Mindshare's Lloyd-Williams on imposter syndrome, inclusion and provocation
The boss of Mindshare UK speaks to Michaela Jefferson about his inquisitive nature, a varied career path and his ambitious plans to emerge from lockdown in fighting form
On the other side of London, Jem Lloyd-Williams smiles sheepishly. "Yeah, this wasn’t necessarily part of my first-year plan - guiding one of the UK’s best media agencies through a complete lockdown of the country,” he laughs.
Like everybody else over the past three months, the new CEO of Mindshare UK has been adapting to a new business and working landscape, the old system having been wiped out by a COVID-19 shaped meteor.
And while meetings (and interviews) conducted over video calls can lack the same feeling as meeting face to face, it does offer a rare opportunity to see inside the homes of our industry peers and judge their interior decor. There's not too much to judge about Lloyd-Williams' kitchen, however - it's sleek, white and modern. On one side he's framed by an enormous piece of colourful pigeon art, commissioned from a local friend and artist, which I like. On the other side, an enviable wine rack.
Compared to most media agency CEOs, Lloyd-Williams' career path stands out as a little unusual. He started out in TV sales, before going on to run a small content business with two friends, and freelancing as a journalist (which included editing a magazine about IT sales).
Taking a more winding and varied path to the top has made him inquisitive and curious to learn from others, he says, and perhaps more empathetic to the challenges faced by his various colleagues.
It wasn't until 2008 that he joined his first media agency - Mediacom - where he stayed for more than six years in a variety of roles. In 2014 he was poached by rival agency Vizeum, a Dentsu-Aegis business, where he spent another six years - four as UK chief executive.
Then, in September 2019, he took up his latest role as CEO of Mindshare UK, taking over from Helen McRae who moved to a EMEA role.
Mindshare is one of the five agencies which make up WPP's media investment wing, GroupM. It is one of the top media agencies in the country, with recorded billings in 2019 of £513 million, and clients including Marks & Spencers, Nike (video below) and Ford.
And although he “loved” working at and leading Vizeum in the UK, it was Mindshare’s clients which initially lured Lloyd-Williams into the job.
“The first thing I noticed was that the client roster was stellar. It was an A-list of brands you want to work with.”
The initial six months in his new job were “the best six months a new CEO could possibly have”, Lloyd-Williams says now – in part due to an immediate pitch for KFC's media account, which the agency beat Publicis' Zenith to win in December last year. "I actually felt useful almost immediately."
Pitches are the "juice" of the industry (a reference to 90s crime movie Heat), he says and the KFC pitch stands out as a career highlight.
“All of my career highlights revolve around the brilliant people I work with – I know that’s a very anodyne thing to say. But when I look back at some of the things I’ve done in my career, the really stellar moments that stand out are pitches.”
(Another career highlight is dressing up as Ginger Spice at a Dentsu Aegis Christmas party – which was not a fancy dress party – after losing a bet with his agency. “Which as you can see now, was a feat of makeup," he jokes).
And then, on March 23 - just as his first half-year had drawn to an end - the rapidly accelerating coronavirus pandemic sent the UK into nationwide lockdown, ushering in a period of economic uncertainty and new business practices.
At the time of interview, Lloyd-Williams says the transition to get around 480 UK employees effectively working from home had gone relatively smoothly, though with “lots of new discoveries”. (For the moment, the business appears to have avoided any mass redundancies.)
“It has been difficult and I’m not suggesting for one minute that people haven’t had to put in an enormous effort to make it happen," he adds.
One of my aims is to be the most inclusive business in the UK by 2021"
“Technology has saved the day a bit for us over the last few weeks. And Mindshare as a business, as we come out of this process, we've got to look at how that affects the way we work and work out how we make it to the advantage of not just us, but everybody else.”
The picture the industry has worked to until now - of fixed desks in fixed offices - no longer need apply, he says.
“If this crisis illustrates that people who work in service businesses can do some, or even the majority of their work from home, as long as it's right for their mental health and their physical health, then we've got to explore that. Because that takes a huge amount of infrastructure pressure off of public transport. It takes a huge amount of infrastructure pressure off the environment. It takes a huge amount of infrastructure pressure off the roads.”
Mindshare UK's St Giles offices in London's West End
So in the future, he suspects Mindshare will look "very, very different" in the way it comes together as a business and works with its clients - though of course, some meetings will always need to remain face-to-face.
"If we can derive some kind of benefit out the misery of what the nation's going through which pays forward from a climate perspective and environmental perspective and people's well-being perspective, then we're going to take that opportunity.”
I ask Lloyd-Williams if, other than COVID-19, he has faced any other major obstacles in the duration of his career. "Tons!" he says.
“I’m not trying to sound like David Brent here but I do like having a laugh, and sometimes my sense of humour is possibly slightly more tangential and slightly more obscure than I realise. So sometimes I say something I think is really funny and it goes down really badly." He laughs for a second, before suddenly interjecting: "Not in a HR kind of way!”
More seriously, Lloyd-Williams adds that he has struggled with imposter syndrome, and with a sometimes "brittle" self-confidence which can prevent him from being "brave" and making difficult decisions.
"I can’t quite believe I’m lucky enough to run a business like Mindshare and for clients to trust me to help them grow their businesses," he says. "But I’ve got a coach for the first time in my career who is unbelievable, and he’s really helped me in that respect."
While he won't give away any "trade secrets" when discussing what he now has planned for the agency, overall he wants to do everything possible to have happy clients, high achieving people and a high achieving culture.
As part of reaching those goals, he is looking to build some more future-facing products and hopes to pivot towards being more inventive than innovative. And despite the business challenges posed by coronavirus - particularly in an industry which is seeing advertising budgets plummet - Mindshare UK is still "absolutely actively pursuing growth."
The one thing Lloyd-Williams really wants to "double down on", however, is inclusion.
"I think that high achieving culture that we’re trying to deliver with high achieving people is enabled by being as inclusive as we possibly can," he says.
"So one of my aims is to be the most inclusive business in the UK by 2021.”
When we spoke, the murder of black American George Floyd by a US police officer and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests worldwide had yet to occur - but now, the conversation around inclusivity and diversity is perhaps more important than ever. Lloyd-Williams' signature is one of more than 200 on an open letter, signed by industry leaders, promising action against racism and to address inequality.
Asked how he plans to measure the inclusivity of Mindshare UK between now and 2021, Lloyd-Williams says that, with assistance from WPP's diversity and inclusion network, WPP Roots, the first phase of his approach will be to conduct a detailed audit of the business, looking in "every nook and cranny" and "under every stone in the business" to ensure "360 degree" inclusivity.
That means everything from making sure the first thing new employees see on a form isn't a question asking if they are addressed as Mr, Mrs or Miss (which is not inclusive to non-binary people), to determining acceptable behaviours in the workplace.
In all the work I’ve seen, especially in the KFC pitch, the team intuitively knew that to win"
“As you say, there’s no point in claiming you’re an inclusive business if you haven’t really done any work to work out where you are and where you’re going to improve."
More than that, it's also about working on inclusivity in Mindshare's core product - planning and buying media. According to Lloyd-Williams, that means making sure that the agency's responses to briefs suggest or recommend things to its clients that they may not have considered from an inclusion perspective.
He points out that there is a lot of money to be won in "community based economies" - the LGBT+ pound is estimated to be worth $3.7 trillion globally, for example. While, according to The Black Pound Report, the "multicultural pound" is worth $3.4 trillion.
So he wants his teams to be able to ask partners if their message is one that will resonate with those communities and enable them to choose their brand over someone else's.
"That’s a really interesting question to ask your clients, because there is a possibility that your clients' messaging might be excluding a group - and therefore you’re offering that group the opportunity to go and buy from your clients' competitors," he says. "It’s really simple stuff like that.”
Earlier this year, Mindshare US launched an LGBTQ+ private marketplace, in partnership with Skyy Vodka, which enables brands to advertise within LGBTQ+ spaces in a brand safe way - something currently limited by keyword blockers. The word "gay" is blocked by advertisers more often than "rape", "death" and "gun".
"Really importantly", technology such as that delivers advertising revenue to those communities, Lloyd-Williams points out.
So, after auditing the business across the spectrum of inclusivity, he plans to create a baseline of how the agency is currently performing and give it a score out of 100.
“I'm hoping we’re over 50. We need to be in the high nineties by mid 2021.”
However, as an industry overall, Lloyd-Williams says he is frustrated by the lack of fast progress in the diversity, inclusion and equality conversation. "We're not anywhere close to being where we should be."
Mindshare UK itself has only two women in its seven-strong UK executive team, and no ethnic diversity - although it has made a clear effort to include a wider spectrum of faces in its website design.
“I’m not criticising anybody, but I am trying to make sure that we don’t lose sight of [the problem] because addressing that imbalance is really difficult," Lloyd-Williams says.
"It’s a very nuanced thing that we’re trying to do, and if we don’t concentrate on it and try and keep progressing towards what we all want - which is a much fairer and equal distribution [of pay, roles and responsibilities] - then the momentum goes.”
“I wish that were better, but that’s not going to happen overnight.”
On the other side of the coin, however, the thing he loves most about the media agency part of the industry is the creativity it brings in problem solving - the perfect environment for someone with his kind of brain, he says.
"It enables you to work with and alongside an incredibly diverse set of skills and expertise, whether that’s data scientists or copywriters or creative technologists or planners," he says, adding that at any time you could find yourself at a table with any number of people with different skills, all approaching one particular problem.
"That does enable you to osmotically learn from them, but also contribute creatively to the solution".
Questioning the question
Looking towards the future and the future of media, Lloyd-Williams says he expects that, with connectivity gradually turning all things into media formats, in five years' time the brands and businesses which find the most success in the use of that "all inclusive, all pervasive" media will be those which are "much more thoughtful" in the way in which they try and influence people.
"I think we're in the early stages of that now," he adds. "We've gone from broadcast to hyper-targeted, personalised and intrusive... I think we'll then get into another era with all that AI, data and connectivity and the way that consumers behave towards advertising and marketing messages, where marketing will still be formed by the same basic principles, but the way it's executed will be subtler, more ethically based, more persuasive and less shout-y."
For now, however, as he continues to find his feet at the agency, Lloyd-Williams says he wants people to know that the distinctive element Mindshare brings to the table is in its people and their attitude.
“We bring provocation, which is really interesting and refreshing," he says. "In all the work I’ve seen, especially in the KFC pitch, the team intuitively knew that to win, it’s not just about answering the question... It’s questioning the question.
"Lots of media agencies can answer a planning question, and their responses would look relatively similar. But really good agencies are provocative enough to say that actually, we don’t think you’re asking the right question. You need to look at it this way. And if you look at it this way, then our answer is the only answer.”
So far, he has also found himself impressed by Mindshare's approach to teamwork - internally and with its external partners. No agency can pretend to be an expert in 25 different things, he adds - "you've got to be honest about what you're good at."
Mindshare's strengths are in consumer insight, understanding the application of data in media, creative ideas and negotiating "incredibly hard" with publisher partners to "get more than our fair share".
"And then we need to work with other businesses that are good at what they’re good at and then low and behold, you get winning work.”
"I think agencies that are more permeable these days... they’re the ones who win.”
So in answer to the question of what makes Mindshare stand out from its competitors, Lloyd-Williams says its distinctiveness is in "how we rock up".
"And we bring provocation, genuine openness and teamwork, and a bit of energy to everything we do.”