming years throw at us.

How would you describe your current strategy and how it aligns with the wider current landscape?

Economic uncertainty, particularly in the UK and Europe right now, is having a knock-on effect on our clients and their marketing budgets. Some are taking a cautious approach to the short term – a waiting brief – and that is squeezing many agencies. We feel that being a multi-disciplinary, multi-service network uniquely positions us to weather the storm and act as true ‘brains trusts’ for all of our clients.

How has your client list changed over the past year and what’s the secret to winning new business?

In the UK, Havas has been second in the new business league tables for both creative and media disciplines in the past year, so our new client list is strong and growing. The key to winning new business is having happy clients and making the right noise about the work you do for them.

How important is company culture?

Culture is key to everything we do. Particularly in our industry, agencies are just buildings full of people. So what makes one building full of people more successful than another? In my view, it comes down to attracting great talent and then building a culture that allows them to out-perform. You create that kind of culture through the behaviour of management. It’s not what I say, it’s what I do. If your leaders set the right example, then others will follow.

How do you deal with things when they go wrong?

One of the most important elements of our culture is giving teams the room to make decisions, to act, even if they sometimes get things wrong. No one is ever going to get everything right all of the time, and one of the most empowering and liberating things to do in any business is to accept that reality and to give others permission to do the same. 

What do you believe makes a company successful and why?

Bloody mindedness probably. Honestly, it’s about graft. And resilience.

What one thing has shaped your career?

At risk of sounding like a bit of a wanker, the most significant career moment for me was when I went to Harvard Business School. It really did change my life but not perhaps for the reasons you would expect. I firmly believe the majority of business school guff is just that, guff. But the time away from my work, my colleagues and my peers made me realise that it is possible to shed all your preconceptions about who you are and who you want to be and to effectively start over in your career.

How important is the right type of talent?

As I mentioned, talent is absolutely vital to what we do. I like to describe it like radiators and drains. Sometimes the most talented and high-profile people in your business can act like drains. They suck all the energy out of the room. So the key is to know people well and then make sure you build teams with the right mix of people in them. And every team needs a few radiators - people who just walk into a room and inject energy into everything they do. Talent comes in all different shapes and sizes.

What advice would you give to someone with aims of becoming a creative leader?

Believe that there is a leader in you. Every single one of us can be a leader but many don’t realise it yet. Part of the reason I wrote my book, No Bullsh*t Leadership: Why The World Needs More Everyday Leaders And Why That Leader Is You, is to hopefully share my own experiences, ups and downs, with as many people as possible and show them that leadership, in a creative industry or any other walk of life, is a right and an opportunity that they should grab with both hands.

Watch Chris Hirst's talk on No Bullsh*t Leadership from Creativepool's Connect London event in November.

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