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5 Minutes with... Nick Lawton


Five by Five Global’s CEO reflects on developing his own leadership style, the importance of independence, and the secret to keeping calm under pressure

5 Minutes with... Nick Lawton

No path to leadership is ever really the same. For Five by Five Global’s Nick Lawton, it leads from his hometown of Southampton in the UK, through Birmingham (where he studied French at University), before winding through Southeast Asia, New Zealand, four months in the islands of Vanuatu, Australia, South America, then back to Southampton. Give or take a year in London.

These days, Nick finds himself in a number of places at once. Five by Five, the company he leads as CEO, runs from branches in Southampton, London, Los Angeles, and Sydney. Having taken over the business from his father, Nick has set about making his mark on the independent creative agency, as well as developing his own leadership style.

To pick through his career and role at Five by Five, LBB spoke exclusively to Nick... 

LBB > Take us back to the beginning. Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? 

Nick > I grew up in Southampton. My brother Matt and I were, and still are, sport mad. We both played rugby, football, hockey, cricket, and basketball for our school teams. We also played club football on the weekends and any free time we had left we spent kicking a ball around. We were fiercely competitive no matter what we played. Most summer holidays were spent at our local golf course and most days would end in a fall out, where all golfing etiquette went out the window! Team and individual sports teach you so much. Winning and losing, giving everything or not giving everything, the highs and the lows. 

Duelling with your older brother also teaches you a lot! We were really close as kids, then argued and fought for a few of our early teenage years and then became close again. We're different characters, but are still very close, despite living on opposite sides of the world. We had a great upbringing, we went to a nice school and lived in a lovely house. Everything was pretty easy for us, but Mum and Dad brought us up with strong family values and made sure we understood the value of money.

LBB > Growing up, how obvious was it to you (given your Dad’s work) that you’d end up in this industry?

Nick > I had a day's work experience in the office when I was about 14. 12 hours of tearing out press ads to send to clients to prove their campaign had run. Black hands, torn to ribbons with paper cuts and at the end of it, Dad gave me a tenner. I vowed never to work for him again! Looking back, he probably didn't have to give me anything. Like many of the early jobs I did to earn money; security guard, cleaner, cold caller to name a few, they all made me realise what I didn't want to spend my life doing. To be honest, I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do, all I knew was I was good at building relationships. 

From a young age, Dad would talk about the business around the dinner table and tell us how important his clients were and even more critically, how important his employees were. I was always very proud of what he had built, but it wasn't until I worked closely with two Aussie guys in Sydney, who founded and ran their agency, that I realised just how big an achievement it was for Dad to have built such a strong business from nothing. It clicked for me then, really, and I decided to return to the UK. Dad hadn't put any pressure on my brother and me, he would have sold the business if neither Matt nor I were interested in joining. Matt was doing an MBA in Melbourne and I remember the day we sat in his kitchen and talked about what we wanted to achieve with the agency. Almost 17 years on, we're not there yet, but we're not far off! We did about an 18-month transition with Dad before he retired, stepped back and left us to it.

LBB > Would you say that you have a ‘leadership style’. How would you define it, if so?

Nick > When I joined the business in 2004, I was 29 and had limited leadership experience. Dad had done it his way for 26 years and the agency knew what to expect. The biggest challenge for me was getting comfortable doing it my way. Dad and I are different characters and have different opinions on leadership and very different styles. He taught me some key principles, which I took forward, but I eventually became comfortable in my own skin, stopped second-guessing myself and others and embraced the way I wanted to do it. It sounds a simple thing, not to be something you're not, but being yourself at work, leading lots of people with plenty more experience than you, is actually quite hard! 

What I love about my job is just when you think you've seen it all and been through every scenario, something else appears from nowhere to turn everything upside down. No two days are the same, but my leadership style remains consistent and consistency is extremely important. My team knows how I will make a decision, giving them confidence before knowing what the decision might be. 

Clarity is also extremely important and again breeds confidence. Keeping things simple and communicating expectations clearly makes sure everyone knows where they stand and what they need to do. It enables my leadership team to make decisions without fear of failure and the power of that cannot be underestimated. It keeps us nimble and moving, hopefully, in the right direction! As I say to the guys, we just need to get more decisions right than wrong and we won't be far off. We're close as a team, we trust each other and are aligned behind our vision for the agency. I guess caring about each other and compassion embody the family values that run through the business and compassion is probably the final 'aspect', if that's the right word, of my leadership style.

LBB > And how much of that is learned rather than natural?

Nick > Some of it is nature and some nurture for sure. I've definitely worked on my consistency and why and how I communicate when giving clarity to people. Setting goals and expectations, providing feedback, the continual effort needed to help your team grow and develop, are all skills you gain through experience. The compassion with which you do it, is definitely in you or it isn't. That's not something you can manufacture with any kind of authenticity.

LBB > Over the course of your time at Five by Five, has there been a defining moment that’s proven especially significant in your development as a company?

Nick > In 41 years there have been many defining moments, as you can imagine, from landmark client wins to office openings across the world to at least 10 different weddings of people who met in the office! My brother and I broke one of dad's golden rules, both meeting our wives at the agency. So there have been lots of happy times that have been pivotal to our success. 

Likewise, some extremely sad times have impacted our development, none more so than losing my right-hand man, friend and mentor, two years ago to cancer. He was a legend. I worked closely with him for 11 years and he taught me a huge amount. I miss him greatly and often find myself sense checking a decision by asking myself what he would think. 

Our industry is full of unbelievable highs and some crushing lows, which is probably what makes it so great to be a part of.

LBB > Five by Five has always been a proudly independent agency. What does independence mean to you, and what practical benefits does it bring to your work?

Nick > Independence means we're masters of our own destiny. On a practical level, it drives pace as we're able to make decisions and implement them quickly. It provides freedom to be longer term in our thinking. A rock-solid balance sheet also enables that. Commercially, there aren't any central costs being ripped out of the business back to a faceless mothership somewhere, so everyone in the business gets to share in our success.

LBB > You took some time out of working in the industry to travel around New Zealand and South America. How did your approach to work change when you came back? 

Nick > Before getting to Australia I spent a year travelling Southeast Asia as well. I was then lucky enough to travel for a year on my way back to the UK, after three years in Australia. Four months in NZ, four months sailing around the islands of Vanuatu and four months in South America definitely teach you a lot about yourself and other people. The biggest thing I brought back to work with me was calmness under pressure. Plenty of scrapes on the ocean and in hostile, remote places makes you realise that no matter how bad and scary the situation is, you always come out the back of it and everything is normally ok. 

LBB > 2020 has, for many, been a tough year - but what’s been keeping you inspired throughout it? 

Nick > I appreciate this sounds cliche, but our people have blown me away over the last seven months. We made some tough decisions at the end of March and everyone in the business backed them. Without everyone working their arses off under really difficult circumstances, we wouldn't be where we are now. My brother and his team are even having a record year in Australia and our LA team the same. It's remarkable and I am humbled by their achievements. 

My kids' resilience and ability to just crack on with stuff has also amazed me. Of course it's been tough for them and weird, but they haven't dwelt on it. This lockdown is a bit easier as they are still at school and able to see their friends there, but they have simply just embraced the new normal. 

My wife started her business seven years ago and specialises in the film and travel sectors. Her tenacity to do the ultimate pivot has reached new heights this year. Again, no chance of feeling sorry for herself she has hustled out a successful new beginning and continues to astound and inspire me.

LBB > Finally, if you’d never gone into marketing and comms, what do you think you’d be doing today?

Nick > I never know what to say when asked that. I'd love to say a professional sportsman, but I was never good enough at any of the sports I played. Maybe a marriage guidance counsellor! Not because I'm an authority on married life, but I'm good at listening to both sides of a story and finding a way through.

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Five by Five UK, Thu, 12 Nov 2020 14:34:13 GMT