Bossing It in association withLBB Pro

Bossing It: Crafting Good Cultures with Mike Larmer and Joseph Silk

Marketing & PR
Auckland, New Zealand
Chemistry director's on learning to lead together, coming back from failure and the importance of 'culture eating strategy'

Mike Larmer is one of the most experienced agency leaders in New Zealand today with a multi-award-winning career spanning 30 years in both the UK and New Zealand. 

Mike started life as part of the London team of direct marketers who created WWAV Rapp Collins which grew into UK Campaign Magazine’s Direct Agency brand of the decade. Mike became MD for over five years, winning numerous domestic and international accolades.

In 2012, Mike left to set up Chemistry with Joseph Silk, ex GM of Wunderman NZ, Susan Young and Pat Murphy, both creative directors at Rapp NZ. 

Joseph Silk is a well-known industry name having spent his 28 year career working in some of New Zealand’s best agencies including Ogilvy & Mather, RBR, Aim, FCB and Y&R/Wunderman.

In 2012 his client base formed one of the foundation stones in starting Chemistry with Mike Larmer.

Joseph is a locally and globally awarded strategist and a past tutor of the Marketing Association Direct Marketing course. Joseph has also been a NZ DM Awards judge for the past 16 years and is a past member of the Marketing Association’s Agency Council.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Mike Larmer> Having worked in Agencies all my life - Leadership tends to come early as it’s a young person’s industry which as I now know is not always a good thing. I remember in my first Agency I was promoted to account director at the tender age of 25 and made responsible for two very young account manager direct reports. I was terrified – I had no clue what to do with them poor buggers

Joseph Silk> My first real leadership role was at the age of 18 when fresh out of secondary school, I was the coach of my old Senior A Water Polo team and took them to the Auckland, North Island and National championship titles.

LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?

Mike Larmer> I got lucky. I had been blessed with two bosses, one of whom saw fit to throw me into the deep end and promote me. They were amazingly talented and inspirational women and we all worked in an agency culture full of talented people – it gave me a good grounding and I started to copy all that I had experienced myself. I guess I just copied all the good bits and tried to refrain from the things I disagreed with. 

Joseph Silk> I have worked at both big and small agencies as my career has progressed, and at each one, I watched the leaders very closely. My semi-conscious plan was to understand their leadership style and cherry-pick the attributes that most appealed to me and seemed to get the best results from those around me.

LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?

Mike Larmer> A few years into agency life I got promoted ahead of my immediate peers who all then reported into me overnight and that was totally awkward. That is when I realised that leading people is not a one size fits all process – you need to learn what different personalities require to get the best out of everyone.

Joseph Silk> In a previous senior role at a multinational agency my division was doing quite well but because the wider agency had a number to meet, I was forced to make redundancies in my team. I think that was the moment I decided I needed to be the master of my own destiny.


LBB> Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?

Mike Larmer> I don’t think many people really set out to be a leader, well not the people I have ever met – it tends to be something that comes with the turf as you advance in your chosen career or profession or a situation you find yourself in. Whether you are in a start up, running a café or managing a team of 500 in a big corporation, leadership becomes something you realise you need to be good at as part of your role. It’s true some people are naturally born leaders – but with the right tools, learned behaviours and attitude I strongly believe anyone can be taught how to become a half-decent leader. It just takes work, self-awareness, and an open mind. 

Joseph Silk> I don’t know that I have always specifically chased leadership, it has just kind of come naturally. I’ve always felt most comfortable when helping other people succeed and to me, that is one of the key criteria of good leadership. 

LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?

Mike Larmer> In my experience, Leadership is 100% a skill that can be taught and learned. Like anything in life, some people are blessed with a natural aptitude for it, some people enjoy it, and some people dislike it intensely. 

Joseph Silk> Tough question. For me, it has always been very natural. I’m not one for over-intellectualising things as I struggle with all the self-help books and courses out there. In saying that, if someone has the potential to be a leader then I really do think they can be trained, so long as they have a good mentor(s).

LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?

Mike Larmer> I kind of know this. I have been lucky enough to have my leadership techniques evaluated over the years. One of my challenges is that there is always too much to do and never enough time to do it. Distractions, emergencies and new opportunities pull me in a lot of different directions. So one leadership challenge I face is having a tough time following through on the plans, ideas and strategies I work to put in place. Now I am older I am always looking to work on this to improve. Having a great team and business partner helps to compensate for this weakness. 

Joseph Silk> Like most people, I don’t like conflict, I’ll avoid it if possible. In saying that I have had to handle some challenging moments over the last 10 years. Restructures and redundancies are the worst moments for a leader as the people it affects often don’t see it coming so there are some pretty tough conversations to be had. My goal in these situations is to always end on good terms. Auckland is a very small place and someone you make redundant today could be your client in a few years’ time.

LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?

Mike Larmer> I have failed loads of times – it’s the best way to learn. Part of leadership is protecting the team from poor decisions from higher up or adverse external forces. One example I remember was at a time in my life when I had an inexperienced boss and I allowed him to inadvertently compromise a senior client relationship so that we lost the business. It was costly for the agency, jobs went, and I often think that if I had behaved differently could things have turned out differently. I learned to have more trust in my instincts and not to shy away from the more difficult decisions with perceived more powerful or senior people. 

Joseph Silk> I have felt like I’ve failed many times over my career. I think anyone in a leadership role will fail at some point, it’s inevitable. They will either fail themselves or others. Sometimes it’s an internal thing, you just feel like you have failed. And sometimes it’s external, everyone can see you have failed, or your failure has impacted others. 

In my opinion, the most important thing is how you react to failure. People are looking to you when things don’t go quite right, they want their leader to lead and to find the solution. When faced with something that hasn’t gone to plan that old English saying springs to mind – Keep Calm and Carry On.

LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?

Mike Larmer> I personally think people always prefer to know the truth and so a clear and direct approach is 100% the best policy. It is usually seen as refreshing and motivating in preference to cryptic corporate leadership speak which we have all experienced. I am convinced too much of the latter is totally the reason why we now have authenticity as a key verb in the lexicon of how we should all behave as leaders. 

Joseph Silk> I believe being as transparent as possible leads to being authentic, believable and someone others can follow. But I think, at times, you need to be both. People don’t need to know everything, sometimes oversharing is worse than under sharing. Running a business is tough and good leaders know what to share to keep everyone motivated and on the right track, and for that matter, what not to share.

LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so, who were/are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?

Mike Larmer> At some key points in my career, I have been blessed with some great bosses who were powerful leaders and amazing mentors who also understood the value of proper leadership training for their SLTs. As a result, I am lucky in that I have been exposed to some world-class leadership training and have had great role models to emulate. I have had some poor ones too and they are helpful role models for all the things one should try to avoid as a leader honing one’s skills. At the agency, we do try and proactively create a learning environment with a strong focus on mentoring our up-and-coming leaders. We also invest in the external teams and individual profiling to learn about themselves.

Joseph Silk> I’ve never had one mentor, I can honestly say that I’ve collected behaviours from everyone around me. So, a bit like a magpie, I’ve built my leadership style over time. 

In saying that the biggest influence on me in business has been my stepfather, Rob Tedcastle. Rob didn’t like school, it didn’t suit him, he was restless. He left as soon as he could and then worked his way up the ladder culminating as managing director of UEB Industries with 2,000+ staff making a range of diversified products. 

I always remember stories about him walking the factory floor and speaking with the staff, he remembered everyone’s name, a small sign of his authenticity as a leader. For that, they would walk over hot coals for him. He was tough when he needed to be, quite direct in face, but he was always fair. As a total straight shooter, he’s passed up many opportunities to build greater wealth by doing shady deals or profiting from information he was privy to but, because of his strong ethics, he never did. If I can be half the businessman Rob was then I’ll be just fine.

Apart from staff, I do not have any specific mentoring roles. I do always make time for anyone who wants to talk about the industry or ask questions, especially the young ones just embarking on their career.

LBB> It's been a really challenging year - and that's an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?

Mike Larmer> To be honest, during the last two years we have worked hard to keep our focus and plough on. WFH is now more or less normalised for most and it has simply meant we have had to adapt communication style -  but the essence of our leadership principles have remained the same 

Joseph Silk> Mike and I decided on two things really early on in the first lockdown:

  • We wouldn’t make redundancies or cut people’s salaries, and
  • It was appropriate, under the circumstances, to overshare with staff. So, the management team provided weekly business, new business, and financial updates to all our staff. We thought that if they could see we were being an open book then they would trust that things would be okay and just focus on the work. 

And it worked! Chemistry grew through 2020, and we’ve done the same thing again through the longest lockdown in Auckland, New Zealand in 2021.

Having a growth mindset, as opposed to going into survival mode is both liberating and motivating, not just for the management team but for all staff.

LBB> This year has seen the industry confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?

Mike Larmer> My view is that this is a problem for corporate agency land as nearly 70% of the global industry reports into a handful of very large ownership groups centred in the USA, Japan and Europe. The leadership of this cartel of agency groups has not really changed for years. It is not so much an issue for the smaller independents like us. Our senior leadership team is 60% female and has been that way for years. Ethnically our team represents modern NZ society in direct proportion too, as we work hard to attract tomorrow’s stars. 

Joseph Silk> To be honest it’s not something we have had to actively focus on. Out of 27 staff, 17 are women and in a management team of seven, four are women. Maybe it’s the way our industry is made up in New Zealand? Who knows.

LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely?

Mike Larmer> Peter Drucker coined the phrase 'Culture eats strategy for breakfast' and this is very much our leadership mantra, and it has been since we set up the agency nine years ago. 

Other noted academics such as James Heskett, Thomas O Jones and the Harvard Business School professor David Maister conclusively proved and evangelized the concept of the ‘Service Profit Chain’ which basically argues that if you focus on building a happy team, they will make your clients happy, and you’ll find the agency will make more money and be more successful as an outcome. 

These are the two tenants of our leadership philosophy, and we train it into all our up-and-coming stars. We have all worked in enough agencies to understand that an agency culture needs to be nurtured constantly. WFM necessitated several workarounds, but I like to think we managed to keep things humming along. Not answering to a network also helped as we were able to take the strategic decision to sacrifice margin to protect agency jobs and we also did not ask anyone to take a temporary pay cut in the way leaders of much bigger agencies were forced to do by their owners overseas. 

Joseph Silk> Our culture is THE MOST important thing when it comes to the success of Chemistry. We have five core values, which were built with everyone’s input so you could say they come from our DNA. 

  • We’ve got each other’s back
  • We stand up for what’s right
  • We don’t settle for good; we go for great
  • We’re someone you’d like to hang out with
  • We’re always finding ways to grow

These are consistently reinforced in everything we do as we believe culture eats strategy for breakfast.

The strength of our culture going into WFH has probably been our saviour. We’ve got each other’s back is pretty important when you have 27 people spread all over Auckland, New Zealand.

LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?

Mike Larmer> There are three amazing and timeless academic resources that I was introduced to and I constantly re-read them because they help remind me of all the key elements that, I believe, create a leadership blueprint for a successful advertising agency. 

They are:  

  • Putting the Service Profit chain to work by James L Heskett, Thomas O Jones, Gary W Loveman, W. Earl Sasser Jr and Leonard Schlesinger 
  • Building your company’s Vision by James C Collins and Jerry I Porras 
  • Eating the Big Fish by Adam Morgan 

Joseph Silk> I’ve attended various leadership courses over the years but the most valuable lessons I have learned have been from other people in leadership roles, and they can be in any field, not just the advertising industry. Always be asking questions of others. Never think you’ve got this thing nailed, you don’t.

Work from JSK Communications