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‘With the right agency culture, time is irrelevant’: CHEP’s Chris Howatson on working smart

Before his session at Mumbrella's neXt conference, CHE Proximity's 35-year-old CEO, Chris Howatson, talks to Ruby Feneley about defying convention, flexible hours and staring down fear.

It’s the first 28-degree day of spring and I’m at CHE Proximity, down on the pier in Walsh Bay, Sydney.  The office cantilevers over the harbour, floor-to-ceiling windows offering three-sixty views of glittering hard blue ocean. It’s enough to make the most jaded Sydneysider catch their breath. Above us soar the high arches of the upper floors- black and skeletal like a ship’s rigging. Chris Howatson, who considered studying architecture at university before switching to advertising, is showing me around with pride.

Chris Howatson will be lifting the hood on his career at Mumbrella neXt.

New to the industry, I’ve heard Chris Howatson’s name dropped enviously in conversations everywhere. Starting as a ‘work experience kid,’ at Clemenger Brisbane, Howatson worked his way across the Clemenger organisation before taking over CHE Proximity at the tender age of 27. His restructure has been incredibly successful. At 35, he is now the CEO of CHEP, an organisation he is credited with resurrecting from the brink. On top of these early successes, he’s earned a reputation as one of the industry’s most forward-thinking employers and innovative leaders. Which is what brings me to CHEP today, to find out how those starting their careers in advertising can be a little bit more like him.

Howatson fell in love with advertising while still at Griffith University. He didn’t know much about the industry (he grew up in the pre-Mad Men era of television where the Secret Life of Us and doctor-led dramas ruled television screens), but he was studying commerce and psychology and contemplating a marketing major. When he started work experience at Clemenger on his cousin’s recommendation, he was immediately enthralled by the mix of young, energetic and creative people – all working for the same cause.

“There’s a consistent truth about agencies, especially if you’re working for a good one. Everyone is there for a single purpose, and that’s to do the best work they can for the client. Whether it’s 9 o’clock in the morning or 9’o’clock at night, if you’re in the right agency culture, time is irrelevant.” 

These dual prerogatives of client service and the plasticity of time come up repeatedly in conversation with Howatson. His commitment to delivering to clients transparently and his desire to achieve work-life balance for his staff have been integral to the fiscal and cultural success of CHEP.

Much has been made over the years of the erratic hours agencies keep. Studies into mental health in the industry are negative enough to cause serious consternation for those contemplating careers there. The 2018 Mentally Healthy study found that one in five media industry staffers displayed severe to extremely severe symptoms of depression, and levels of anxiety are 29% higher than the national average. Creative sectors were by far the worst.

Sales is inherently competitive and when the success of your enterprise rides on the marketability of your creativity and intellect, the pressure is immense. In my early twenties, I worked in retail sales. I had minimal emotional investment in the products I was selling and the company I worked for did not award individual bonuses. Despite this, the performance tracker behind point of sale held a hypnotic lure for many of the staff. I remember a  manager cheerfully noting in an annual review that she never had to talk to me about numbers “because I’ll never be as hard on you as you are on yourself”. 

People make noises when reports come out about easing the workload on advertisers and implementing strategies for changing the culture. But asking ambitious people not to put pressure on themselves is difficult, and asking ambitious creative people not to do so ignores fundamental truths about human nature. Howatson uses the example of a 2am creative meeting. He was ready to sign off on the project, he considered it ready to take to market. However, despite the hour, the team wanted to keep making adjustments. Howatson was proud of their work ethic. “It wasn’t anything I’d done, it was their own efficacy and wanting to do the best work for the client.”

Howatson has found that one solution to these uncomfortable truths about agency life is flexible working arrangements. Unsurprisingly, the Mentally Healthy report found that low job satisfaction was the single biggest factor contributing to anxiety and depression. Interestingly, job satisfaction didn’t equate to ping pong tables, or an office full of dogs. Instead, it meant having a variety of tasks, the opportunity to learn new things and “decision authority” when it came to how and when you work. For Howatson, workplace flexibility is critical. “Technology has made us expect that work flexes into our lives, if it’s going to push that way, it has to push the other way.”

Howatson noticed when CHEP began implementing 4:5 working weeks for new parents that office time could be used more productively: “You would have new mums coming in, and doing a full-time job in four days. They would be working till 10pm Monday-Thursday and when Fridays came around, their colleagues would chill and go to the pub.”  It wasn’t fair, and he could see the new parents were using their time more efficiently. So now they offer the same flexibility to everyone. Occasional 2am creative sessions are part of the gig, if that means staff need to go to the dentist, teach yoga and pilates, surf, or just sleep in they’re welcome to. It’s a move away from the David Brent era jacket-on-the-back-of-the-desk attitude that prioritizes physical, rather than mental, presence in an organization.

Talking to Chris about this, it strikes me that the secret to being a good boss isn’t sitting on a chair backward and talking to your employees about their plans for the weekend. It’s having a deep and detailed enough understanding of their role, and how it fits within the organization, to address problems and offer tangible solutions. Howatson notes, “We’ve only ever been run by the same three people, so that means there’s consistency.”  It’s this stable leadership and organizational memory that Howatson credits Clemenger’s strong culture with. And while many advertisers will shop around for positions during a career, Howatson says there’s a countertrend for sticking with the same company. The risk, he suggests, of jumping for a quick pay rise is that you’ll miss out on the depth of development and the confidence of learning an organization from the ground up. “At the better agencies, you will find there’s a surprising level of stability at the top.” 

So, how can new recruits get, and keep jobs at great agencies? “Some people show up in an interview, and their point of view is ‘I’m keen, I want to be here, just let me in and I’ll do my best.’ And then there’s another sort who wants to know what their job is going to be every second of the day, they want a contract and a job description that outlines specifically what they do and what they don’t do. And unfortunately, there’s not a lot of room for the latter. Because things change. And the thing I love about change is that there’s always an opportunity there. If nothing ever changes, it’s just 1950, and you come to work every day, and then, if someone dies in the position above you, you might be considered for a promotion. Whereas there’s probably no greater example than me and my age, and what’s possible if you just really work hard and try to find opportunities. One of the greatest things about our industry is it’s a real meritocracy.”

The one truth of that meritocracy though is that the client’s needs will always dictate the nature of the work, and the client’s needs are changing rapidly. This is one of the reasons CHEP has quarterly, rather than yearly reviews. As economist Milton Freeman noted, the only certainty for jobs in the future is that “human wants and needs are infinite.” As Howatson has learned, are clients.

Asked what future leaders should be focusing on when they’re showing up for work Howatson is reflective. “The boring answer, of course, is transformation.” The challenge of transformation, however, he notes, is confidence, and it’s something the industry bleeds. “Human beings can do anything when they are confident, and you can smell it when people aren’t. And a lot of our industry is turning up fearful – fearful of consultants, fearful of clients not paying them enough, fearful of the pitch. We need to return to a state of confidence in what we do. There’s a lot of evidence for the efficacy of what we do, and the efficacy of the industry. So, it’s time to stop the negative chat.” 

Howatson refers to the “hideous” behaviour you see in trade-news where advertisers leap to tear other advertisers down, and a barrage of negative press releases herald the “death” of this and that trend. He concedes that when he was starting out he probably even penned some of them, but as he’s matured in the business he’s made a concerted effort to win on positivity. Positivity, Howatson says, is one way junior people can make themselves “magnetic” in agencies. 

“What we do every day is hard enough as it is.” One thing advertisers do every day is manage risk. Howatson sites Clemenger group exec Robert Morgan in saying “you can pursue certainty, or manage risk” – some big agencies are happy to pursue certainty and sit in the middle, Howatson says, but most agencies want growth and growth means risks. He notes that when he started at CHE the company wasn’t making money and data and tech were lepers in the industry. People thought he was insane for stretching the budget, now data and tech are second nature to most agencies, and CHEP is doubling down, investing in Augmented and Virtual Reality with their new Mixed Reality division.  “What I learned was that everything can be undone, if it doesn’t work, you just fix it.”

Chris Howatson will be speaking at Mumbrella neXt. Mumbrella neXt is a half-day conference dedicated to the development, growth and investment in the next stars of the media and marketing industry. It features some of the best-known senior leaders as they arm attendees with the skills they need to fast track their careers. Tickets can be purchased here.

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