Alastair Procter, SVP of strategic HR operations at Interpublic, is making the advertising sector more renowned for its compassionate, forward-thinking leadership.
The advertising business has never been easy. A world of fierce rivalry and ongoing creative difficulties is ruled by supremely self-assured creative rainmakers.
But this is the most competitive the industry has ever been. Consumer spending is being restricted by the global backdrop of growing inflation and a high cost of living, and the introduction of Web3 technologies is altering the digital environment (or building an entirely new one as the Metaverse).
It's a situation that calls for capable leadership. Senior leaders must be able to comfort their workers while also eliciting innovation from them and inspiring them to create campaigns that stand out from the competition. Additionally, because of the shift to remote and hybrid working, they frequently lack daily access to their workforce.
Alastair Procter sees these difficulties every day at Interpublic Group, one of the largest ad agencies in the world. He and his other chiefs are giving their individual leaders more authority and confidence than ever as a result of Covid-19.
Alastair continues, emphasizing the word "never," "Leadership is never an HR thing. It is essential and the foundation of our business.”
“'Your life definitely got a bit more complex, since you aren't going to have all the people in all the time,' we told our managers as we delegated a lot more responsibilities to them. You'll need to control this type of hybrid environment, where some people may be present but others may not.”
"You have to figure out a method to get past this and work with your team to really interact with them, to see what is going to work best and be most productive, while being aware of all these concerns, including the propensity for prejudice with proximity and so forth."
A formidable obstacle
Around 53,000 people work for Interpublic in 17 countries, in silos that range in size from 250 to 13,000 employees and cover everything from traditional marketing to SaaS technology.
The firm is forced by necessity to retain a decentralized approach given the magnitude of the operation. This also holds true for leadership; organizations have the freedom to establish their own tactics that are appropriate for their group and environment. They "usually know their business better than anyone else," as Alastair puts it.
However, executives across the organization are required to adhere to a fundamental set of norms, no matter where they are or what they do.
Everyone would be required to sign up and act in ways that are compatible with our beliefs since we are a firmly values-driven organization, according to Alastair. These ideals are demonstrated and verified in the manner that decisions are made every day, not so much in corporate rhetoric and fancy website lingo.
One illustration of this is the unwritten rule that we shall always act morally when it comes to how we treat people. We anticipate that our leaders will be involved in this and demonstrate it by their actions.
“Brain, heart and guts”
Alastair and his coworkers have developed a senior-level leadership development program that incorporates high-potential executives from around the firm to further these key principles. This program aims to develop these aspiring leaders into accomplished professionals and promote teamwork throughout the company.
The curriculum is built on three essential traits that Alastair refers to as "brain, heart, and guts." He holds the opinion that "great leaders require components of each of these three attributes to create extraordinary, sustainable success.
"The guts" refers to the willingness (combined with self-confidence) to stand up for what one believes in, take calculated risks, and take a stance. The "brain" refers to logical reasoning and clear, strategic thinking.
Some advertising executives may find it difficult to admit their own frailties, yet doing so enables Interpublic to respond to demands thoughtfully rather than hastily.
"Over the past couple of years, our leaders have really grown and improved. They weren't young, but they have occasionally had to learn to be a little more vulnerable.”
Of course, measuring these characteristics is difficult in and of itself. Companies frequently overestimate their capacity to measure the appropriate variables for the appropriate purposes, according to a 2017 paper published in the MIT Sloan Management Review. How can you tell if someone is modest or compassionate? How do you measure the impact these traits are having on an organization is maybe even more important.
In the instance of Interpublic, Alastair and his team have established a number of KPIs to track the success of their leaders that are connected to the core principles of talent, DEI, and cooperation. These KPIs clearly have financial ramifications because meeting KPIs is a requirement for 20% of the value of yearly bonus pools (and individual incentives).
Alastair, though, thinks that defining goals is just as vital as communicating.
"Regular, open communication between the parties helps a lot. We encourage (and reward) operational units (and their leaders) for identifying problems as soon as they arise so that we may pool our collective knowledge to identify viable solutions and provide them with equitable support during trying times.
This conversation becomes even more crucial when leaders fail to exhibit the necessary traits or depart from the expected set of traits.
"There will be moments when individuals opt to go their own path, especially when you talk about morals. I believe that rather than "flogging a dead horse," we are more likely to want to discuss how we recognize when our beliefs are fundamentally at odds with one another and how this affects our behavior.
"The best there is"
Interpublic is currently working to improve its hybrid model and motivate employees to work more in the office. Alastair adds that this is presenting a significant issue in and of itself.
"As we all know, the epidemic is still ongoing, and some individuals have genuine worries about any potential danger of becoming sick, especially if they are already vulnerable. We also have individuals who have established plans for their life, such as new job schedules and routines, and who are now being asked to squeeze in a commute.
Therefore, there has been a significant communication exercise for managers about topics like being sensitive to individuals' needs and just making sure they interact with their staff to understand people's specific situations, so that no one feels under pressure. We've given that a lot of attention, and we trust our managers to handle it appropriately.
But despite all of this turmoil, Interpublic is still doing well. The corporation recently acquired a minority share in The Famous Group, a technology company that is making waves with its augmented reality experiences, and its total revenue for the first quarter of 2022 was up over $300 million for the year.
Alastair is clearly delighted with the company's development and thinks its decentralized, light-touch leadership style has been proven correct.