“You don't have to be this stereotypical ad man, alpha, overly aggressive. There are other ways to do things and be at the absolute top of your game.”
Sam Hawkey, CEO of AMV BBDO, is articulating the fallacy that being nice and being highly competitive are automatically mutually exclusive pursuits. Referencing the trail blazed by Dame Laura Kenny, one of the world’s greatest track riders; who picked up 4 Olympic medals, yet still exudes warmth and empathy, Hawkey notes that the ability to be nice does not preclude the ability to want to win more than anyone else. In essence, you can be a killer on the track or in the pitch; yet still, prove that ‘be kind’ is more than an empty social media mantra on a daily basis.
Hawkey was talking as part of the interview series, in partnership with global talent consultancy for the creative industries, The Blueprint. In an honest and eclectic interview with The Blueprint’s founder, Gareth Moss, Hawkey outlined his vision for the world’s most creative agency.
Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO announced the appointment of Hawkey, who was previously Chief Executive of Saatchi & Saatchi London, as its new CEO in June last year, aged just 34 years old. Having inked the deal for what he describes as the ‘best job in global marketing’ he is at the helm of one of the world’s most iconic agency brands at a unique moment in our collective history.
The backdrop to Hawkey’s interview (his son’s bedroom) combined with the fact that he was suffering from Covid at the time, roots the conversation in the unstoppable, inevitable, painful yet liberating journey of change.
For the straight-talking Hawkey, the defining thing on any journey is the simple art of just going for it and doing it. In an industry that at times is guilty of drowning in a sea of over-complicated language, he remains remarkably jargon-free in his approach.
Hawkey describes the agency as both being up for change and entrepreneurial. Notably, he underlines that change is not always about injecting new talent into a business but instead unleashing existing talent.
He explains: “In agencies you've got to let young people and different people coming into the business some licence and some leash to go and do things in a different way. Don’t expect them to get it right the first time.”
While it's clear the ‘fail fast and break things’ mantra beloved of the first wave of tech evolution broke many things including employees' spirits, the danger of the post-pandemic business ecosystem is that professionally and personally we simply retreat into what we did before. Yet Hawkey is clear-eyed about the inherent danger of the status quo as a comfort blanket approach to creative business.
‘Challenging accepted wisdom’ is the focus that underpins Hawkey’s approach to both leadership and hiring. He shares that top of his list is a positive mental attitude, good energy and momentum. “If you find those people they can take people with them and make a difference,” he explains.
Often when we talk about legacy it can feel like a barrier to progression. Yet, AMV's creative legacy and the people behind it remains its biggest asset. The reason we aren’t bored with talking about how groundbreaking the agency’s Wombstories work with Essity is, is because it genuinely did change the narrative when it comes to marketing to women. While Nadja Lossgott and Nicholas Hulley, creative leads on Bodyform, became joint Chief Creative Officers in January this year, following Alex Grieve’s move to Bartle Bogle Hegarty.
Hawkey clearly recognises the responsibility of his position; “Becoming CEO of AMV - It's something you can't take too lightly because of the history of the agency and what it means in its size and scale and what it means creatively,” he explains.
Hawkey has a clear strategy for bridging the commercial and creative performance of the agency. He notes that the agency won what he calls internally the ‘triple crown’ of the One Show, Cannes Lions and D&AD Global Agency of the year awards.
Yet just as some of the industry’s biggest award ceremonies are facing up to something of a post-pandemic existential crisis, agencies themselves must think harder and smarter about their external communications strategies.
“I want AMV to have a louder and prouder personality,” says Hawkey, who points to the fact that often what gets missed is just how effective the work is. “It’s important that we live and breathe that story as an industry when it comes to telling the effectiveness story.” Hawkey notes that the awards story is ‘double-sided’ and therefore it is key to tell the market and clients the other side of it.
This client focus underpins Hawkey’s strategy and outward-facing approach. He points to the fact that clients are struggling with complexity, whether that is relating to purpose, creative, production, media, platforms or affiliates.
The second client challenge is risk. “The pressure to get immediate ROI has never been higher,” he explains. Pointing to the fact that agencies still offer clients ‘option A’ or ‘option B’ creative routes rather than being all-in on a clear, creative pathway backed up with data and analytics. An approach, which he describes as ‘creative accountability’ gives clients a much better opportunity to deliver that ‘brave and bold’ work beloved by the industry and consumers alike.
Then there is the issue of time pressure as Hawkey notes that clients and agencies alike have lost staff. While budgets remain under pressure despite the strength of the recovery.
It is an ecosystem that makes getting the simple things right vital. As Hawkey explains: “It's been hard and work shouldn’t feel this hard; therefore working with people who are nice, collaborative, decent people to work with has now become more important than ever.” He notes that it simply doesn't have to be the case that advertising agencies are a pain in the arse to work with.
He believes simplicity is key to AMVs approach. Sharing a conversation with a CMO on the need for fewer, simpler, bigger and better decisions, he notes the agency has a unique strength in taking big problems and distilling them into simple products and solutions.
Excellence is another vital differentiator for the agency and Hawkey believes that the industry is in danger of losing that excellence that comes from employing people talented in individual specialisms. He points to the rise of “amorphous blobs of teams that are generalists.” Instead of this approach, he believes there needs to be a greater focus on individual expertise. “We need to make sure when we think about technology or craft that we are using the best people to get the best outcomes,” he adds.
Last but by no means least, Hawkey points to the importance of decency; a belief in fairness and in building true and respectful partnerships between brands and agencies. Partnerships that provide the glue to success, yet are so easily overlooked or undervalued.
There is no question that the pandemic has placed those partnerships under unprecedented strain, but Hawkey remains focused on the job still to be done. While noting that AMV is “the ‘most creative agency on the planet. It's using that energy and those headlines to create that entrepreneurialism and hustle.”
While the pressures of the pandemic have caused something of a creative crisis of confidence in the industry, Hawkey looks upwards for inspiration. Sharing the experience of hearing ITV CEO Carolyn McCall speak at a WACL event, Hawkey was struck not just by her positivity, but by the number of things she was involved in. Pointing to her involvement in the women in work agenda, he notes “she is having a real effect on areas that really matter”.
Proving that while he may have the best job in marketing, Hawkey’s feet remain firmly on the ground, he quips: “Whenever I'm feeling a bit like I’ve got too much on I have a little look at what Carolyn McCall is doing.”
This focus on impact also underpins his approach to Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity. He explains: “People tend to do things that pay lip service and then tick and box and do loads of those things. You need to find things where you can make a deep impact.”
Noting that diversity is a clear competitive advantage; he believes the focus must be on ensuring diverse talent can come through and thrive in the industry. He adds that this focus on retention should include: “the best coaching and advice to navigate a system that was not built for you.”
While there might well be a collective industry obsession with Hawkey’s age; in the midst of this once in a generation opportunity to reshape the workplace for the better, the attitudes and adaptability required for success are about far more than how many years you have been in the industry for.
Notably, when Andrew Robertson, Global Chief Executive of BBDO announced Hawkey’s appointment he stated: “He asks good questions and listens hard.” An insight into the new era of ‘servant leadership’ coming to the fore in an era that demands that empathy extends beyond the realms of thought-leadership to the lived experience of your employees; regardless of their job title.
The notion of ‘bringing your whole self’ to work might have lost its shine in the wake of a pandemic in which many of us had little choice but to bring most of our families and pets to the virtual office. Nonetheless, it is difficult to underestimate both the power of authentic leadership and the collective cost of self-editing in the workplace. All those beautiful ideas that remain unsaid and all that energy dedicated to masking who you are.
“I spent a bit of time in my career sort of pretending to be something,” says Hawkey, sharing the way in which the industry can make you try and be a certain way.
"It matters to me - when you start having kids, I have a son and a daughter - what you really want them to do is be themselves every day. I think as an industry we don’t teach that that well, we teach you to be a certain way,” he adds.
Today he shares that he brings himself ‘100%’ noting that there is half of him that is very much ‘this is life and death’, taking it all very seriously and another half that is ‘a bit of a clown’, recognising it isn’t really life and death; it's fun. A mix which he believes “has always made this industry really interesting.” An approach, combined with AMV BBDO’s sheer creative brilliance, that will make his journey not only one to watch but one set to make a deep impact.