MBPT Spotlight: New Maxus Global CEO Plans To Lead Through Collaboration Not Delegation

After having much success in her role as CEO of Maxus U.K., Lindsay Pattison last month was named global CEO of Maxus, making her the first female global CEO within GroupM’s network of media agencies. It was a promotion well earned.

In Pattison’s five years at the helm of Maxus U.K., the agency increased its staff from 30 to 250, and under her leadership was named Media Agency of the Year at the 2014 Media Week Awards in London. In the last two years, Pattison also held the role of Maxus global chief strategy officer, where she oversaw planning, marketing and new business.

Only a month into her new job, Pattison talks about how she sees her new role as global CEO and how she will divvy up her time, her working relationship with new Maxus North America CEO Steve Williams, her views on digital and workplace competitiveness, her open communication policy and her respect for working moms.

Steve Williams was recently named CEO of Maxus North America. Prior to that and before his time as president of PHD he was CEO of OMD U.K., so your agencies were competitors, and now you’re working together. Did you know Steve prior to becoming Global CEO of Maxus and what kind of a working relationship do you foresee?

I’d say there’s a great deal of mutual respect between media agencies regardless. Yes, Steve and I started out as mini competitors when I was at PHD U.K., but we were also both part of Omnicom Media Group, so I perceive what we had as a positive ‘sibling’ relationship. When I moved to WPP, we competed fiercely and fairly.

We share an absolute mutual respect and get on incredibly well outside of a work context, which can only be helpful now we’re working together. Steve is hugely experienced, with great charisma and a steadfast vision: my role is to work alongside him and in service of the global team, to add value and support.

When you were appointed Global CEO of Maxus, GroupM worldwide CEO Dominic Proctor said you “exemplify the spirit of the Maxus culture.” What does the “Maxus culture” mean to you?

There’s a unique spirit and energy at Maxus. At the crux of the network sit our global Maxus values, which are PACE: Passionate, Agile, Collaborative and Entrepreneurial. If you want to succeed in this industry, collaboration in particular is incredibly helpful, if not essential. At a granular level, it’s very important to build a network of allies and friends around you. It’s fun too. Then, as part of GroupM and WPP, a big part of the Maxus growth story has been access to the wealth of group resources, such as research, content creation, the tech stack, trading power and many other areas of expertise.

You are the first female global CEO within the GroupM Network of media agencies. Is there a particular significance of that for you?

Yes, I do feel it is significant. I’ve had a fairly overwhelming response from people from all across Maxus but particularly females at a junior level, emailing me directly to say how proud they are. That support means a great deal to me and I do respond to each person individually. Equally, the response externally has been incredibly positive and supportive; many of our female senior clients experience the same glass ceilings I have.

WPP in general is extremely supportive, recognizing the need to push women up the ladder. I feel incredibly honored to follow in the footsteps of Charlotte Beers, Shelley Lazarus and other great female trailblazers within WPP.

Both you and Steve are U.K. natives. Is there something about working in the media agency business there that helps mold you into global agency leaders?

As you know, there is a strong British presence within the global leadership, Dominic Proctor included. The majority of our client base has been in the more mature media markets, headquartered in London and New York, so we’ve had to reflect that in our leadership to service them properly. That is changing, however, as we extend our ambitious growth plans in new markets. We already have an Italian head of EMEA, Federico de Nardis, and an Indian head of APAC, Ajit Varghese, and we expect and fully embrace more diversity.

At Maxus U.K., you were not only the CEO but also the chief strategy officer, which meant you were pretty hands-on in many areas at levels that CEOs sometimes don’t get as active in. How will that help you in your new role as Global head?

The greatest benefit of that dual-role experience is having gained an understanding of the difference between control and influence. So, as a local CEO you’re absolutely in control of P&L, team, environment—all the critical conditions for success. The global CSO role has been much more about leading through influence, with a new focus on persuading and inspiring. Progression at GroupM involves climbing a ladder, so learning how to relinquish control and build on my influencing skills will be hugely helpful in my new role.

When you were promoted you issued a statement saying, in part, that you’ve made no secret of your ambition to take on this new role. Can you elaborate a little on that?

I see nothing wrong with being ambitious. As long as you’re not deluded about your ability and are willing to put in relentless hard work, ambition can be a wonderful driving force.

You started your career as a media planner at Young & Rubicam. How do you look back atthose times and did you see yourself rising to the post you now hold?

I never had an entirely clear plan or a linear path. The secret of success is good old-fashioned hard work—there are no short cuts. When an opportunity arises, you need to work out if it is the best next step for you. Looking back, in my early 20s I assumed there was a magic, somewhat unattainable formula to success. In fact, every global leader you’ll meet has worked their way up to that position. It sounds a bit corny, but your only limiting factor is your own capacity for self-belief; people often underestimate their own potential.

In relation to that, in April you did an interview while still Maxus U.K. CEO that your next role would be your boss’ job. What did you mean by that and how important is it for an agency exec to have that kind of drive?

Women in particular can often be criticized for having male traits, such as forthrightness or drive, but drive is definitely important. Self-belief and confidence are equally so, although they will naturally waver and dip. My parents taught me that I can do anything if I work for it. Nothing was offered on a plate, but everything was there for the taking—a philosophy I’ve applied right through my career.

The media agency world has lots of female executives and employees throughout. In a blog you wrote, you talked about the importance of understanding working moms. Can you talk a bit about your feelings about creating a comfortable working environment for them?

You’re right in that our industry has some amazing female role models to inspire women on their way up. Fostering the right work conditions for our talent, regardless of their personal situation, is top of our agenda at Maxus. I’m a big believer in productivity above presenteeism [quality of work produced over hours put in]; ultimately it’s down to the business to make it work for working mothers—and fathers, of course—or risk losing out on a vast bank of talented people.

In another blog you talk about enjoying workplace competitiveness and believe that it is healthy for employees to have a competitive drive. Can you expand on that a bit?

Definitely. For me, growing up as the youngest of four siblings meant I had to work that bit harder to get my voice heard. I also competed in Olympic swimming trials, so that drive to push myself was instilled in me from early on—and I enjoyed it. To me, competitiveness is more about doing your best to succeed through hard work than outdoing anyone else.

You have also said that female agency execs should be nice people and that success shouldn’t come at the expense of others. Talk about that.

It’s simple really. Just be nice, be courteous. The old saying that ‘you will meet the same people on the way down as on the way up’ is true—and people remember rudeness. You don’t need to make anyone feel lesser to get on yourself. My grandma used to say ‘If you want to be big, don’t belittle,’ and that’s always stayed with me. Also, beware of the scarcity syndrome, thinking there’s only a limited space for women at the top. It’s not true and it’s not helpful!

You’ve talked about the need to keep an open communications policy between all employees and higher-up executives. How will you foster that in your new role?

Internal communications is fundamentally more important than external communications for longevity and success. Our people expect and demand transparency and a way to access the company vision. In fact, they have the same expectation from us as they do from brands these days, and rightly so. Moving from 250 people at Maxus U.K. to 2,500-plus globally will be an exciting challenge, and my door will remain open as ever.

At Maxus U.K. you said about 70% of the employees were millennials. Why is it so important for today’s media agencies to employ a high percentage of millennials?

Millennials are digital natives. They’ve grown up expressing themselves through the medium of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, so much of their work in media is instinctive. They are also enthusiastic, energetic, switched-on and collaborative by nature; that’s a very compelling offer for us, our clients and our bottom line—and for them, of course.

When Steve Williams joined as CEO of Maxus North America he made some moves to strengthen the digital side of the agency and he sees digital as a major growth area for the agency. What role do you see digital advertising playing both within the industry going forward and also within Maxus as it competes for new business?

I would ban the word digital if I could. Every aspect of our business is digitalized—it has to be, as there’s a digitalized version of every media. So, digital isn’t a ‘nice to have,’ it’s an integral part of the business, period. Of course, the degree of digital adoption still varies around the world, so globally we’ll be taking learnings from more digitally mature markets to those with digital ambitions. Asia and Africa, for instance, skipped the PC and laptop to become totally mobile markets, so we’ve got lots to learn from their process in that respect.

You have pretty expansive experience in all facets of the agency business. How hands-on do you expect to be and how much will you delegate? And are there any areas in particular that you want to be more involved with than others?

I see my main role as encouraging others to succeed and shine—I’ve always strived to bring people along on the journey with me. It’s not necessarily about delegating but—and here’s that word again—collaborating. My function is more a visionary one than one of micro management; it’s more about influence than control. That said, I need to grasp the balance of being deeply involved with respect to how much time I’ve got.

One-third of my time will be spent in internal communications—the vision, working with the top team, our people; one-third will be externally focused on new business, stakeholder and influencer relationships as Maxus continues to grow across markets; and one-third on nurturing meaningful relationships with key clients in existing markets. I’m lucky to have an amazing team around me, so I’ll be sharing the responsibility with brilliant local leaders.

How much will Global Maxus work with Maxus North America to not only pitch new client business but also to work together to service existing clients?

Success depends on having an all-encompassing global vision underpinned by local expertise. The primary function of the global team is to ensure we create the right conditions, team, product, vision and so on to deliver locally. On the ground, you need brilliant leaders and CEOs with tight, meaningful relationships with clients so they are exceptionally serviced.

Our business is all about great ideas, and ideas only come to fruition when executed by top talent with strong market knowledge like Irwin [Gotlieb, chairman of GroupM] and Rino [Scanzoni, chief investment officer of Group M], Steve Williams and John Miles [director of investments for Maxus North America]. All are experts in their respective fields on the ground—as is a trading lead in China, a communications planner in Warsaw, a data analyst in Sydney or a commercial lead in the U.K.—and that’s where knowledge becomes meaningful.