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5 Minutes with… Gary Stolkin



Talking diversity, creative hotspots and nurturing leadership with the Global CEO of The Talent Business

5 Minutes with… Gary Stolkin

Forget platforms, secret algorithms and proprietary processes – the advertising industry’s most important asset is its people. That’s something that Gary Stolkin is all too aware of – he is Global CEO of The Talent Business, after all. There are eight offices around the world, a new shop in Los Angeles is imminent, and the New York office has recently quadrupled in size; there’s an appetite for visionary leaders around the world. Specialising, as he does, in C-suite level talent also gives Gary a unique perspective on where the industry is ‘at’ and where it’s going. He’s also got a view on what it needs to do to ensure that its anointed rising rock stars have what it takes to be true leaders, capable of steering their agencies through the turbulent waters of the 21st century. Basically, he’s the man you want to talk to if you want to get your head round the big picture. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with him to pick his brains about… well… everything.


LBB> Before you got involved in the advertising and marketing industries, I understand you were a banker? How and why did you make the move?

GS> I got an offer to be a grad trainee at Rothschild’s when I did the milk round [UK term for companies scouring universities for graduates]. All my friends wanted to go into investment banking or management consultancy. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I applied to both and ended up at Rothschild’s. They loved that I was a bet settler at Ladbrokes during my university holidays. 

When you’re offered the job that every grad would kill for, you take it, but I knew from day one that investment banking was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. Luckily I had a friend who ended up at Saatchi & Saatchi. That’s how I discovered the creative world and launched my agency career.


LBB> You’ve got an incomparable connection with the ad industry’s top CCOs and CEOs, as well as brand CMOs. What are your tips for building and nurturing a top network of professional contacts? I guess advertising is one of those industries where professional contacts often blur into personal friendships – can that be an issue or is it only a positive thing?

GS> Firstly, what I do is to some extent a generational business. When you’ve been doing it for as long as I have, a lot of the people who were relatively junior when you started are now running offices, regions or global brands. The second thing is that reputation is everything and if you’ve done the right thing by people over the years, when they end up in a leadership role, they’re more likely to seek your counsel. All those times that you gave somebody advice that wasn’t self-serving and wasn’t driven by your own agenda builds the trust. It’s also all those times you respected a confidence. Too many headhunters just sell hard. There’s no objectivity and gossip is often their currency. 

Actually, my professional contacts have rarely evolved into personal friendships, so that conflict doesn’t really arise. I’m a bit weird about the line between professional and personal. When anybody at The Talent Business says, ‘the client loves me’, my stock reply is, ‘but do they respect you?’. Of course if they like you and respect you, that’s great, but respect has to be earned and has to come first.


LBB> With eight, soon to be nine, offices the travel you do must be incredible! Which countries are particularly exciting right now for creative talent?

GS> I spend a week in New York pretty well every month and I’ll do another trip each month to Asia, the Middle East, Latin America or elsewhere in the US. I’m also somewhere in continental Europe each week. I’m lucky because I rarely get jet lag and I’m a great sleeper.  

I don’t think the world has ever been so fluid in terms of where exciting creative talent is going to. With growth for multi-national agencies and brand owners coming primarily from emerging markets, countries that might have been career cul-de-sacs ten years ago are increasingly markets where up and coming talent can get a platform to make their name. Dubai, for example, is somewhere that’s attracting better talent and where there’s more ambition for the work. I also think that creative talent is often motivated by the employer’s brand rather than market or geography. So Apple is an exciting prospect for creative talent wherever it hires in the world.

If you’re asking which countries are producing the most exciting creative talent, a lot is still nurtured in the US and the UK. The ‘creative tech’ talent emerging in California is awesome. Brazil is going to be a major exporter of some brilliant creative talent as the recession bites there and Brazilians look at opportunities in the US, Europe and Asia.


LBB> Speaking of Brazil, I’ve heard you spend a lot of time in Brazil – in Rio and Sao Paulo. What are your favourite spots in the country and why? 

GS> Actually, I spend a lot less time in Brazil than I used to. Back in 2009-13 there was so much optimism in Brazil and our Sao Paulo office couldn’t cope with the volume of searches that we were being asked to handle. Since 2014 the country has slid into what is now their worst depression for 25 years. Inflation is over 10 per cent and the currency has devalued by 150 per cent in two years.  

It’s heart-breaking to see a country’s hopes and expectations dashed. Emotionally, it’s like being thrashed 7-1 by Germany every day of the week. We’re keeping our office in Sao Paulo because it services all of Latin America and we have a fantastic MD. I want to make sure that we’re there to capitalise on our experience in the market when things pick up.

As far as my favourite spots are concerned, anywhere that you find Brazilians is a favourite place for me. Give them a couple of limes and they’ll throw you a party.


LBB> And how do you think the upcoming Olympics are going to impact the local ad industry?

GS> The impact of the Olympics has largely been felt because all the planning has been done and the media has been bought. For the national self-esteem, it’s really important that they pull it off. If they don’t, it will further undermine international confidence in the country.


LBB> You’re about to open a new Talent Business office in Los Angeles. We’ve been hearing a lot about New Yorkers moving to the West Coast and the city is a hotbed of interesting indies… How do you view the changes in the LA ad industry? And could you see the city mounting a real challenge to New York as the US capital of advertising?

GS> I think more Brits are going to the West Coast than New Yorkers! There’s no question in my mind that the proximity to Silicon Valley and Hollywood gives LA a head start when it comes to branded content and branded entertainment. It’s evident from the number of content-driven agencies on the West Coast and the work that they’re doing. 

I could imagine LA mounting a real challenge as the global capital of creativity (not just the US) in a few years’ time, but it won’t be advertising as we know it today. I don’t see how we cannot be there, given the ‘creative tech’ brand owners on the West Coast that we’re partnering and their future talent needs.


LBB> The issue of diversity, particularly in leadership roles, is something you’ve spoken about and looks like a real passion of yours…

GS> Yes, I have spoken and written about it. The conundrum for me is that there is a real shortage of effective leaders in creative businesses – from CEOs to CCOs – and yet the pool of talent from which these leaders emerge is still predominantly white and male, certainly as far as the creative agency space is concerned in most of the developed markets. 

I do think it is changing but it requires a cultural shift in many corporations in tandem with a cultural shift in society that gives young women the confidence to have greater expectations. I often say that when I have been pitching a leadership role to candidates, I have never once had a male candidate ask me whether I think he’s ready for it, whereas I regularly have women who are more than qualified to step-up asking me whether I really believe that they can do it. Of course the lack of diversity goes well beyond women, but this is the most obvious missed opportunity in a world that’s short of great business leaders.


LBB> The lack of senior women in leadership seems to be particularly acute in creative roles compared with, say, strategists. And it also seems to affect creative agencies more severely than media agencies. Given that there isn’t a lack of female creatives at junior levels… it looks like the ‘glass ceiling’ is disproportionately shatterproof in creative departments. Do you agree? If so, why do you think this is? And what can be done about it?

GS> I’m not sure why, for example, there are more female global CEOs in the media space than in the creative agency space (where there are none). There may be some nuancing around media agency cultures which I haven’t managed to decipher. 

One possibility that colleagues of mine have voiced is that it’s easier to take time out to have a family and then resume a media agency career without there being perceptual issues around being ‘current’. You’re absolutely right about the apparent ‘glass ceiling’ in creative roles and this has been reflected in awards juries and seems to be self-perpetuating. 

It’s ironic, when you think that the vast majority of consumer purchasing decisions are made by women – even those ostensibly made by men. And in some markets the majority of senior clients are women. Our experience at The Talent Business, looking at the developed markets, is that there are more female creatives at the mid-level in agency creative departments but they’re not being promoted into leadership roles. Some of these women will have taken time out to have children and I do think that a number of agencies don’t enable women returning to work to resume the career trajectory they were on prior to taking maternity leave. This is true across all disciplines but is more pronounced in creative. 

There’s an argument that says that being ‘current’ is more important in creative than any other discipline, and a few years out in creative is therefore a bigger perceptual issue. 

At the end of the day, I think creative is probably more of a boys’ club and if you’re not in the bar at the end of the day and if you’re not able to jump on a plane for a shoot in South Africa at short notice, you’re not going to be in the line of sight for promotion into a leadership role. There’s no doubt that some very talented women don’t push for these roles because they don’t want the 24/7 responsibility that goes with them, but this really shouldn’t be the case. Agencies need to change so that women can fulfil their potential in these roles.


LBB> The other side of diversity – and one that I feel doesn’t get the same attention as the lack of women – is social mobility. By and large the ad industry is very middle class and as rents in advertising’s capital cities shoot up and entry salaries stay low, it can only get harder for young people from different backgrounds to get a foot in the door. Leaders today who are in their middle age or older – and leaders of the past – quite often came from less well off or unusual backgrounds. So… I’m guessing the pool of future leaders is becoming more homogenised. Well, that’s my theory… but what are your thoughts? Do agencies need to work harder to make sure they’ve got more interesting leaders to choose from in the future?

GS> I think there’s less social mobility in the UK now than there was when I started work in the eighties. The dual impact of student loans and the recession mean that on the one hand, graduates can’t afford to leave home, whilst on the other hand, many employers feel that they’re in a position to ask graduates to undertake lengthy internships before they’ll pay them more than their bus fare.  As a result, it’s the kids from middle class families who can afford to do lengthy internships that are better placed to get their foot on the ladder of an agency career. It’s bad for the industry and it’s not much different in the US.


LBB> You’ve also spoken about the fact that agencies often assume that brilliant practitioner = brilliant leader. What can they do to find and develop future leaders?

GS> It’s a global phenomenon that agencies don’t prepare creatives and strategists to step into leadership roles.  The natural career path in client service is to gradually run bigger teams and to take more commercial and P+L responsibility, so the career path in client service does, to some extent, prepare individuals for a leadership role and enables them to demonstrate their leadership potential.

In creative and strategy, however, you may well be a brilliant practitioner or craftsman who has never had more than a couple of direct reports when you’re propelled into a leadership role that could involve managing a department of forty or more people, with all the commercial and operational responsibility that goes with this, fronting the agency on pitches and on platforms, sitting in an executive management team, with almost no preparation at all.  Agencies need to get much better at preparing the next generation of leaders for these roles.  It’s about setting people up for success.


LBB> And are the qualities that make a great leader something that can be taught or nurtured? Or is that ‘X Factor’ more innate?

GS> I think the point about whether the qualities that make a great leader can be taught or nurtured is that they can be, however not everybody can learn them.  So when agencies assess their outstanding practitioners, they need to identify those who have the potential to be developed into leaders. 

If the key attributes of a great leader are self-awareness, emotional intelligence and decisiveness, you can observe the behaviour of your most talented practitioners and assess whether they have the potential to develop these attributes – and I do believe they can be taught, but not to everyone.  So, for example, if a brilliant practitioner is the type of person who defines success on the basis of a narrow personal agenda, if they find collaborating a chore and don’t value relationships, and if they hate making decisions, they may not have the potential to be coached on self-awareness, emotional intelligence and decisiveness.   Their career path may well be as a highly paid, brilliant practitioner, but not as a leader.



LBB> I can’t quite decide whether you’re a consigliere to the capos of the industry… or more of an Obi Wan Kenobi figure (Ewan MacGregor rather than Alec Guinness if you’d prefer!) – how do you characterise where you sit in the industry?

GS> Definitely not a consigliere.  There are firms in this space who position themselves as the power behind the throne.  It’s a veiled threat that if you don’t do business with them, they have the ear of important people and they may block you at some stage in the future.  The way some people operate is pretty toxic. 

I’d like to characterise myself and The Talent Business as a key strategic partner that delivers unmatched expertise and absolute integrity.  Creative businesses are special.  It’s a cliché but their people are their asset and they will most likely succeed or fail on the basis of the quality of their leadership and their senior people.  I don’t think anybody knows more about what it takes to construct a successful leadership team or more about the senior talent in this space globally than The Talent Business. 


LBB> So. Let’s talk pitches. As an off shoot to the main talent side of the business, you also pair brands and agencies. How is the Talent Business’s approach different to the more traditional pitch process?

GS> We kind of fell into the world of agency reviews and pitch consultancy.  As we started to grow our global client-side marketing practice, placing senior marketers, primarily in businesses that leverage creativity for commercial edge, the CMOs we were partnering recognised that we have a unique global perspective on agencies’ leadership, cultures, offerings and capabilities.  They’d start to ask us to recommend agencies.  For example, they’d say that they were going to need a new digital agency in SE Asia and could I ask our MD in Singapore who he’d recommend. 

It got to the point where we were giving away our IP and intel, so I took the decision that we would charge for this and that’s how we got into the pitch consultancy business.  We primarily work on reviews that have an international perspective, because this is where our global footprint and expertise really come into its own.  Most pitch consultants say they’re global but they don’t have teams on the ground in the key markets around the world.  It’s not our core business but like everything that we do, it all comes back to talent.


LBB> One of your success stories is putting Volvo together with Grey. They won tonnes of awards for Volvo Live Paint. How did that happen – and why do you think it’s been such a successful relationship?

GS> Yes, I personally led the global Volvo cars pitch with the MD of our Berlin office, but I wouldn’t say that we ‘put them together’ as such.  We ran an objective, competency based process and my ambition in an agency review process is to give every participating agency the best opportunity to fulfil their potential.  You want everyone to be as good as they possibly can be.  

Grey won the pitch and Volvo and Grey went on to win a Grand Prix at Cannes the following year.  I’m not in a position to talk about the pitch process but clearly it’s unusual, if not unique, for a brand owner and their new agency partner to go on to win a Grand Prix at Cannes just eighteen months after the agency was appointed.


LBB> I can imagine that you don’t get too much down time – but outside of work, what are your big passions and pastimes?

GS> Honestly, my ideal downtime is a comfy sun lounger on a sandy beach, 30 degrees and clear blue skies. 


LBB> Who are your heroes and why?

GS> I hate this type of question, because I don’t want to sound pretentious, but probably Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln, because they were agents of social change and political reform.  They transformed the world for good.  But, frankly, anybody who gave up their cosy existence to go to Syria or some Greek Island and work as a volunteer to help Syrian refugees.


LBB> I’ve read that, as well as running a huge global business you’re also a magistrate. Is that true? Is that something you still do? What is that experience like?

GS> I am still a magistrate but I’m currently on sabbatical after fifteen years on the Bench.  When I’m sitting, it’s only a day a month.  As most acquisitive crime is drugs related, it has certainly exposed me to social issues and a side of life that I would probably not have encountered in my day job.

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The Talent Business, Wed, 20 Jan 2016 18:01:34 GMT