"Life is too short to work with people you don't like or respect."
Russ Lidstone grew up in a small fishing town in Devon. Not many can easily get out of that life. To an extent, your roots and background are exactly what defines you, and it's not uncommon for some to remain stuck in a place where ambition sounds like a word from another language.
The Group CEO of the Creative Engagement Group believes himself to be extremely lucky to be where he is now, and he doesn't take anything for granted. But in a way, his background is what led him to pursue a career in the creative industry, looking to build a happy team to spend most of his days with. And now, his extremely healthy work environment was solid enough to help him get through the loneliness of a pandemic, strengthening his drive as a leader.
Today we are Getting to Know an extremely driven leader from the events industry, who is regularly engaged in 'defeating habits by originality.'
Tell us about your current role!
I’m the Group CEO of The CreativeEngagement Group. Our global group consists of seven divisions – WRG (events and experiential); The Moment (moving image, interactive & immersive); Just Communicate (Biopharma events); Axiom (scientific engagement & training); Forty1 (employee engagement consultancy); Logicearth (digital learning and consulting) and Cormis (capability development consultancy). We have also recently launched a Behavioural Science Unit that works across the whole business.
Much of our work is international but our main bases are in the UK (London, Plymouth, Manchester, Belfast) and US (Philadelphia, Yardley). We are united by a single P&L mentality, in our ambition to create moments that inspire lasting change for our clients and have an amazing breadth of symbiotic expertise in our unusually shaped business.
Whilst the divisions are well established, The Creative Engagement Group (TCEG) is now four years old and was originally created when I was hired by a private equity house to run different parts of their group. We brought them together and integrated them as TCEG and sold in a strategic exit to Huntsworth plc in 2017. Over the last four years we’ve gone from strength to strength adding to our offer, growing our client remits and acquiring new businesses.
Huntsworth was recently acquired by US private equity house Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, so we have new investors keen to help us grow.
How did you get to your current position? What was the biggest challenge?
I had spent well over 20 years in advertising (HHCL, Lowe, JWT, Havas) as a strategist but latterly in general management. I was CEO of Havas Worldwide for 7 years and when I left Havas I wanted to move into a role that would give me three things:
Firstly, an experience that was ‘similar but different’ – agency based but not necessarily big advertising agency so that I could attempt to use my transferrable skills and have opportunities for my own personal growth.
Secondly, to be part of a different ownership structure – different to the big corporate Havas/WPP model.
And thirdly, I just wanted to work with people I liked. Life is too short to work with people you don’t like or respect. I’m so lucky that our team are not only brilliant but lovely people and that my COO business partner David Sharrock is not only a genius but my good friend.
One challenge was moving into a new area and new disciplines and getting my head around them – events or training or VR solutions are very different to advertising. But the biggest challenge was the pace of movement in a PE backed business – I landed into three businesses and we had to restructure one of them fairly swiftly, integrate them all to create a new group, build out a business plan and then go through a sale process as well as land within a new holding company – all within 2 years. And the pace hasn’t subsided – in fact through the pandemic we have innovated and evolved faster.
What is your personal background and what role did it play in your career?
I grew up in a small fishing town in Devon and I could have ended up working on a trawler if it hadn’t been for my parents’ sacrifices to get me a reasonable education. I was the first person in my family to go to University. I was a keen sportsman (basketball) and played to a good standard. So, I suppose that all adds up to tell you that - I recognise how lucky I am to do what I do, and I don’t take it for granted. I’m highly competitive and a team player – that’s why I love being part of a people business.
Also, I think my background has influenced my views on the importance of keeping an engaged and happy team at TCEG; around social mobility (I’m currently Chair of Creative Mentor Network which provided opportunities for young people from lower socio-economic and diverse groups to gain access to the creative industries); on the role of sport in life (I was a non-exec director of Basketball England) and fairness – I was honoured to be awarded Advocate of the Year by Women in Marketing in 2019.
I hope to never take myself too seriously, but if I can help others learn or think about something in their career then I think that’s important – so I am proud to mentor for the Marketing Academy, Speakers4Schools, Oxford Said Business School, Bloom as well as advise at UWL.
If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?
Either playing for the Philadelphia 76ers or working on a trawler in Brixham. Or perhaps a teacher.
What’s your secret to keeping the team inspired and motivated?
I don’t think there is a secret but there is a lot of commitment to try to do the right thing, to be the first among equals and to be a transparent and empathetic leader. At TCEG we talk about ‘working with’ not ‘for’ TCEG and I try to hold true to that.
I have a role to play of course and in many ways my job is to coach, choreograph and connect. But nobody in our business is more important than anyone else and I hope our team know and feel that – because if we’re all in it together we know we’ll be stronger. The result of our philosophy is that we have a lot of formal and informal programmes and activities that are designed to inspire and motivate, but the most important thing is having interesting work that provides personal growth.
How has COVID-19 affected you as a leader?
No doubt it’s been tough, as it has been for everyone. It’s easy to overlook that the fact that we’ve been trying to survive a pandemic and work at the same time, and the toll that could take on us can’t be underestimated. But personally, I’ve been lucky to have a good workspace, my family at home and a garden – it has been much harder on some of our team who perhaps haven’t had those things that have been helpful in getting me through.
From a business point of view, I think of it (to use a basketball analogy) as a full court press – a type of attacking defence deployed when a team is trying to gain an advantage. It’s full on, exhausting and requires a massive team ethic. We will emerge stronger.
I think some of the challenges I’ve found personally are more around the lack of face to face contact and the water cooler moments. I believe that working remotely draws down on, or at best maintains, a company culture that has been already been cultivated. Remote working does not enable a culture to evolve and build – so getting some office time back will be key to me and my role.
What is your one advice to aspiring creatives looking to be successful?
My advice would be to always hold onto the idea that, in the words of Koestler, 'Creativity is the defeat of habit by originality’. I love this notion because it highlights that creativity is about innovation and isn’t just about beautiful images or film. In our business a creative leap can sometimes be about a micro-moment or action that can change the way someone thinks or behaves as well as an epic or breath-taking image or experience. And I love that diversity.
How do you recharge away from the office?
I love spinning, exercising and spending time with my family (including new puppy). Recently I’ve found myself delving into history books to give me some perspective on what’s going on right now, so I’m enjoying going back to my university subject to help me switch off.
Oh, and then the Ozarks and Stath Lets Flats which are on a constant loop in our house and never tire.
What’s your one big dream for the future of the industry?
From a work perspective - that the creative industries comes closer together and recognises that creativity isn’t all about the old definitions of the word and the adland favourites. That we make the most of happy accidents that come from symbiotic expertise from different fields and park the egos.
More broadly - that we play our role in building the right approach for greater inclusivity, to use our skills to inform discussions around other critical issues of now - such as social justice, climate change and wellbeing.
And right here, right now – I hope it is able to come out of this pandemic, battered and bruised but relatively unscathed and well positioned to do brilliant work.