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Meet the CEOs: BBDO’s Chris Willingham

Just last month, Chris Willingham (pictured) was appointed CEO of BBDO and Proximity Singapore.

In his new role, he intends to further elevate his agency’s creative profile, focusing on ingenious creativity as a means to solve all manner of client business problems.

With over 20 years’ worth of experience in the industry, Willingham shares with Marketing his management style, core beliefs and journey en route to running one of the biggest names in advertising.

Describe your management style

I think my single biggest responsibility to the business is to build and then maintain an environment that will enable our people to do the best work of their lives. I take a view that every seat at our agency is precious and we aim to have the best possible person in each position. If you put the hard work into the hiring, you then need to make sure that each person understands the agency vision – and what’s expected of them individually. Then you should just let them go for it.

Take us through your career path

I’ve spent most of my working life in London, at Saatchi & Saatchi first, then TBWA where I ran the Sony PlayStation business across Europe, and then at Fallon where I was a partner. I was fortunate enough to be at Fallon when it had a fantastic hot streak. I ran the global Sony account that produced award-winning work like ‘Balls’ and ‘Paint’ and the Cadbury business that delivered the Cannes Grand Prix winning ‘Gorilla’ for Dairy Milk chocolate.

I had a brief stint as a consultant at BBDO and Proximity Singapore in the summer of 2013, when I oversaw the SingTel ‘Hawker Heroes’ campaign with Gordon Ramsay. Then I took a step outside of advertising and ran a social media data science start-up called Starcount, as CEO of Asia, before coming back to BBDO and Proximity at the beginning of this year.

Your first job?

I started at Saatchi & Saatchi in the early 90’s, working in the production department. Saatchi London was the biggest and best agency in the world then and I was in the same building as some legends of the industry. I had just managed to work my way into account management when Maurice and Charles Saatchi were ousted from the business. Thereafter it became a fight for survival as many big names and big clients decide to follow them as they set up M&C Saatchi. But the agency did survive and I learned loads more in those difficult years, before I then moved on to TBWA, than I did in the years prior to the split.

Who was the mentor who most influenced you and why?

I’ve worked with some fantastic agency people in my time – Carl Johnson (founder of Anomaly), Johnny Hornby (founder of CHI), Robert Senior (now global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi), Michael Wall (now global CEO of Mother) – but my most influential mentor was a client: David Patton at Sony. We worked together for over 10 years and did some fantastic work together. We built up a great relationship; David allowed me access to his business, explained the problems he was trying to solve in depth, shared a lot of information, gave me introductions to all the right people – and then trusted me and the agency to deliver work that would address the commercial needs and break new creative boundaries.

Your biggest blunder in your career

There have been several. But accidentally spilling a cup of boiling hot English Breakfast tea into the lap of a senior client when I was a young account executive at Saatchi will never be forgotten! Somehow I kept my job afterwards …

When you’re not working, what will you be doing, aside from spending time with the family?

It’s not very original I’m afraid, but I love sports and music. I’m a huge Arsenal fan and whilst I can’t go to the games so often in person now, I stay up very late to watch them here in Singapore. I also love running – particularly around the Singapore Botanical Gardens – and have re-discovered a love for squash recently. As far as music is concerned, the range of acts coming to Singapore isn’t quite on the scale of London, but I make a point of seeing live music as often as I can.

Harshest thing said to you in your career

“You’ll never make CEO” – from someone who wasn’t a great CEO themselves. I’ve used it as a great incentive …

When you were a newbie in the industry, did you dream you would be CEO one day? What kind of CEO did you want to be and how closely have you stuck to it?

I’ve always dreamt of getting to the top. It’s a cliché, but you only get one career so why not dream big and give it everything you’ve got? I knew very early on that I wouldn’t – and couldn’t – lead via creating a climate of fear. I’m no push-over but I’m definitely more ‘carrot’ than ‘stick’. I like to think that I’m genuinely a ‘people-person’ and someone that anyone in the business feels they can approach with an idea or a point-of-view.

Craziest thing your staff has told you

“There’s a giant rat on your desk!”. Unfortunately it was true … London is a city full of rodents and we had a real problem at the Fallon offices that took years to solve …

One thing you would say to a newbie in the industry

Always stick to your principles and always try to do the right thing. Any damage to your integrity could have a lasting effect and curtail your career. Sometimes a short cut or a poorly thought through decision can solve an immediate problem but it may also create a long-term issue you’ll find a lot harder to deal with.

What’s the toughest thing about your job?

The buck stops with the CEO. He or she has to take the biggest decisions and have the toughest conversations. That’s mostly very empowering and something I find invigorating. But letting people go is horrible. There’s no other word for it. When the decision is made it should be done as quickly and humanely as possible. The fact that it needs to be done for the good of the company, and all the people in it, doesn’t make it easier.

One thing you hate most about the industry

I worry about the way, over the past decade or so, that many agencies have contributed to our product becoming commoditised. Work is often ‘given away’ too easily. I think the industry has lost sight of how precious its ideas are. The power of creativity can transform a clients’ business, yet often ideas are served up undercooked, like little snacks that can be nibbled on and easily discarded.

John Hegarty called it out in his book when he spoke of the tyranny of tissue meetings, letting the client choose from an array of topline ideas. Where’s the agency’s opinion? A key skill that only the best agencies seem to possess now is to understand what the client wants (including the business problem that needs to be solved) and then, using the expertise that exists within the agency, to give the client what he or she actually needs. The client’s point of view is absolutely vital of course, but if we default to it without sharing a strong opinion of our own, we seriously devalue our product and our industry.

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