5 Minutes with… Chris Hirst

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The CEO of Havas Creative on getting started at a glass factory, new ways of working and learning to appreciate ‘the shadow of lost knowledge’
5 Minutes with… Chris Hirst
There’s no such thing as wasted education or experience, according to Chris Hirst. Even the stuff we forget soaks down into our brains in other ways, allowing us to ask better questions and protecting us from being taken advantage of. And the Global CEO of Havas Creative has built up quite a wealth of insight and knowledge beyond the walls of the ad industry, all of which have layered up the thoughtful and considered leader he is today. Before joining the industry, he attended a rural state school with its own working farm, studied engineering and worked in a glass factory – and these days he’s an avid reader, devouring obscure memoirs. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Chris to learn more about the man who wrote the book on ‘No Bullshit Leadership’ – and if you want to read about Chris’s views on the current coronavirus pandemic, head here


LBB> You studied engineering and ended up in advertising – how did that jump happen?

Chris> The honest reason is that at school I was quite an academic but I was also lazy. What A levels did I think require the least amount of work? The answer I came up with aged 16 was ‘pure maths, applied maths and physics’. I didn’t need to read books or remember essays, and I was quite good at maths. But that seriously limited my options when it came to a degree, so I did engineering as a consequence of that decision.

In those days it was possible to get an industry to sponsor you through university. They would give you a bursary. During my year out, whereas now kids go to Bali and Guatemala and stuff, I worked in a factory called Pilkington Glass in St. Helens. It’s a very industrial, northern town in between Manchester and Liverpool. We used to have to wear clogs because it’s a glass factory and the shards could pierce rubber soles. I did a four-year engineering degree, five years after I left school I was sure I didn’t want to be an engineer and I didn’t want to work in a factory.

I can weld, arc weld, I can wire a 415 high voltage junction… I loved it. And in fact I often think to myself that the sense of culture shock – in a good way  - was great. It was great to go from rural Northumberland to real heavy industrial northern town. We went to Spike Island to see the Stone Roses. On a 6-2 shift we’d be in the working men’s club by 2pm.

LBB> Where about in Northumberland were you from?

Chris>  I grew up in a small village in-between Newcastle and Carlise, pretty much on Hadrian’s Wall. At our school, because the catchment area of our school was so huge, we had a boarding wing. The school had a farm – you could do an agriculture O Level. It wasn’t posh; it was a real farm with pig shit everywhere and tractors. It was quite unusual.

LBB> I’m curious how the experiences going to school on a farm and working in a glass factory might have fed into your work now? Once you’ve had a chance to understand manufacturing and how things are grown and made, does it change the kind of relationships you can have with clients? 

Chris> I’m going to jump from rural Northumberland to – I’m going to say something that you can’t say without sounding pompous – when I was at Harvard. You do this incredible eight weeks. And at the end you do this week of what they call ‘re-entry’: here’s all the seven weeks of learning and then they have a week of what you do with that learning. And they used this phrase from an old 19th Century Eton headmaster to reassure us if we were worried about forgetting about all this stuff that we’d learned. “The shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions”.  And I think it is the most powerful expression of what education is really about, whether you’re learning from a factory floor or whether you learn a language. When people say ‘why’s maths important, I’m going to be an actor’. Well it’s important because it means if you learned it once you can learn it again. It gives you confidence in so many other aspects in your life to learn other things. And also it makes it so much harder to bullshit you.

The course involved accountancy – I had never studied that before, I thought it would be easy because it’s about maths. But it’s not about maths it’s about rules. And the shadow of lost knowledge protects me from many illusions. It means I’ve learned it once and it allows me to ask questions and protect myself. And that’s what studying engineering and working in a factory does. And everybody has a life experience – it’s not like mine is better than mine, it’s just why life experience is useful.


LBB> When you first came into the advertising industry, what was that experience like?

Chris> It wasn’t as much of a culture shock as going from rural Northumberland to industrial north England. I’d been to university, and the community of people I was in amongst were reasonably familiar with regards to the industry I went into. To be honest I found it quite a stressful career – not that I can say if advertising is more stressful than anything else – I found it quite stressful and I think I have enjoyed my job the more senior I’ve got. You can draw whatever conclusions you like from that. Being a junior person in an advertising agency you were pretty much a dogs body. 

That said, it didn’t bother me that much, I didn’t find that people were disrespectful. But I found it relatively meritocratic industry. I think there is an element of you get out what you put in. One of the challenges I’ve found throughout my career is that you get out what you put in, and in my opinion that’s true of pretty much everything – but the challenge with that is, and it’s why people find life quite stressful, is that there’s a baked in encouragement to work harder and later because you get that dopamine hit. Where do you draw the line? I certainly found that very difficult for a long period in my career. I think it’s good that there’s a more developed conversation in business more widely about creating more healthy environments but I don’t think it’s beholden on the individual, especially the junior individual to enforce that. Culture comes from leaders, whether that’s from your group leader, your department leader, or business leader. It’s up to them to walk the walk.


LBB> We talk a lot about work-life balance in the industry and flexibility, which a lot of people want and need, but at the same time there are those who are single-minded and like a dog with a bone, who love the late nights and long hours. How do you accommodate one without penalising the other?

Chris> I think that’s life’s rich tapestry, in a way. People are all different and that’s ok. We were talking about Coronavirus and how that will change the world. A lot of people after three months sitting at home are going to reappraise life choices - that is, for sure, happening around the world right now. I think already we were starting to have more rounded conversations about what a career is. I think a successful business and successful team is able to accommodate different types of people who different personal ambitions. Everybody doesn’t want to be thrusting, work 12 hours a day – and some people do and that’s ok. Some people want to work three days a week because the rest of the time they’ve got something else that is really important to them – it doesn’t mean they’re not a passionate member of the team, they’re trying to achieve different things. We’re at the early stages of starting to talk about that but one thing that will come from this is that it will accelerate some of those conversations.


LBB> It sounds like you’ve always been quite ambitious, though. Did you have a moment when you realised you had ambition within you?

Chris> I do think I’ve always been very ambitious. Ambitious in what we might consider to be quite an old fashioned career sense. I’ve never had a career plan and I don’t think most people do. I actually think a good way to think about it is to think about opportunity. 

If you think of opportunities like doors, the more doors you can go through, the more fulfilled and chances you have of achieving the things you want, whatever these things might be. We’ve all had the closing in feeling when we feel that our ideas are limited and limiting.

One of my solutions to that for a large part of my career was to create opportunities by just working hard, thinking, ‘if only I worked a bit harder and a bit later then something in the future will unlock for me’. There’s a lot to be said for hard work but I don’t think it’s just about hard work. I think opportunities can come in a lot of different ways and you can manufacture them for yourselves. As one example, if you learn a language, that will open a door for you – it might be someone you meet, a conversation you have or an article you read because you were able to read the language. It’s just about creating doors. 

My book’s a good example of that and that’s just opened doors in some quite unexpected ways. That’s how I think about it. Career planning is difficult but you can plan and structure and organise opportunities to open doors. It doesn’t mean you have to go through every door it opens, though.


LBB> You’ve literally written the book on leadership, did you consciously decide what kind of leader you wanted to be?

Chris> I didn’t think about it back then, but I do think more about that now. I suppose it would be strange if I didn’t, having written a book on it. The idealised version of the leader I want to be is the leader I write about in my book.  That is idealised because I don’t always achieve it and behave in a way that you ideally should. But I definitely think that’s my view on what effective leadership is. 

I do think that writing something down is useful; it’s the difference between having an instinctive feelings and thoughts, which have developed over a long time and actually writing them down on paper is that it’s an extremely clarifying process. When you write it down you think, “do I buy that? Is that bullshit?” The act of writing it down has made me a better leader. Anyone in a leadership position, the most important thing is to have a conscious point of view on what good leadership is – it doesn’t have to agree with mine. I think a lot of people in leadership positions don’t have that conscious perspective. It’s so much easier to share that with other people.

LBB> In terms of projects you been involved in, what are you proudest of?

Chris> I think the thing I’m probably proudest of is what we achieved when we joined as a leadership time at Grey London. That was a formative leadership experience for me. And it certainly wasn’t just me it was a number of people, in different ways and times. The period between 2010 and 2013 where really the agency was seen as being unfixable and I do remember the time in 2010 when we won a couple of really big pitches in succession. We won Lucozade, we won Vodafone Ireland, Sony. We would say, ‘right now we’re a better business than people outside of that business think we are’. There was that sense of energy and liberation and achievement. And potential. We knew we’d managed to get the agency out of a hole. We didn’t know where the end of that journey was going to be but there was that energy and potential. I bump into people, from time to time, who were there then and everybody who was there then talks about it as a really exciting time that everybody felt part of. 


LBB>Now you’re in a global role with Havas, has that been a big adjustment? London is quite close knit, and everybody knows everyone else, whereas now you’ve got to get your head across a multitude of different markets and situations,

Chris> That’s true… but every market is the same as that, by the way. One of the big things I’ve had to learn and am still learning over the past four years since I left Grey if you’re the CEO of a single P&O unit, everybody sits there with you. You don’t necessarily know everybody’s name but you know them, it’s one business – it’s different to leadership at a distance. 

When you find yourself in a role where you have a number of businesses and you’re not even in the same country as many of them, there’s a geographical gap, a cultural gap and experience gap that is different and definitely more difficult. Even in very tightly knit networks, they’re more like federations. They have very strong local cultures that are a function of the local leadership and the culture they’re in. That throws up a whole load of challenges from a leadership point of view, because a network is only as good as its local agencies. What is for sure is that everywhere I go it’s always the same. They’re always the same problems and the solutions are always the same. When you pick far enough into it – it’s about leadership. You either have the wrong leaders, or the right leaders doing the wrong things or they’re trying to do it in the wrong environment. We talk a lot about having the right people or wrong people. But you need to ask yourself two other questions first – are those people clear what you’re asking them to achieve and are they doing it in an environment that gives them a chance to succeed? Either they’re not clear what they have to do or they’re trying to do it in an environment that’s a mess. 


LBB> And outside of work and leadership, what do you get up to?

Chris> It’s a cheesy thing to say but I like to stay fit – I don’t do triathlons but I like to stay healthy. I’m a history geek, fascinated by history, particularly the Second World War. I love aeroplanes. I love to read obscure Second World War memoirs. There are some astonishing books written by people who have done amazing things - absolutely extraordinary books, deeply thoughtful, deeply moving books about their experience. I like history generally. I love reading. I don’t watch many films. I’m trying to become an expert in making sourdough, that’s been one of my plans over lockdown. I’m quite a determined person, if I’m not good at something I don’t always like to try it, which isn’t a good thing! 

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Havas UK, 2 months ago