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An hour of advertising with Now’s Larissa Vince

Larissa Vince was my first ever boss. I was 20 years old, had just joined Campaign magazine as a ridiculously fresh-faced reporter and had literally no idea of how advertising or agencies (or anything really) worked.

It quickly became apparent that, as Campaign’s news editor, there was no better person to learn from. Larissa knew everyone and everything about the goings on of this weird, fascinating industry.

And as if she needed to prove it, she then went and walked the walk too, by joining one of the world’s biggest and best-known agencies, working her way to the top of the business and playing a key part in its turnaround.

Larissa left Saatchi & Saatchi after nine years in September, to take on a very different challenge at the independent creative agency Now.

Following the departure of its founders, the agency has brought in Larissa as chief executive to provide a new lease of life, and it’s clear that it’s a role that she’s relishing.

For this Hour of Advertising, Larissa and I sat down to talk about the opportunities ahead for Now and other independent agencies, as well as the lessons learnt from her time at Saatchi & Saatchi and Campaign. What’s the transition like from big agency to small? And the transition from covering the industry to running it?

But of course, the usual first question (and one I probably wouldn’t have asked her as that 20-year-old) – when has she really fucked up?


Advertising - Pitching is stressful


Part one: pitch tricks, winning streaks and an email that gives a stomach-sinking feeling…

Do you remember a time in your career where you really fucked up?

What, you mean apart from when I hired you?

Honestly, I think mistakes are normal, aren’t they? Everyone makes them. The trick is to make sure you find a way to fix them before too many people notice!

I do remember one pretty dreadful incident where I was asked to give feedback on someone who was going through a performance review. And I accidentally emailed a response to the person, not to HR. That was a definitely sinking feeling moment. Luckily, I hadn’t quite got to the feedback, I’d sort of written a question and so I managed to tap-dance my way out of it by making out I was emailing the person for a completely different reason. God knows how I got away with it. Now everyone who’s ever got a slightly odd email from me is going to be wondering if it was them!

Nothing causes a bigger intake of breath than the ‘missent email’…

Exactly! But to be a bit more serious, I’d say that the biggest ‘mistake’ I’ve really made in my career is sometimes failing to understand how my drive can come across to people who don’t know me very well. Particularly more junior people and particularly when you’re in the heat of a pitch. John Townshend says I’m like a steamroller wrapped in cotton wool. But sometimes you have to dial the steamroller down a bit as all that relentlessness can take some people’s confidence away.

It’s a massive mistake to ignore that – because if you can’t get your people to work to their best, then you’re not actually doing your job. It’s kind of a regret that it took me a while to realise that, but it’s always good when you learn something about yourself.

The whole concept of pitching is unlike anything else – do you see people who really crumble under that pressure, and others who really thrive?

I have seen people completely crumble, and that’s terrible in itself but it’s also a crazy way to operate because clients notice it. I know this because I once spoke to a client after a really tough pitch that we didn’t win, and he gave me this classic piece of feedback: “I know pitching is difficult and we as clients ask a lot from agencies, but you don’t want to feel like by the time the presentation comes around that you’ve totally exhausted an agency.”

He was right. We didn’t think all the pitch stress was coming across at all, but clients pick up on it. They’re way more intuitive than many agencies give them credit for.

How do you fix that then? Because it’s still really long hours and really hard work in a tight spell of time?

You have to make it fun, and you have to help your team understand that it is not life or death if you don’t win. Even if you’re the best at pitching in the entire industry, you’re still going to experience losses. Treating every loss as if it’s an absolute disaster is the thing that makes people not want to work on the next pitch. Yes, pitching is stressful, but I think agencies can make pitching unnecessarily stressful.

How do you reduce the stress? What’s your personal attitude when it comes to pitching?

It’s important to be conscious of your qualities – what is it that your agency does better than anyone else on the list? What is the reason for that client to pick you? Choose your pitch strategy early and stick to it. There’s too much procrastinating on pitches and not enough decisions made early. The truth is the creative work more often than not won’t run. So it’s not about creating a “normal” campaign, it’s about creating work that will win a pitch, which is a very different mindset to working on client business.

At their best, pitches are incredibly enjoyable, and they contain moments where you see an agency at its very best. Of course they’re also incredibly high pressure, with moments where you can see an agency at its absolute worst. The trick is to try and have more of the best moments than the worst ones, so even if you don’t win them, you can still feel super-proud of the job you did.

What advice do you give to agencies on losing streaks when it comes to pitching?

Pitching well is absolutely an art and a lot of agencies don’t take it seriously enough or professionalise it enough. There are absolutely things you can do to increase your chances of winning, and often, not enough time is spent thinking about that.

If you are on one of those losing streaks that most agencies get at some point, then get somebody who hasn’t been involved in those pitches to call all the clients, get feedback and really take a look at all the key themes or reasons why you are not winning and see if there is something that you need to start doing differently.


Advertising - Tough conversations create relationships based on respect


Part two: the buzz of reporting on the industry, making the jump agency-side and revisiting friends and foes…

When you got into Campaign, was the industry something you knew of?

Actually yes, because my first job ever was on a magazine called Campaign Media Business, which years ago was a competitor to Media Week. After that I worked in Australia for a few years, and when I got back, I got in touch with Rufus (Olins, the former director of Haymarket Media Group), who was the publisher then, and there happened to be a job on Campaign. I knew Jeremy (Lee, now Campaign consulting editor), who was there at the time, and – so he tells me now – he gave me a ringing endorsement!

It was a really good time to join Campaign, because it was well staffed, still weekly, still had a very strong news agenda, which I loved. Apparently, I was terrifying to work for – though I’d like to think I maintained a good balance of only being scary when the time demanded it!

I’m going to stay quiet here…

Yes, very funny. But it was fun. And sometimes you needed to push people. One of my favourite memories was when we had a big gap on our front page and it was about half five on press day, so it was getting tight. And I managed to somehow get wind that BBH had resigned Levi’s. So I got the team to call everyone at BBH, and we tried and tried and tried but couldn’t get hold of anyone who knew anything. Eventually we managed to get hold of someone very senior, who obviously hadn’t been briefed not to talk to journalists. They accidentally totally fessed up and we ran it… and I remember speaking to BBH’s PR afterwards and her saying: ‘Larissa, how on earth did you find that out, there were only about five people in the world who knew about it?!’ That was that type of thing that was properly fun.

What was your relationship like in terms of feeling part of the industry or feeling the need to keep it at arm’s length?

I tell you what I found interesting when I left. I assumed that some people were my ‘mates’ – not necessarily proper friends, but definitely ‘mates’. But I also believed that a lot of people would drop me like a stone, because I was no longer any use to them. But actually, I was weirdly pleasantly surprised by the number of people who were very supportive to me when perhaps I hadn’t thought I’d known them that well. And you realise that it’s not necessarily your ‘mates’ who were the ones that respected you, it was others instead.

Anyone in particular stand out here?

Robert Senior (the former worldwide chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi) and I always had a very fractious relationship when I was at Campaign. When he moved to be chief exec at Saatchi & Saatchi Fallon, I found out about it and called him on a Wednesday, just before we were due to go to print. He was sitting on the tarmac at Heathrow, literally about to take off. He said to me ‘Larissa, you can’t write this – I haven’t told any of our clients or anyone at the agency, and in about three minutes I’m not going to have any signal for eight hours’. I just asked him if it was true. And when he said yes, I said ‘well I can write it then, can’t I?’

Obviously, I now realise what a huge nightmare I was creating for him! But actually, as it turned out, he really respected me for doing my job well. And he was one of the people who was most keen to work with me after I left – and that was a big moment.

Did you find it a big career leap?

I think it’s less unusual now to suddenly change your career in your thirties. But yes, at the time, it wasn’t a common thing to do and it was a big step for me. But you know, one of the really great things about the advertising industry is that it still allows people to progress entirely based on their merit and performance rather than their career background. I don’t think there are many industries where you could come into a new career relatively late on and progress as quickly as I have done.

Because I was given that opportunity, I always try to make sure other people get the same – so if you put in the performance, you will be rewarded quickly based on that, not on where you’ve been, where you’ve come from, or what you did before.

Was there any time in particular that you decided ‘yes, I want to go and work industry side’?

From the minute I started on Campaign, I’d always loved agencies. I loved the dynamic of it and the brilliance of the people in this business. I still think that now – the privilege of working with so many people who are brilliantly creative and brilliantly intelligent is huge. I don’t like the word ‘charismatic’ as it can feel like I’m saying ‘loud’, but so many people in our industry have real personality – they’re interesting in some way. I don’t think it’s like that in banking.

And do you feel that different perspective helped when you made the move?

David Hackworthy (the Saatchi & Saatchi global chief strategy officer) always said to me that one of the things he really appreciated about me coming from a different world was that I had no preconceptions about how things should be – because I hadn’t had 25 years of experience so I couldn’t say ‘well this is the way it’s always been done’. And he also says he likes the way I can look at a problem completely afresh and bring an interesting and different perspective to it.


Advertising - Everyone has a superpower


Part three: the might of Saatchi & Saatchi, the art of empathy and the most surprising things about agency life…

When you started at Saatchis you were on two days a week – how did you handle that? Was it a case of ‘really doing four’?

I don’t know why, but I never worried about being part-time being detrimental to my career – and the truth is, I was very lucky because it never was. In fact, when I was on maternity leave, I was actually offered a promotion. And I think that’s because I made an active effort to keep in touch when I was off, and also because I always said I would consider coming back more days a week for the right role. After I was offered the promotion, I remember another woman in the business saying, ‘I’m really surprised you took that role – I just assumed that you wouldn’t be interested in coming back for more days a week’. People will always make assumptions about you at work, so I think it really helps your career if you can be clear to your boss about what you might like or want next, rather than relying on them to be able to read your mind.

Your first agency role was with one of the biggest names in the industry. Were you conscious of the weight Saatchis carried as soon as you joined?

When I got the job, I actually had two very different reactions from people. At the time, Saatchis were at the beginning of a resurgence but people weren’t really aware of it yet, so everyone in the industry kept asking me why the hell I was going there! But friends in my real life were saying ‘that’s amazing!’ I really felt the contrast then of that brand name outside of the industry versus inside.

Was there anything in particular that shocked you on a day-to-day basis coming into a new industry, particularly one with foibles like advertising?

I quickly realised I didn’t really understand anything about how an agency ran when I was on Campaign. We convinced ourselves that we did, right? But I had no clue at all. And fair enough really – because no one’s going to explain the ins and outs of running a business to a journalist. So it was definitely a steep learning curve at the start, but once you got your head around it then it’s not rocket science.

One thing that did shock me – and we did change this at Saatchis – was how slow things could be. At Campaign we just used to hear a story, make a few calls, stand it up, write it and then move on to the next thing. Honestly, the time it used to take at an agency to do anything stunned me. Luckily that has changed now at most agencies, but that was a particular surprise.

Now you’re running an agency, how do you manage that balance of keeping the clients happy and the creatives happy and the account people happy and everyone else involved all happy when looking to make creative and effective work?

You can’t keep everyone happy all the time! But empathy is massively underrated as a skill in leadership. It’s also really underrated as a skill in the art of negotiation. The art of good negotiation is basically being able to understand the other person’s perspective and finding a way to sell what you need to sell in a way that appeals to that person’s needs.

And the same is true of any department or any client. As long as you can understand where the other person is coming from, I don’t think it’s hard to have difficult conversations about anything. Sometimes they will be right, and you will back them, and sometimes you will be right, and they will back you. When you have mutual respect, that happens.

Do agencies get complacent in not seeing the link between, say, a specific person in their agency and the client? They just think things are going well because the agency is great?

Of course! Clients buy people. They always have done. I don’t think they buy agency ‘brands’ on their own necessarily, they buy people and culture. But those cultures are inextricably linked to the agency brand, so that’s why you need to get the culture right. One of the things I liked about Publicis Groupe is that they kept those agency ‘brands’, because they recognised the value in them from a cultural perspective, and that’s what clients bought.

There are lots of agencies right now merging with each other and networks killing off agency brands, and I will be really interested to see whether they come out the other end of that in 12 or 18 months’ time with a ‘brand’ that is not just good for those people working within the business, but one that’s attractive to a client. If you take two big agency brands and a client has bought into the culture of one, then I can see it being an issue for them if the other agency’s culture comes in and starts to dominate. The people start to change, the ways of working start to change, and that does tend to be a time when a client starts to think about the deal they’ve got.


Advertising - Too many agencies don't have a clear idea of their USP


Part four: finding your agency’s niche, the rise of the ‘collectives’ and a fresh opportunity at Now…

Do you think agencies spend enough time challenging themselves at how they operate?

No. And I think there are a few reasons for that. One, everyone is just generally too busy. And two, people spend too much time getting caught up on the ‘internal’. They focus only on what’s happening within the four walls. Even I, who came naturally with a propensity to think about the industry at large because of my time at Campaign, found I’d end up having to force myself to do it.

But it’s really worth doing – we’re a highly competitive industry in a highly competitive marketplace. Imagine if a client came to us and didn’t understand its competition or why it was better or worse than its rivals. We’d think they were completely incompetent. Yet there are agencies in our industry who don’t have a clear idea of their USP versus the rest of the market, and don’t have a clear idea of why a client would choose them over another agency. They don’t even know what other agencies are up to.

So how do you as an agency change that?

I think every agency needs somebody – preferably on the management team – who has that as a focus. Someone who can help you all make choices. Those people who can choose what the right opportunities are and the things to go after because they understand the agency’s own strengths and weaknesses. It becomes a basis around the way to work.

It seems like agencies are doing more to differentiate themselves though. You’re seeing new startups, new groups, the rise of ‘collectives’ etc. What’s your take on this trend?

It’s funny isn’t it, because it depends where you are in the world as to whether you think that’s a ‘trend’. Because if you work at Now or MSQ – as we do – where you’re independent and agile, then you notice the trend of clients wanting that kind of agency. But if you work in a large group then you’d be recognising a different trend where the larger advertisers are saying ‘holding company first’. I think both of those things are true. And actually I can see the industry diverging. I think there will be particularly large clients for whom it makes commercial and operational sense to go ‘network-first’.

But of course my question would be – as I’m sure yours would be – how are those network holding companies going to retain the best talent in the market? Because in my opinion, it’s hard. It’s hard to keep the best people in an environment like that. It can too often be operationally led rather than creatively led, and that desire that I think we all have to work at a place where you can do the best creative work of your life can be hard to fulfil. Talent is a huge challenge for the holding companies, and of course it’s the big challenge for the consultancies too. And if we believe – as we must do – that the only thing agencies can really offer better than anyone else is access to world-class creative talent, then it’s a concern that the large groups and consultancies ought to be applying a bit more thought to.

I ask this to a lot of people and the answers are always mixed! How have you juggled work-life balance, becoming a mum at the same time your career has flourished?

I’ve been really lucky. I’ve been with my husband for over 20 years, and across that time our careers have gone through different phases. For the first half of the time we were together, he was definitely what I suppose you’d call the ‘main breadwinner’ when it came to prioritising career. He worked all the long hours and I was a bit more at home.

And we’re now in a phase where he has his own business, so he can be a bit more flexible and be at home more. And that gives me the freedom of spending a bit more time with my head down and really ‘going for it’ with work. But maybe that’ll change again in the future. Nothing’s entirely one thing or the other – don’t ever think that the moment you’re in now is going to be that way forever.

You left Saatchis to take on the top job at Now in September. Why Now?

Well I just thought it was such a unique opportunity. Because I wasn’t actually quite brave enough – or I didn’t have the right partners – to do a startup. But the idea of running my own business and being in charge of my own destiny massively appealed to me.

And the difference at Now actually came from the fact that the CEO founder was no longer there. I had a couple of conversations with other independent agencies where they were interested in me coming and perhaps being a founder’s number two or taking on a chief exec role because the founder was “stepping back”. But if the founder is still involved then you are never going to impact the agency in the same way – understandably so, because that’s their agency you’re messing with.

And you have that with Now?

Yes, it’s fairly unique. John (Townshend, the Now founder) is a creative, he’s not a chief exec. And when I met him, I knew he would work with me and allow me to make all decisions that need to be made in terms of where the business needs to go next. That was really important.

The other thing was that I didn’t want to slot into an agency where everything was already really working at 100%. Because then you don’t have as much of an impact. I’m very driven by having an impact. And I do think there is a huge opportunity at somewhere like Now, and indeed at all smaller, creatively driven agencies. There are now so many clients of a size who will be, let’s face it, second-class citizens to most of the bigger agencies in town.

And clients are starting to realise that?

Even if they don’t to begin with, I think they do over time. If the agency sees the client as a Grand Prix-winning opportunity then they’ll look the shit after them. But if they’re ‘just’ a small to medium-sized, really good client who simply needs an agency to do the right work for them that will ultimately be successful for their business, then I just think it’s crazy for them to go to a big agency. They’re just not going to be that agency’s first priority.

Are there certain things you’ll take from Saatchi though, going from a bigger agency into a smaller shop?

Absolutely. Saatchis had a really strong culture – and ‘Nothing is Impossible’ is a clear USP. I think that having a strong reason to exist and a positioning that everyone in the agency can get behind is really important. Saatchis also taught me about running a very commercial operation, and if you’re running an independent then you have to be very commercial. Both for your clients and yourself! That’s one of the things I’ve already noticed in the short time running Now – you really do treat your client’s money as if it’s your own.

Another thing that I learnt at Saatchis – and particularly from Magnus (Djaba, Saatchi & Saatchi’s global president), is that when you’re leading teams of people, you cannot let any element of doubt show. You have to be completely and utterly clear and confident in your decisions. If you let your doubt show, everyone catches that doubt. Your team can lose their own confidence. That confidence is more overt in bigger agencies, so I’ve taken that lesson with me.

I know you’ve not been in for long, but has it become clear quite quickly what an independent culture looks like compared to a network?

Now has a really great culture, it was one of the first things that everyone mentioned when I was asking around before deciding whether to take the job. There are so many agencies that struggle to create a great culture, so that was a huge attraction for me.

There were two other things I noticed immediately. I found when working in a network, you can make decisions, but you always have someone above you. Even people who run big global networks still have a boss. And that boss has a boss, and that boss has a boss. Someone you always have to run a decision past or get permission from. But when you’re running an independent, you don’t. It’s just you! That’s a huge change for me, but it’s great to have so much freedom. All you ever have to think about is doing the best for your people and the best for your clients and the best for the work. That’s it. There’s no one else you have to take into account, and you can make decisions quickly.

I think the other major difference with a small business is that the size of the waves in the industry are the same, but you’re just in a smaller boat. You feel things way more than you do when you have that protection of being in a larger business. Because of commercial impact, but you also feel it more because it’s yours. The ups and downs both feel way more dramatic. But that’s ok. I like dramatic.

Written by Matt Williams for TheDrum