Interview: Lindsay Turner, the new boss of Blue 449 and Spark Foundry
The new CEO of Blue 449 and Spark Foundry talks to Michaela Jefferson about improving agency culture, the importance of social diversity, and preparing for Brexit
Lindsay Turner laughs when I ask whether she'd always felt drawn to a career in advertising. "Do you know what? No, not really." She actually joined the industry on a whim, the result of a post-university toss up between a media agency and an events company.
"So the fact that I'm sitting here now as a reasonably new media agency CEO is quite surprising to imagine," she says. "I've got a very proud mum."
Turner has only been in her new job as UK chief executive of Blue 449 and Spark Foundry for five months when I sit down with her in a White City cafe. She was promoted to the top job upon the unexpected resignation of Blue 449's former UK CEO Simon Davis, who quit one month after Publicis Media announced that it would be merging the global operations of the two agencies and absorbing the former into the latter's brand.
However, Blue 449 continues to operate locally in the UK, US and France to service domestic clients - which is how, at just 37 years old, Turner finds herself leading two agency brands.
Merging businesses can be notoriously difficult, so you'd think Turner might find it daunting to take on the additional responsibility during what you'd expect to be a tumultuous time. Earlier this year, Jon Cooke, VMLY&R's global CEO, admitted that merging WPP's VML and Y&R into one unified agency had been testing.
But Turner seems largely unfazed. Although Blue 449 and Spark Foundry now share both a senior leadership team and a floor in the old BBC Television Centre, she still sees the agencies as very much separate (but complementary) brands, with Blue 449's strength in its "incredible core craft skill" while Spark Foundry brings a creative edge.
“Certainly for now, the key thing is to cross pollinate the best of both. What can one organisation learn from the other? I think that’s the benefit of having one senior leadership team,” she adds. And though she admits that there have been operational challenges, “I don’t think it’s difficult to keep them separate and treat them separately."
“In six months' time I might say it was much harder than I imagined, but at the moment, it’s been very positive thus far.”
Instead, Turner steers the conversation towards her plans for the two agencies' internal culture, which she says is their connective tissue. “Both agencies have an entrepreneurial, start-up, challenger kind of mindset," she says with pride. "Leaders roll up their sleeves, get stuck in, get their hands dirty in client relationships... it’s really accountable from bottom to top."
However, rather than dictating the agencies' cultural values from the board room, Turner believes it is important to listen closely to junior and mid-level employees. One project she’s particularly proud of having implemented is the Fire Starters committee – a joint, junior committee across the two agencies who are invited to come up with ideas to improve the culture of the business.
“We’ve got a very ‘yes’ culture,” she says. “I want them to come up with stuff that they think is important. As long as it's a good idea, I want to be able to make it happen.”
December will therefore see the agencies’ first ‘Bring Your Parents to Work Day' (because what junior employee wants to feign interest in a parade of their bosses' children?), while the committee is also developing a "brilliant" diversity inclusion programme.
Although Turner admits it's "easy to say" - and said often - increasing diversity is the industry-wide change she hopes to see most, whether by rethinking acquisition processes, creating better diversity and inclusion programs, or supporting women's return to work in a way that is exciting for them.
In fact, at the time of her promotion Turner said her progression through Blue 449 was demonstrative of Publicis Media’s commitment to fostering female talent, and promised to champion further equality and diversity in the workplace. Even so, the one thing which has surprised her most since taking on the top job has been the reaction she's had from women in the company.
“It was really interesting when I was announced – I had so many of the younger women in the company come up to me and say that it’s really amazing to see a younger female leader. That’s been really lovely, and I suppose I didn’t really expect that.”
However, while progress has been made in measuring and supporting ethnic and gender diversity, some industry commentators have argued that adland is failing to address socio-economic inclusion, with elitism still rampant among senior levels. Conceding that diversity and inclusion programs can sometimes benefit those with privileged backgrounds more than those without, Turner - who comes from a big family who didn't have "loads" of money - adds that socio-economic diversity is of equal importance to the continued success of the industry.
She’s quick to point out that Publicis Media has an apprenticeship programme in place, and claims that the company has previously helped to fund junior employees who have to move into London from further afield. She’s also keen to stress that a degree shouldn’t be a necessary prerequisite for a job in the advertising industry, particularly considering the levels of debt graduates are now saddled with.
“[Diversity] is a really big deal,” she says. “If it’s just people like me, we’d really struggle with some of our edgy and more interesting brands. You need a whole mix of people, and money really shouldn’t come into whether you can work in our industry or not. You want cool, interesting, young, diverse people from all different backgrounds.
“Opportunity should never be about what you’ve got or who you know… You just have to be smart, a people person, and work hard.”
Looking ahead, Turner’s top concern for the future is how expanding regulations around e-privacy will affect clients as they have to learn to be smarter when it comes to using and controlling their data - and it’s only going to get tougher.
“The importance of context is going to become even more important in that light… Making sure you’re using safe and trusted environments, contextually correct with quality cues.”
She predicts that 2020 could therefore prove a stronger year for publishers than people expect, as trusted media partners become more important.
But cinema is her personal favourite media (she loves "a whole weird variety" of films, from old school Hollywood to Tarantino) and so tends to be the advertising partner she’s most excited to work with on a brief. “They’ve done a great job with creativity and innovation,” she adds, noting that DCM has launched its own content business, DCM Studios, which helps to create contextual ads which fit the films they’re shown against.
“They’ve had a stellar 12 months in terms of picking up some of those eyeballs that dropped out of telly and adding creativity to the mix. I think cinema is a really interesting advertising partner,” she adds.
Her main priority now, as she leads Blue 449 and Spark Foundry into a new era of collaboration, is to make everyone happy: her employees, her clients and her bosses.
“It’s also about listening to and giving more power to the organisation to create a culture and experience that it’s excited about, and it’s proud of,” Turner says.
And even though, with the UK balanced on the precipice of a no-deal Brexit, next year will likely be one of uncertainty and drawn purse strings, she wants her clients to know that they’re in it together.
“It’s incumbent upon agencies and clients to work together to make sure [their strategies for Brexit] are robust, and that we don’t take an eye off the next year, or two-year planning… we’ve got to continue to think long term.”
Turner adds there aren’t many clients who she would suggest have a fully-fleshed out plan for Brexit, so her advice to brands is to start thinking about putting some scenarios in place and to work with their agencies to ensure they are still reaping the short and long-term rewards of their investment as budgets shrink.
“It’s about working really, really closely, and being true and straight and honest with clients,” she says. “Even if 2020 is a tough year, we’re a partnership."
Michaela Jefferson is a reporter at Mediatel News @mejefferson_