(scroll down to watch the video interview)
Being yourself. It is a simple concept yet one that is in practice difficult to execute. While the pandemic gave us no choice but to bring our whole selves (and our families, pets and significant others) to work, the work itself became increasingly complex.
It is cutting through this complexity which sits at the heart of independent creative agency JKR’s proposition. As Sara Hyman, CEO for North America at JKR, explains: “Fundamentally we as a business exist to inspire brands but also people to be their true selves.”
Hyman was talking as part of the Game Changers interview series, in partnership with global talent consultancy for the creative industries, The Blueprint. In a fast-paced and wide-ranging interview with The Blueprint’s founder Gareth Moss, Hyman shared her leadership journey as the agency is poised to celebrate a decade in New York.
It has been a decade marked by brand defining work; which most recently included the Burger King rebrand, which is perhaps deserving of that overused marketing cliche; Iconic.
The nostalgia fuelled rebrand launched when large parts of the chain were still closed because of Covid and was widely lauded across the industry. Nonetheless, the fast-food giant had not originally approached the agency for a rebrand.
Then came the fierce debate which surrounded the rebrand of M&M’s and its new mission of ‘creating a world where everyone feels like they belong.’ Love it or loathe it you can’t argue with the fact that Hyman, who launched the New York office from scratch, is leading an agency that is creating work which is impossible to ignore.
“We have done a lot of work over the past two years to take a step back and consider what is the purpose that has fuelled us,” explains Hyman. She notes that this wasn’t just about the creative output, but also the agency’s duty of care to its employees and its culture. She explains: “It is that purpose which sits at the heart of everything we inspire to do.”
Hyman demonstrates the relentless ambition of a start-up entrepreneur while leading an established business. She has a clear focus on what she wants; namely for people to say that the agency is; `the best or one of the best branding businesses in the world.”
“I want us to be known for brand transformation, for brand creation and I want us to start helping people rethink what a branding business is,” she explains. This means evolving the perception of its output from brand identity and brand strategy to brand experience, brand innovation and brand activation.
This shift involves challenging the stereotypes and generic statements which still surround branding and really helping the industry to rethink that siloed thinking. For Hyman this rethink is rooted in the agency’s philosophy of distinctiveness.
Rather than placing processes ahead of products or people, The Blueprint’s Moss notes that the agency is constantly iterating its proposition. Hyman notes: “A lot has changed in the past two years and for a long time JKR talked about itself as an expert in fast moving consumer goods.” Yet she quips that the pandemic induced pace of change has knocked us all over in terms of what fast moving means.
“We’ve watched our clients' business transform in terms of what an actual consumer experience or brand experience looks like and the path from awareness to purchase. We’ve seen consumers buy more new brands than ever before and be exposed to more new channels,” she adds.
With this in mind, with this increased complexity of the customer journey the agency’s focus on distinctiveness across every single interaction is vital. “We think a lot of that comes down to brand behaviour,” says Hyman. Which in essence means that distinctiveness needs to come to life across the entire customer journey.
In an industry in which generic terminology can reflect generic one-size fits all approaches, Hyman takes a nuanced approach to what it really means to be distinctive as a brand.
She explains: “For a long time people chased consistency, let's be consistent across channels and from a digital perspective there was a big focus on being seamless - but it's about being fit for purpose in that moment.” An approach which takes account of the need to be flexible and fearless in your use of platforms.
The importance of showing up in different ways and in different contexts also extends to the workplace. The groundbreaking Burger King work, for example, was launched into a market with previously unfathomable cultural and commercial limitations.
Yet Hyman remains focused on what has stayed the same. “The pandemic hasn't changed the core discipline of what we do. Our work has had to show up in different ways and in different contexts,” she says.
The pandemic has brought with it a learning curve for the agency when it comes to talent and ways of working. Remote working means that the agency can now access a talent pool which extends well beyond the walls of its New York office and instead spans the globe.
Now on the cusp of this unique once in a generation opportunity to reshape the workplace, Hyman is focused on bringing in the next generation of game changing leaders, but recognises that this involves shifting the lens. She explains: “It is important not to look for your own traits in others.”
For Hyman, the key traits she looks for in talent is being ‘self-starters’ people who are able to thrive through ingenuity and boldness and ‘feel the fear and do it anyway.’
She hires through the lens of the agency's values; bravery, tenacity and celebrating individuality. As she explains: “One of the things I always say to new talent and clients is that great work looks easy. But excellent work takes a lot of perseverance, a lot of resilience and sometimes you have to face a lot of nos before you get a yes.”
In an honest and open discussion about the importance of retaining diverse talent and supporting those individuals to enable them to thrive, Hyman notes that there is ‘a lot more work required on the inclusion front.”
Having people based all over the world means Hyman needs to be active in asking how to make them feel part of the agency culture. She explains: “We are a very fast moving project based business, in order to be inclusive you have to take a beat - slowing down to speed up.”
As a leader, this means that Hyman talks to her teams about ‘cultural-add’ rather than ‘cultural-fit’. The language matters when it comes to being intentionally inclusive.
That commitment to slowing down, may not extend to her ambitions for the New York agency. She points to the ‘relentless hunger’ of the team and the ‘bit of a chip on the shoulder’ attitude at JKR as her daily fuel.
Pointing to the fact her parents were business owners it is clear that Hyman takes a great deal of energy from her own entrepreneurial business; built from scratch from the ground up. It's notable that her proudest moment is not an award, of which there are many or a single moment but that act of building a team and making a name for JKR in the fiercely competitive New York market.
“I take a tremendous amount of pride that we have created something that didn’t exist,” she says. The next decade will undoubtedly bring with it a fresh range of challenges and for Hyman the opportunity to keep iterating and keep building something new.