Bossing It in association withLBB's Bossing It
Bossing It: Katie Firth on Humility, Clarity and Courage
Advertising Agency
Melbourne, Australia
DDB Group Melbourne's managing partner on why openness is one of her key values

Katie Firth joined DDB Group Melbourne in 2021 as managing partner from whiteGREY, where she was national managing director and a WPP AUNZ Melbourne Market Lead. Katie has also worked at TBWA, Cummins&Partners, CHE Proximity, and Publicis Mojo, on work recognised at award shows including the Cannes Lions, Effies, WARC, and D&AD. She brings more than 20 years’ experience to DDB Melbourne, across clients including ANZ, Medibank, Jeep, Nissan, Mars Petcare, AGL, and multiple state tourism bodies.  

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Katie> While at university, I worked part time for a fashion retailer. One Sunday we were struggling to hit our sales target and the overall team mood was flat. So I created an incentive game to encourage and motivate people. I remember really enjoying the opportunity to influence others and lift the spirits of the team.  

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?

Katie> I’ve been lucky to work with some amazing leaders that I have a taken a lot from in style or approach. And I’ve worked with people who have made me think, ‘I’d never lead like that’. All of them have taught me a lot.  

I was really conscious of the values I wanted to hold myself to and I spent a bit of time defining my leadership values. They’ve played a big role in the kind of leader I want to be and helped guide me through tricky situations.

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?

Katie> I always knew I wanted to be a leader and after stumbling into advertising, I quickly decided I wanted to lead a creative agency. I set myself concrete goals, and I knew I needed well-rounded experience across different client categories, diverse people skills, and the ability to use creativity across the whole customer experience. I consciously chose each agency I joined based on what I would learn from the people, clients, or a speciality to help strengthen and grow my skillset.  

I didn’t have a lightbulb moment of realising I had it in me, but I do remember moments of people coming to me wanting my guidance, opinion, or help solving challenges that weren’t necessarily in my remit. My managers started to task me with things that would have sat more within their remit than mine, and I remember thinking ‘I can definitely do this’. 

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?

Katie> I really love Fuchan Yuan’s belief that there are three essential traits of leadership: humility, clarity, and courage. Stand-out leaders possess all three and I think it’s because they are genuine parts to their personality. I definitely think leaders can still learn and sharpen their skills but brilliant leaders have these character traits in-built. 

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

Katie> I’ve spent a lot of time educating myself on mental health so I understand the warning signs and know how to navigate conversations at work and get people the right help. People close to me have mental health conditions, so I’ve witnessed some of their challenges first-hand and have learnt a lot through that. 

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?

Katie> We are in a fast-paced industry and it can be tough sometimes. People get burnt out. One person I worked with became burnt out and I felt like I failed in not noticing the signs earlier. Even though I checked in regularly and they said they were okay, I missed some of the signs that they weren’t. That pushed me to educate myself more, and taught me I have to dig deeper.

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?

Katie> Openness is one of my key values. It helps in building trust and people want authentic leaders.   

At times, it’s important to be careful and considered to let the rest of the team focus on what they need to do without unnecessary worry or stress. As a leader, I feel it’s my role to bring out the best in my team and that means I need to keep a level of calmness and positivity for the team. 

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?

Katie> I never formally found a mentor as I was lucky enough to work with some great leaders who I respected and admired. In particular, I wanted to learn from strong, smart and passionate women. And I did, working with the likes of Kirsty Muddle (CEO Dentsu Creative Group) and Kimberlee Wells (CEO TBWA\Melbourne and TBWA\Adelaide). Kimberlee has been my friend and mentor for about a decade, and played a big role in my return to work after having my twins. Mike Napolitano, our Group MD at DDB Melbourne, was also a big reason I joined DDB – he’s always been someone I value and respect. 

I give a lot of my time to mentoring as I am truly passionate about wanting others to succeed. Most are women who want advice on navigating challenging situations, progressing their careers, and gaining confidence.

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?

Katie> The past two years have taught me there is a lot out of my control, but what I can control is how I choose to respond to each situation, and how I show up for my team every day.   

I thought really hard about what I wanted to bring to my team in terms of energy, positivity and, at times, laughter in a crazy situation. And I focused on what I could control in my world to help me do that – from being consistent with my exercise, walking meetings, lots of sleep, limited alcohol, turning off email notifications on my phone, and taking time out to refresh. All while navigating home-schooling my twins.  

It also really helped that the industry came together. Agency leaders were calling to check in on each other, and camaraderie felt really high.  

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?

Katie> I have doubled down on what I can influence and control within the agency and industry. Whether that’s in attracting talent, mentoring, investing in unconscious bias and inclusion training, or fostering the right culture and environment. I’ve made even more of a conscious effort to ensure values such as equality, openness and belonging are felt across the whole agency and result in inclusive behaviour, but there’s always more work to do.

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 in 2020?

Katie> Agency culture is crucial to our success. Since COVID, I’ve started to use the word ‘connection’ more than ‘culture’, because ultimately that’s what we want people to feel. 

I focused on one-on-one check ins, performance reviews so people still felt the momentum of progression in their careers, small surprise and delight packages, and team fun to lift spirits.

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

Katie> There are so many books on leadership and online publications (my go-tos are Forbes and Harvard Business Review). But I think the most valuable and useful resources are people across different areas and roles - other agency leaders, team members across departments, clients, psychologists, innovators. The world is full of unique and fascinating people with stories to tell. You’d be surprised how many people are willing to give their time and advice if you reach out to them, ask the right questions, and really listen to their answers.