There were a number of reasons why I wanted to speak to Jonathan Harman for An Hour of Advertising.
Firstly, he’s an agency leader who’s made the move client side (after 20 years at agencies, Jonathan became Royal Mail Managing Director of Media in 2012). I’ve always found this fascinating.
He’s also run some of the biggest direct marketing agencies of the past 20 years. It’s a discipline that’s evolved more than most and, as my first ‘patch’ as a Campaign journalist, is full of people and businesses close to my heart.
And I also wanted to speak to Jonathan because he’s a smart, personable guy who’s one of the other few (very few) supporters of Reading Football Club in our industry.
Don’t worry, there’s only one minor reference to Reading in the whole interview. But what there is in abundance is a fascinating take on what it’s like to run big agencies, what it’s like to go from pitching as an agency to holding a pitch as a client, as well as great insight on man management skills, implementing a work/life culture, and the challenges of being a suit.
I hope you find it as fascinating as I did. And C’mon URZ.
Part one: The secrets to man management, the importance of discretionary effort and the need to learn from everyone…
Do you remember the first in your career that you really fucked up?
When I was a Senior Account Manager at WWAV, I was very clear that I wanted to be an Account Director. I think everyone knew it — I wasn’t subtle in this ambition! I got there in the end but not before a big misstep. I’d basically assumed that no-one else in the team would get it, and I started to act like it was mine to lose. To be fair it was what my boss had said. There was a vacancy above me, they weren’t going to fill it and I had 3 months or so to run at it. And if the client was happy, then it’d be mine.
I just thought ‘great, here we go’. And I was winding up the team to a point that they were almost mutinous. And you realise ‘blimey, I need them more than they need me’. That was the first time that it really landed with me that you’ve got to engage the team and the agency with what you’re doing. You have to be aligned with the culture you’re working in, because you’re asking your team to put a lot of discretionary effort in. As we know, agencies rely on discretionary effort to be profitable. Because the amount of waste there is in the system with, say, pitches and the margins you’re running; you need people to work beyond their contracted hours regularly. And that relies on goodwill.
From that mistake on, whether I was running a team of tens or hundreds, I made sure I was absolutely engaging people to make sure they wanted to come and do the work.
And how do you do that? What’s the secret to good man management?
I think you’ve got to demonstrate that it’s important you, by how you behave. I wouldn’t claim to be perfect in that way — I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve a bit too much — but I think you’ve got to demonstrate that it matters to you personally, and hold people to account on how they treat their own teams as well.
One of the things I’m most proud of in my whole career is that I think I’ve had one direct report resign since 2004. And I think that’s so important. You can’t grow a business if you’re burning through people. Yes, sometimes you need to change the shape of your business, sometimes you need new skills, sometimes there are performance issues and so on, but I do think you need to base your approach on being people-orientated, because, whether working in data, tech, media or creative, we are ultimately a people-business.
Have you always enjoyed managing people, or was that something you learned to enjoy along the way?
I always enjoyed that side of it, but I think it became much easier to do and much easier to enjoy when I got a role broad enough so I could have more of a say in what the culture is. Thinking back to that point when I was the Senior Account Manager at WWAV, Lesley Mair was running the agency. She was a brilliant leader and a strong personality, and it was ‘Lesley’s show’. I was just one of her very junior lieutenants. But when you’re the MD or the principal of the business, then whether you like it or not, you set the tone.
I’ve heard it described that ‘culture is the aggregate of leadership behaviour’, and it’s true that it comes down to the way that people individually behave. If you want a client-focused culture but the leader never goes to see a client, you’re never going to get very far. And vice versa.
You mention Lesley Mair there, who else did you learn off in the industry?
I’ve been lucky to have worked at agencies that were really quite hot at the time. Sarah Bryan was my first boss at WWAV, I also met Mike Colling and several others there — these were really good people. Then I moved to Claydon Heeley where I met (Claydon Heeley Jones Mason founder) Jon Claydon, who I think is a commercial genius. If one of the key roles of being a leader is making the big calls and getting them right, Jon, I think, always got the big calls right in the six years I was there.
I also met at Nigel Jones at Claydon Heeley. He’s the smartest man in advertising. Just sitting next to him for two or three years — I’m not saying you can become a planner just through osmosis, but through the way his brain worked, I picked up so much about clarity of thought and customer-centricity. And quite a lot about punk music.
Later on I worked with (Havas London CEO) Xavier Rees and Trefor Thomas at RMG. I could go on. In fact, I’ve been so blessed with all the teams I’ve worked with.
You said you’ve been lucky to work at some of the biggest and best in your sector. When you worked that side of the fence, what did you look for in an agency?
You’ve always got to be clear on ‘what I’m going to learn by doing this’. That never changes. You’ve got to be looking at who at the company you can learn from — that’s not just the people you work for but people younger than you too. In every interaction you need to be learning, because the world is changing so fast. I heard recently that the computer games industry is bigger than the film and music industries combined. One of my sons spends time watching YouTube of people playing computer games to learn how to play them better. Unless you understand things like that then you can’t help a brand thrive in that environment.
Part two: moving client side, the difficulties of holding a pitch and the varying success of pitch theatre…
Let’s take a step forward to when you moved client-side. What are some of the biggest differences between working in an agency then being a client? What did you learn?
When you move you try really hard to be a good client. And having spent the past 20 years believing that a client gets the agency they deserve, I always thought it would be wrong to change that point of view. I know I work hard to try and be the best client I can, and I think there are some things within a big company that can get in the way of that.
Like the complexities of getting buy-ins to ambitious or sensitive plans or significant budget sign offs in what isn’t really a marketing-led business. Now that’s our stuff to sort out, but I know that is hard and it impacts the agency’s ability to plan their resource and ultimately income.
You also see those issues where everybody in the chain believes that they’re only doing their job if they change something. That just leads to rework and inefficiencies on both sides. If you could stop the amount of rework that goes on, then agency structures and the numbers would look very different I’m sure.
I think it’s the client’s job to help the agency be profitable. Because you want that — you want them to be robust, to offer good careers to good people and to pay them what they’re worth. But there are some pragmatic real-world pressures that make it harder. It’s not an easy set-up.
So in terms of when you’ve held a pitch and sat the other side of the table, how has that been, having been the ‘pitcher’ on so many occasions?
I don’t enjoy the process at all, if I’m honest. Certainly as a client working at a big company, you’re procuring the services of an agency with colleagues from other business units, so it’s always a bit of a compromise.
The thing people often forget is that it’s so time consuming to run pitches, so it’s an absolute last resort to want to pitch something. The opportunity costs and distraction can be significant. But clearly good governance is that you can’t just go and appoint someone because you ‘know them and know that they would be good’. There needs to be the level of transparency. I get that, but it’s not something I particularly enjoy.
It’s funny, I always imagine that the one reason most agency people would want to become a client, is to pitch…
There are some funny bits. You get agencies coming in saying something like ‘we know how serious you are about the environment, so rather than print stuff off, we’ve loaded up our pitch documents onto these iPads, and we’ll just leave them here for you to take home.’ And procurement are right on it saying: ‘I think we’ll have those please!’ The iPads get back to the agency before the pitch team does! But it is honestly more time-consuming than it is fun.
Is the ‘pitch show’ something you went in for, when you were running agencies?
It’s difficult isn’t it? I remember one time — and we won the pitch so I can tell you this story — we took an ice box full of smoothies to One2One. Which shows you how old it was — before they became T-Mobile and before they became EE. We knew the client had been sat in the same room all day, and we were the last on. So we thought they would be bored with drinking over-brewed tea, and we’d take them an ice-pack full of soft drinks which we’d lay out on the table. And doing that would be another example of customer insight, which would be a theme that would run through the pitch. And apparently they spent more time in the wrap-up afterwards asking ‘why did they have to do that smoothie thing, are they not good enough? Is it a stunt because they’re hiding something?’ We won the pitch, but this simple idea didn’t help us!
I was also at Claydon Heeley when we had a pitch — that I wasn’t a part of — where one of the guys running the pitch walked into the room and said full of charm and enthusiasm: “right, you’ve all been sat down for ages so what I’d like you to do is stand up and find a different chair.” And the Marketing Director just sat back, folded his arms and said: “no we’re not doing that, just get on with it.” I don’t think we won that one.
I remember once hearing a story — and I won’t name the agency because I still don’t know if it’s completely true — where the agency had an office in a square. And for the pitch they had the client’s brand colours put up on the flag poles that adorned the square. It apparently cost a fortune. Then they got a phone call from the client on the morning of the pitch saying “I thought you were coming to us? The pitch is taking place here.”
I suppose pitches put agencies under pressure that mean they’ll do anything to stand out…
Well because you do then also hear stories where stuff like that does work. There’s the famous bacon roll story — a client got into a lift at an agency and said quietly to their colleague “God I’m a bit knackered today, I could kill for a bacon roll.” Someone from the agency also in the lift overhears this and ten minutes later there’s a bacon roll arriving in the meeting for him. And they just thought “if they are that attentive to a client’s needs, then that’s a really good start.”
In the end, there’s no amount of theatre that’s going to get over a poor pitch, but if it endears you to the client a little bit more, then it’s not always a bad thing.
Part three: Respecting the pitch process, the underrated skills of account management and the qualities required in up-and-coming talent…
Do you remember the first pitch you ever did?
No — and I probably ought to. I think One2One was one of my first make-or-break pitches. I was running the Credit Suisse account at Claydon Heeley and they’d just stopped spending. So suddenly I’m thinking ‘I haven’t got a job if we don’t win this pitch.’ Fortunately we had some really smart people around at that time and won it, but I remember thinking how important that was at the time. I’m sure a lot of people will feel like that at some stage in their career. Pitching is great when you win, but hideous when you lose.
Do you think most clients truly respect the pitch process?
It has to be respected — and it’s not always. I heard one terrible story this week where a client, in a very discrete, specialist sector that only a few agencies really have experience in, insisted on taking a shortlist of ten agencies through. And you think ‘if it’s absolutely critical that you’ve got specific experience, then why don’t you only invite people to pitch who have that experience?’ It just seems disrespectful.
I remember getting through a chemistry meeting once when I was at an agency, and the client rang up and said ‘well done, you’re through’ — and we’d already concluded at the end of the chemistry meeting that we’d be a bad fit for them, so we didn’t take it any further. I just think that’s the right thing to do if you want to build long-term relationships. You have to be able to make those calls but the pressure some agencies are under from their parent companies means that can be hard.
Talking about making the big calls, as a ‘suit’ how did you get the right balance between managing the creatives, managing the strategists, keeping the client happy and keeping the spreadsheet happy?
It’s difficult. I think being a suit — and every suit will say the same thing — is a really underrated skill. Because you do need to be the client’s representative in the agency and vice-versa, and it is very possible to go too far one way or the other. You’re just trying to build coalitions that help everyone get what they need.
Sometimes you have to take a ‘longer way around’. I remember working with a financial services client years ago who was very risk averse. So we spent what was probably a few months working with their compliance department, working with stakeholders, going into all the other parts of the business to explain what people were saying about the brand. And the moment we’d built those relationships, it opened the door to do much more ‘aggressive’ work. Which changed the performance, which meant that more media channels started working, which grew the account hugely. But to do that meant taking the long way around.
So as a suit, what do you look for in younger talent?
Well, once in my career I promoted someone who happened to have played professional football for Reading. So obviously that’s my number one criteria. But beyond that you’re looking for passion. ‘What do you do in your spare time?’ is one of the first questions I ask. Because if you can’t be passionate about anything in your life then you won’t be passionate about your client. Passion is the one non-negotiable. Then it’s the conventional craft skills and being easy enough to work with. It can be stressful working in this industry, so you don’t want people who pride themselves in being tricky characters.
Do you entertain this theory that this industry has people who pride themselves in being arseholes but will get you great work in the end?
There are some people with such talent that you can rationalise that view. You know, if you can come up with these amazing, transformative ideas, then you wouldn’t expect them to think and act like everyone else.
There are some things that are unacceptable — and we don’t need to list those behaviours here but they absolutely can’t happen in any workplace, not just agencies — but if people are treading on the right side of the line where they’re passionate, then rubbing people up the wrong way is normally because they really care about the outcome and what’s done so far is just not good enough. By and large then you go with it — though I’m not sure that I’ve witnessed truly terrible behaviour from anyone.
Part four: Ideal clients, work/life balance and fostering an open culture…
How closely did you pay attention as a client to the ‘agency world’ on a day-to-day basis? Or is it more a case that you’re focused on your agencies and will really only look wider when a pitch comes around?
Well, let me answer that by saying you never set out to have a pitch. In six years I think I have called just two, though the wider business has required us to participate in more. So I don’t have in the back of my mind ‘these are the people I would put on the next pitch’. If there are people I’ve worked with before, that’s different. When Atomic set up, for example, I thought, ‘I’d like to work with them’. Because I liked working with Guy (Bradbury) before at RMG, and I’d worked with Richard (Hill) at WWAV. But still then I never got around to working with them because of circumstance. I don’t think you keep tabs on the industry to pick agencies you want in the future; you work with the people who you know can get you the best results.
You talk there about agencies you’d liked to have worked with. What about clients? When you were agency-side, who did you enjoy working with?
For me it was less about a specific brand and more about the people. I really liked working on Vodafone because I liked telco, but mainly it’s about ambition. I wanted to work with people who had slightly scary ambitions, to change the world in some way.
I found clients with too much time on their hands and too much money a bit difficult, to be honest. Because they could research things to death and just wait until the opportunity had past. Sometimes you just have to get on with it.
You’ve worked with clients across most sectors. Can you surprise yourself in suddenly being immersed in and interested in sectors you wouldn’t have thought about previously?
Back when I started in agencies you would hear that no-one would want to work on financial services or charities. And my first client was RSPB, who I absolutely loved working forbecause I got to do a little bit of everything. We made TV ads — alright, they were about birds with Bill Oddie, but still — we made press campaigns, early email stuff, we got to try lots of different things, which gave me experience. And of course, that experience helps you build a network of sponsors in an agency so that when the board comes to look at who they can promote into a bigger role, you’ve got people from all disciplines to back you.
So many times I’ve heard people talk about financial service or off-the-page clients as being boring. But I remember for example with Vodafone we sold so many contracts off-the-page that they stopped selling contracts through Tesco. We changed the dynamics of the sector and that’s the motivation. Obviously when you get a client who wants to do fantastic creative work, that’s even better, but I think there’s always something you can find to be passionate about and motivate you. Ultimately your job as an agency is to help clients succeed, and it doesn’t matter what sector they’re in.
People talk a lot about work-life balance, and you’ve talked a lot about having passions outside of work. How have you used that yourself?
I think you’ve got to decide — and I haven’t always got it right by any means — that it’s an important thing. That you’re just going to burn out otherwise. The person I admire most on this is Karen Blackett. You hear about what she did at MediaCom, for example, identifying that you can’t all learn in the same way at work because of what else you have in your life that you have to blend with work. So if all your training courses are residential and you’re the main carer of a child, then guess what, you can fall behind. So why don’t we stop doing that?
Clients can affect that too. Especially if all your client entertainment is going out and getting pissed after work. We had a lot of people with childcare responsibilities, and we knew people from our agency did too. So we said ‘look, if you want to go out and have a drink after we’ve had a kick off meeting, we’ll start the meeting earlier, then do the drink at 4pm’. We’ll do it on our time — so there’s no-one who feels like they have to miss out just because of a life choice they’ve made.
And now you are leaving Royal Mail. What’s next?
Well I’m off soon. And it’s the right time for me to move on for a number of reasons. I’m going to spend a month in Asia because I think I should do that while I can. And then I have set up a consulting business called Bloom Profit Growth. I’ll be helping clients to grow the bottom line as quickly as possible. I have some work lined up with the Advertising Association, a marketing services business and a PE House. We’ll see how that goes but I expect I’ll want to be back in a full-time role eventually. I still love this industry.
Final question then. What’s the proudest moment of your career?
Someone said to me at Royal Mail that “this is the first time in my career I’ve felt that I’ve been able to speak openly about my mental health. There’s an environment here that you’ve created that makes me feel comfortable doing that.” And I think, when you go back to everything we’ve said about creating an environment to help people thrive and where people want to come to work — we don’t always get it right, but when somebody says that, it really feels important. Forget the pitch wins and campaign results, that’s the type of thing that makes me hugely proud.
Artwork by Guy Sexty