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‘I don’t want to be a leader of people unless I am a leader of ideas’: Clemenger’s Nick Garrett

A few months on from winning Industry Leader of the Year at the 2018 Mumbrella Awards, Clemenger's Nick Garrett sits down with Abigail Dawson to reflect on what being a leader means to him.

Leading an Australian agency to the world stage is a tough enough feat in itself, but for the CEO of Clemenger Melbourne and Sydney, Nick Garrett, the success did not stop there.

Clemenger Melbourne, which has been led by Garret since Jim Moser handed him the reigns in 2015, was ranked the number one agency in the world by WARC 100 and cleaned up at last year’s Cannes Lions, winning 56 awards.

Garrett: A leader of ideas

Before steering Clemenger Melbourne to its undeniable fame and success, Garrett was at the helm of New Zealand agency Colenso BBDO, first as managing director and then as CEO.

But for Garrett, his victories at both Clemenger Melbourne and Colenso BBDO haven’t come from simply being a leader of people. Instead, Garrett tells Mumbrella: “I can remember being interviewed for Colenso by Brent Smart [now the CMO IAG] and Nick Worthington [Colenso BBDO’s creative chairman] and I can’t remember what the question was, but I know the answer, I have never forgotten it: I don’t want to be a leader of people unless I am a leader of ideas.”

Garrett, who recently added Clemenger Sydney to his remit, said he has learnt a lot from his leaders and bosses, especially the distinction between being a leader and a manager.

“It is a hard thing to be a leader of people and leader of ideas, and that’s creative ideas and evolution ideas, some people are better at one or other, some people are good at both.

“Someone once said to me what is the difference between being a leader and a manager? A manager is doing the day to day, being a leader is pointing in the direction that you want to take people in the company.”

The CEO, who humbly says he “stumbled into it”, points out he didn’t actually wake up “and go I want to lead an ad agency” rather he got into advertising because he “was interested”.

“I started with some people assuming I would be a strategist, and I’ve been a planner few times, but then you just sort of grow and grow and grow and you suddenly get to a place where somebody has confidence in you to run a big account, and then they have confidence in you to run a department, and they have confidence in you to run a company, and you get thrust in there.”

Garrett – who now oversees two agencies with clients including NAB, Pepsi, Seek, Mars, Hungry Jack’s, Extra, Masterfoods, General Electric, Qantas, TAB and BCF – says it has never been about having the most staff or the biggest agency, instead it has always been about a passion and desire to work “with really smart people”.

“I don’t aspire to have 400 staff or 800 or 8,000 or 80, I just liked working with really smart people and I loved being involved in the work.

“The minute you let go of the work, for me, in advertising, you get bored.”

Clemenger BBDO’s most awarded campaign, Meet Graham

Earlier in the year, Garrett also “unquestionably” won Mumbrella’s Industry Leader of the Year Award, with judges praising him for lifting “the creative reputation of Australia around the world” and being an “inspiring leader of ideas”.

Nick Garrett’s winning entry for Industry Leader of the Year

“You cannot help but be impressed by the achievements and legacy that Nick has carved during this career – making massive positive impact locally and more importantly on a global scale,” the judges said.

However, being an award-winning leader doesn’t come with out it challenges, and letting people go who “give a shit” is the “worst and crappest part of the job”, Garrett says.

“I don’t think you ever make compromises with talent. But I think you do have to make compromises for people.

“When you let someone go, whether you like them or not but you respect them, they work hard and they give a shit, they put really good energy in into the day job, you do it the right way and you try and give them as much time and as much support and look after them financially.

“But structure, people, process it’s never going to change. You pick a structure, what do you want you structure to be? And this is not an an advertising thing, this is everything and if your people don’t fit into your structure, that’s tough but you have to move on.

“If you get a structure and go that’s great, but I’m not changing my people, then how are you going to evolve? You say you change the structure, you say you change the process, but you don’t change any of the people, it’s the same people working in a different structure with a different process, it doesn’t make sense.”

The senior agency leader reflected on his time leading two, possibly soon to be three, successful agencies at Clemenger, saying every business he has walked into has been in a different stage of evolution.

“I’ve walked into three businesses now in a completely different state of evolution, in a different state to success or either on the rise or decline.

“Colenso was on the rise when I joined and everyone thought they could do no wrong, Clemenger Melbourne was a very successful advertising agency but it plateaued financially and creatively it hadn’t grown for a few years and Sydney’s having a tough time at the moment.”

Garrett won Mumbrella’s Leader of the Year Award

However, out of all the business challenges Garrett says he has faced, there is one that stands out most to him.

“The hardest thing to do is when you’ve got people convinced that they are doing it the right way and don’t want to change, again, these are’t my words but the most dangerous seven words in the world are ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’.

“So when I get nos, when I get barriers and an over-sense of confidence that they’re not making mistakes or everything is okay, I worry.

“When I’ve made my biggest mistakes it’s when my gut has told me something is wrong, and I haven’t acted on it quick enough. It happened once or twice in New Zealand when I was a young MD, it’s happened once in Melbourne,” Garrett acknowledges.

Giving advice to young talent in the industry and tomorrow’s leaders, Garrett says “you’re either entering the most exciting time the industry has ever seen in 150 odd years, but you are also definitely going to go into the most volatile period and most terrifying period.

“Not everyone is going to come out the other end well and none of us have a crystal ball. Nobody, I don’t care if they’re a global holding company CEO or a network CEO or you run Accenture, you don’t know where it’s going to roll.”

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