Oystercatchers Club | April 2013 | Talent | Stewart Easterbrook | SMV

Oystercatchers Club | April 2013 | Talent | Stewart Easterbrook | SMV

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Stewart EasterbrookSuki Thompson: We are going to start with Stewart and one of the things about all sorts of agencies, but particularly media agencies a number of years ago was that, well, it was kind of basically full of men weren’t they? Men with knuckles grinding along the floor and rather frightening scary places. I’m looking at Steve now – I’m probably not meant to be saying this. But to me, the normal kind of training that you have been agencies, in particular, wasn’t necessarily what you wanted to do and also you wanted to try and move away from having a slightly more balanced group of people there. So maybe you could talk to us about that.

Stewart Easterbrook: Yes, sure. What we did was we had a new team in place about five years ago and I was new to the role five years ago. The background to what we were trying to do, was we were trying to not be a media agency and we wanted to be something much more rounded and relevant. We called ourselves a human experience company now, which is our terminology for it, but we just wanted to move away from being a media transactor to people who can design really compelling communications around people’s customers. So it was really with that in mind, we realised that actually, thank you for your description of media people, but we needed a very different type of talent in the business, actually. And we needed to develop people differently as well. So what we did was we took a very conscious decision to move away from training people towards creating an environment that was all about personal development. To embellish that a little bit, it was about not continuing to train people in our own likeness, and it was about attracting diversity of talent and then creating an environment that would allow it to really flourish and we use the phrase “be the best you can be.” So we went for that and it was a different and broader sort of approach than traditionally we had taken and it was, so it was a change of mindset really whereby you are saying “actually learning a foreign language or being better mum or dad might be just as important to an individual in terms of how they see their personal development as anything more specifically work related.” And what it means is you get a happier, more motivated, more positive person in the business. So that was the approach that we took. It requires real commitment because it is difficult to stand up in front of an environment in that you’ve just described and describe to people how you are going to change the company and how you’re going to develop people going forward. You’ve also got to put some oomph behind it and that comes from the top – so people like myself and Steve spend a huge amount of time and effort helping to push this right through the business. So in terms of commitment, I’ll come and give some examples in a second, but in terms of commitment last year, for example, we are a company of 500 people and we ran 675 different training sessions across the year. So that is a lot of different training sessions. So it kind of turns into about 6000 people sessions all in all, with different people attending. I thought I would just give a few examples of the breadth of the program as well if that is of interest. I will start with parenting. So we’ve got a lot of parents in the business and it is an important part of any parent’s life, a hugely important part of any parent’s life, so we’ve structured relationships with mums net and parent practice for example. We’ve set up coaching schemes for working mums, called things like setting boundaries and breathing space, which probably only working mums can relate to some of that. We run maternity days where we recent, current, or about to be mums get a chance to be sort of coached in some of the challenges that they are going to face. Dads and partners are invited to those too so we put a lot of focus on parenting. Academies – we had this sort of crazy idea around hiring a villa in France or Spain, which we did and we sent people to it for a few days in groups of 10 and really the whole thing is around helping people understand their own personal responsibilities, about their own development and how their behaviours can affect that. And how their behaviours affect the other people around them in the teams. So they are facilitated and no management attend, but people do come back and they describe that to us as life changing.

Suki Thompson: Gosh, before you go on, so on that, it must be really unusual because people must come to you, not having that kind of way of thinking about themselves before. So how do you get them to be able to understand that that is what they need to think about now?

Stewart Easterbrook: Yeah, it’s a bit, when we first did it sounded a little bit sort of beanbags and Josh sticks to be absolutely honest. But I sort of was won over by the feedback actually and really what it does is it just gives everyone some time and space, and they are facilitated sessions so there is lots of role-playing and it’s not quite the people get sort of looking down and rebuilt. But it does sort of smashes through people’s inhibitions, people share stuff about themselves with their peers in teams that they don’t normally work with. People find it actually, I get people… I don’t know personally all 500 of our members of staff unfortunately, but I get people that I don’t really know coming into my office, just to say “thank you and it has changed my life.” So they are interesting and it’s kind of a crazy idea, but it has worked really well and has become a big thing in our business actually. Graduates I think we wanted to dramatically increase our grad intake. We wanted people – no disrespect to any other agencies out there – but if we continued to only employ people who had worked in other media agencies then we were probably going to end up looking like other media agencies and, as I just said, we didn’t want to be a media agency. We wanted to be an experience company in our language. So a lot of that was getting people in from different backgrounds, but also dramatically increasing the number of grads we brought into the business. So last year, for example, we brought over 50 grads which, for a business of 500 people, is a lot. So we were really bold about how we did that. We’ve got our own sort of rotation program, like many people would, like what you would expect, which was on for three months where they get rotated around our business. I think, more interestingly, kind of looking at you with the Google thing in mind, but we’ve run brilliant schemes with the IPA and Google, which we’ve been massive supporters of and got lots and lots of grads going through those schemes so they got lots of exposed to a real, interestingly diverse set of experiences really early in their career with us, that has been really big. Don’t worry, I’ll stop in a second! The other thing, actually, we sort of consulted our staff a lot through this and 65% of these sessions are developed by and run by our staff. And we consulted them a lot about what they wanted out of a personal development approach. And we found that an enormous number of our staff were very passionate about giving something back in some way – either charitable initiatives or other sort of responsible initiatives, whereby we could help people from outside of our immediate world. And we have really gone for that. Some of that is quite close to home – we are founding sponsor of Bloom – which quite a few people in the room will be familiar with. That network, which is about supporting younger women in the communications industry. We partner with Haverstock School, which is really interesting partnerships, Gordon Camden. We provide them with 14 mentors from our business so obviously they have 14 mentees, we help them design a media Academy, we do lots of other big bits and pieces with them. If they have any rock stars they can come in and work as an intern for us for a few weeks a year. We run a digital week for Queen’s Park school last year. We built a garden in Acton and had sort of a not particularly well off housing estate next to the railway line and we turned it into a brilliant garden and build bee hives and all the rest of it. We had everybody in the company do that. So 500 people did that. Just before Christmas, we took over two charity shops with Richard House and we kind of ran a competition as to who run the charity shop best for a day, make the most money. So lots of these things and I kind of use them as examples because I hope it sort of makes real the sort of approach which is to say “lots of this isn’t specifically about training you in how to do your job. One way or another we can get that to you. This was about personal development. What you find enriching in your life.” In terms of results, we’ve got happier people. That is a fact. We survey our people twice a year and ask them all sorts of questions about how they feel about us, how they feel about themselves. Staff retention has been great, our churn rate from the start of this to now has dropped by half. We’ve got nice recognition, which is nice for people like me because you can sort of shout it from the rooftop. We’ve got Sunday Times Best companies for three years now, IPA gold for three years. One of the things I love is we’ve just got Gold accreditation from mums net as being family friendly, which is the sort of recognition that previously wouldn’t have even been on our radar. And I think the other really big result, and this is what you mentioned Suki in your opening there, is we’ve gotten a real diversity about our business that we just never had and we really believe that a diverse business is a strong business. So diversity of thought and background and gender are very relevantly in the media industry. So we’ve taken enormous efforts to make sure our gender diversity – that we are truly diverse and we just create an environment that allows the best talent to flourish. And if we do that approximately 50% of it will be female. So my last proud boast would be, we appointed three managing directors last year – all three of whom happen to be working mums. I think, go back five years or 10 years for a media business and that would have been unthinkable because it didn’t fit the media machine, the sort of flexibility that working mom would require.

Suki Thompson: I think it’s fantastic,  I’m so pleased that Stewart came to talk about it because, for me, it feels such an interesting and innovative way of running a business and you will have an opportunity to talk about that and ask some questions later. As somebody leading the businesses, does this mean you now believe the business differently?

Stewart Easterbrook: Yes. You’ve got to take all sorts of things into consideration that you previously hadn’t. So our company meetings, our company gatherings – whether in this sort of environment or informal ones we have around the office on Wednesdays, there are so many people working on flexible timings that Wednesday is the only day when we get to have everyone in. So it’s little things like that. I think in terms of my personal leadership of the business we’ve got far more personal with our people as well. Because, with working mums when we were starting we started to almost impose things that we thought were beneficial to people. And of course, when you actually sit down and talk to someone who is wanting to come back from maternity they might have some very personal requirements, very specific requirements that are very different from any other returning mums requirements. So we’ve gone out of our way to take the trouble to listen and just be flexible really.

Victoria Sinclair