IPA Business & Agency Leadership chair and Clemenger BBDO Sydney CEO Andy Pontin discusses failure, avoiding strict career plans and being yourself.

TCC: When you started out in the industry, did you always know you wanted to be a leader? How/why?

AP: When I first started out, I was just pleased to have a job. I didn’t really even know what a career in this industry looked like as nothing really prepares you for that. You can only really choose to be a leader when you see what a good one looks like, that maybe you then get the confidence that you can do it. I think starting out and saying you are going to be a leader is a bit too self-fulfilling – you actually have to have the experience of what it takes to be one to make the choice of whether you want to go that way.

 TCC: What was your first leadership role and when?

AP: My first real leap into leadership was when I was aged 31 and made the CEO of an agency called Rapp Collins in Sydney. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and I was crap at it, so it was probably the most telling couple of years in my career. It taught me how hard it is and what it takes to succeed. It probably made me want to do it even more even though it was a very tough time for me.

TCC: When did you know it was time to make the leap?

AP: It goes back to that moment when I failed at my first opportunity to lead an agency. I did a bit of self-reflection and realised my pride was such that I wanted to do it again and do it properly. But I also realised  I couldn’t succeed unless I changed the way I approached it. I think what happens when you first get into a leadership role is you think the way to succeed is to work twice as hard and that’s not true. You can work harder and harder at the same thing but that’s not your job any more. You have to realise that you have to change what you focus on.

TCC: What was the biggest shift in skillset and mindset you had to undergo?

AP: I was a suit so came up through account management. The yardsticks for success are frequent and quite visible – you launch a campaign, you win a pitch, you win an award, you get promoted. When you go into leadership, it’s not necessarily the case. Often the things you have to focus on are quite invisible, like succession planning, long term strategic planning, building out the capabilities of the business, or staff engagement. You have to go from finding your job satisfaction from things that are visible and frequent to having to set your own motivation and your own benchmarks for success. That’s a tricky transition to make.

TCC: What was the thing you were least prepared for? How did you get through it?

AP: What no-one tells you about leadership is that it’s a very lonely role as you have to make some tough decisions. You need to build a very strong executive team around you so you can share the burden – and the successes. You need to find a good mentor or two – someone who can help you see the wood for the trees.

The other thing no-one can prepare you for is the hardest bit of the job which is having to make people redundant. That never gets easier, and unfortunately it’s a necessity of the volatile agency world. The day it does get easier, is the day you’ve stopped being a great leader.

What’s also really important is to maintain a life that’s nothing to do with advertising, because it can really consume you. There are moments where you need to be able to just walk away and go and do something totally unrelated. Advertising is a visceral, intense career. You socialise a lot with the people you work with, so there are a lot of blurred lines between your work and social life. That’s one of the things that makes it a great career.

But you have to be aware that as a leader you need to find some separation and you need to find what that is. That for me is family. I’ve always had a strong sense of when work needs to finish and when family life starts. Hopefully my wife would agree I’ve done a reasonably good job of staying true to that. I also don’t like blurring my working time with my home time so I rarely take work home, so that the demands of the office don’t seep in to my time with family, in the way things can now with technology.  

TCC: What’s been your biggest achievement?

AP: A good number of people who have worked for me have gone onto their own leadership journey both within and outside of advertising and I get a lot of pleasure out of that. If I’ve had some small part in that, then it’s a job well done. I look back and feel thankful to the people who have helped me with my career so if you can pass that on to the people you work with now, that is the greatest achievement.

TCC: What would you say is your own leadership style?

AP: I’d be tempted to make it sound more heroic than it is, but I think your leadership style is just a function of who you are, so you have to be authentic to that. I think this is a question best answered by people who work for me and with me.

TCC: Can you explain a little how someone’s objectives and goals change when they transition from manager to leader?

AP: I’m quite sceptical about people sticking to rigid career plans. In the modern age, things are changing so quickly that the job role we’re aspiring to may not even exist in five years’ time. So sticking to a rigid career plan within a limited timeline can be quite limiting. I think a much better approach is to go back to what you like about your job and what you’re good at, and what roles would get you doing more of that and less of the things you don’t enjoy as much. It might be a natural leap that you can take, or it might be an opportunity that you haven’t thought of yourself. It might not be the next obvious promotion in your current workplace, but having that sense of what you look for in your job, and being open-minded about what type of role can give you those things, is just about the most sensible career plan I think you can have.

TCC: What advice would you give on managing upwards?

AP: It’s impossible to over communicate. As a leader, you don’t want surprises. You don’t want to only hear about things when it’s too late to fix them, or they’ve become so toxic that they’re a bigger problem than they needed to be. There have to be clear boundaries on expectations about the roles, but there has to also be very open and clear communications. There’s a tendency to think that the less you share the better, but I think the opposite is true. The more you explain what you’re doing, and flag both the good and the bad, it’s a much more productive relationship. You’ll get a lot more autonomy that way because it builds the trust.  

TCC: Both you and Melbourne chair Kimberlee Wells (TBWA\Melbourne CEO) have a background in direct marketing. Is this a coincidence or is there something from this area that translates well into leadership?

AP: There are a lot of people with direct marketing backgrounds in leadership roles at non-direct marketing agencies. There’s a saying that everything old is new again. If you think about the modern age of communication – microtargeting, retargeting – customer journeys – a lot of that is just direct marketing reimagined with technology. So a lot of the principles I cut my teeth on as a young suit are front and centre of the new age of marketing.

Also, in direct marketing you’re at the lower end of the food chain. Compared with advertising and media, we were the poor cousin. Without doubt that gives you the personal motivation to want to get to the top and prove your worth as an individual.

TCC: Who would your leadership role model be – from any era, country or industry – and why?

AP: I don’t think it’s right to have a single leadership role model. People can get put on a pedestal, but one of the things in leadership is to be authentic. I don’t think you can be authentic if you’re trying to model yourself on someone else’s style. The trick is identifying the great things that lots of leaders do, learning from that, but also then building that into your own leadership style. The minute you try and mimic someone else, you’re being inauthentic, and people will see through it in a flash. I’ve seen it happen where people get promoted and they turn up on Monday acting completely different to how they left on Friday, just because they have a different business card. You actually lose respect and trust that way.  

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