Features

How I Got Here… Lindsay Pattison, WPP global chief transformation officer

From her childhood days as a swimming prodigy to working her way up way up the ladder to become a global CEO at Maxus overseeing 3,000 staff across 55 markets, Lindsay Pattison maintained her laser-like focus on working hard to get results

Education

I was brought up in a small village in Oxfordshire, as the youngest of four children. As the baby in my family I was, well, let’s say a little cosseted and mastered the art of getting my siblings to carry me around the house and run around fetching things for me. I often say that I got used to having CEO-like power and supreme delegating from the age of two.

Pattison’s ‘cosseted’ childhood

Throughout my childhood I was a keen competitive swimmer. I trained all the time and had my heart set on swimming for England. Swimming provided an element of discipline – I was constantly balancing training, schoolwork and friends – and it taught me perseverance.

It also helped me appreciate competing as a positive thing. Hard work equalled results. I still believe in that today. My school life had to be disciplined to fit in with the swim training schedule, but that was workable as it was a local school, a 20-minute bike ride away.

That closeness to home perhaps led me to choose one of the furthest away universities possible.  I moved to Scotland and threw myself into my English literature degree, sports teams and social life in equal measure. And, of course, made friends for life.

My start

Post graduation I moved to London as many people do in the United Kingdom. It’s simply where the main action is. I began my career in marketing communications as a graduate trainee at Young & Rubicam in 1998, when it was a full-service agency.

I started in the media planning and buying department, but I truly loved working closely with planners, creatives and the account team. This stood me in great stead for the future, as from the outset I was experiencing a wider range of marketing disciplines than if I’d been in a specialist agency. It was a brilliant and fun time and again, I made friends for life. Many of whom are still in the industry today, albeit all across the world.

One of my main clients was Ericsson and after three years, they poached me to go and work client-side as an advertising manager. Suddenly, Y&R were my media and creative agency – and their old media planner was feeding back on creative work. Lucky them.

My role then evolved into a broader marketing manager position, so I got involved in public relations and sponsorship as well as working closely with the sales and promotional team. To this day, I refer back to my experiences at Ericsson to put myself in the shoes of the client when we pitch for business.

After a brief stint in New Zealand (my ex-boyfriend was a professional rugby player), I returned to London and to media – joining PHD. I spent six very happy years there working my way up from a media director to managing partner. I also met my husband there, so good fortune personally too.

Pattison and her husband

In 2009, I was approached about a new role at Maxus (a media agency, now merged with MEC to form Wavemaker). The opportunity was to run the small UK team of 35 people, with a big emphasis on new business. What enticed me about the prospect was the fact that it was a start-up culture, but with heavy backing from WPP. The CEO role was a brilliant opportunity to test myself, make my own mark, build an agency and drive growth.

In 2012, Maxus UK had grown to almost 200 people. So after a super successful stint, I took on an additional role as global chief strategy officer. And in 2014, as the UK office reached 350 people, so a 10x growth period.

I was made worldwide CEO of Maxus, responsible for 3,000 colleagues across 55 markets. I loved it, working with richly diverse and passionate market leaders and a hugely talented global ExCo, hand in hand to drive the company forward.

Time with the team

In May 2017, I was appointed GroupM’s first-ever worldwide chief transformation officer. Only a few months later, I was also promoted to the same role for WPP. For it, I oversee our 50 plus global client teams.

In both roles, I lead change programmes to support group and agency structures, talent and leadership development plus culture and diversity. It’s a uniquely interesting time to be ‘at the centre’ while we experience such major structural industry change. And, of course, within WPP a very significant leadership change too. Every day is fascinating in its variety, challenge and opportunity. Change is the only constant.

Approach

The most important lesson I’ve learnt during my career is to appreciate the power of the individual and the value that each person brings to the role. When you’re more junior, you may not realise the power of you, the individual, in terms of what both clients and your team buy into.

But time and time again, I’ve seen how it is the confidence and energy of the individual and the passion and commitment to clients to create meaningful work that makes the difference.

The same rings true for leadership. That old and tough adage that ‘you’re only a leader if someone wants to follow you’ has never been truer. Today’s workforce is largely made up of Gen Y and Gen Z who expect to work in an environment where they can bring their whole self to work and be personally supported in a professional environment.

‘Command and control’ is not the answer for today’s leaders

 

This is a change for many leaders, who are of the baby boomers cohort, and broadly focus on structure, hierarchy and the acceptance of ‘command and control’. To be successful today however, leaders need to create more open, collaborative, empowering work environments and be more empathetic, approachable and transparent themselves.

Highs and lows

Promoting gender equality and broader diversity in our industry has always been hugely important to me. As I rose to more senior roles, I saw first-hand how uneven it really was. The simple fact is that women remain significantly and depressingly underrepresented in our industry.

The aim with any equality initiative is to create a level playing field. There are both structural programmes to enable equality, and cultural barriers that challenge us in many markets, but it’s incumbent on us to stop talking about the issues and to start creating the conditions to allow more women to succeed.

It was a great opportunity to champion women in the workplace when I was worldwide CEO at Maxus. I valued my male colleagues very much, but couldn’t help feeling concerned and frustrated at being the only woman on the board. Although there was good gender balance overall across both Maxus and the whole of WPP, with women accounting for 54% of total employees and 47% of senior managers, women remained under represented at the very highest levels of the business.

I realised that as worldwide CEO, I held the power and could commit to leading the change immediately at Maxus, using this to influence the industry more widely. I wanted to address the structural issues and external barriers, but also the internal barriers women may hold themselves.

In April 2016, Maxus launched ‘Walk the Talk’, an intensive coaching experience for its senior female leaders. It is deliberately named to call out the fact there’s just too much talk in our industry when it comes to equality and diversity – and this movement is all about tangible positive action.

The ‘Walk the Talk’ programme

 

By exploring the barriers that women face in business, Walk the Talk gives colleagues the chance to focus on their ambitions, arming them with the confidence they need to take bold moves towards their ‘bigger game’.

Maxus saw some amazing results: 250 women, from three regions, attended the programme, and 18 months on, there had been 100 promotions. In my own bold move, I presented the initiative at the WPP Top 100 leadership meeting and asked the company and other global agency CEOs to adopt the programme. I was hugely proud when it was agreed to roll out Walk the Talk across GroupM and WPP. By the second quarter of 2018, over 1,500 women in the WPP group will have experienced the programme.  

There is always more to do; ensuring that women are (at least) shortlisted for all senior roles at WPP, setting targets for gender equality across our ExCos, establishing deeper mentoring programmes for women of all levels across the WPP network. And of course, involving, enrolling and helping our men to get involved. For we will never do it alone.

Dos and don’ts

The key to success in marketing communications – and in most industries – is ensuring that you are always stepping in front of the work. Say yes to every opportunity, have a voice, push yourself out of your comfort zone, build confidence and make yourself visible.

Ultimately, your reputation is the thing that drives you through your career. But never forget that you won’t succeed alone. Building your own reputation comes hand-in-hand with building a network of allies to support and champion you.

And going back to the swimming training; if you work hard you get results. Don’t look for shortcuts. But have fun and make incredible friends along the way.

If you work hard you get results, says Pattison

Lindsay Pattison is global chief transformation officer at WPP and is based in London, in the United Kingdom

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