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Bossing It: Matt Shepherd-Smith



MerchantCantos CEO Matt Shepherd-Smith reflects on his biggest lessons learnt in leadership and the importance of company culture

Bossing It: Matt Shepherd-Smith

With more than 25 years’ experience within advertising agencies, Matt brings a consumer communications perspective to predominantly corporate communications challenges, and believes passionately in the importance of creativity in business. He began his advertising career at Lintas, followed by Leo Burnett and then Bates Dorland, before joining TBWA in 1998. He spent 11 years helping it to become one of the UK’s most awarded creative agencies with clients including adidas, Apple, Sony, PlayStation, Mars, John Smith’s and Nissan. He was appointed CEO of the agency in 2006. He has also run his own consultancy specialising in brand strategy and design. Matt has also worked within client companies, most recently as Global Brand Director at Blinkbox, the digital entertainment company previously owned by Tesco.

Here, the MerchantCantos CEO discusses his biggest lessons in leadership, the importance of company culture, and how he has led his team through the challenges of 2020.

What was your first experience of leadership?

My first real leadership experience was becoming interim CEO of TBWA. I had only been promoted to Managing Director six months previously, when our then CEO departed, so I was given the ‘interim’ role to prove I was up to the job. I remained ‘interim’ for six months before being given the CEO role in a more official capacity.

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

I never really thought about it. But there is a saying in creative agencies that the role of the leader is to create the environment in which great ideas can flourish. I’ve always subscribed to that. I think it is about, creating the right culture, finding the right talent, and putting diverse minds around challenges. I think that is a good start. Beyond that I constantly reiterate our core purpose of bringing creativity to business-critical communications challenges, and try to do the right thing by my clients and my colleagues to achieve that objective.


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

I think that anytime you are in an unfortunate position of losing a client you feel vulnerable. When I first became CEO we lost a few clients to the departing management team who had set up their own agency. I learned quite quickly that the right strategy was to focus on over-delivering for the remaining client base, not looking to replace the lost ones. The general truism in agencies is that you win clients on the strength of your thinking and creative ideas, and you lose them for poor service. It is a maxim I repeat internally quite regularly.


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?

I know I was always ambitious to be successful, but I never equated that with the need to be in a leadership role. But in the creative industry a leader needs to be good with clients, and good with ideas. I was often told early on that I was strong on both of those sides of the role, and so I have focused on them and just tried to marry the two.  


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?

I think it is a bit of both, but there is no question that a huge amount can be learned. Looking back I was 38 when I was made CEO of TBWA. That was a big responsibility and I tended to try and have a hand in too many things, rather than letting the talent around me do what they were good at. They say you should hire great talent, give them direction and get out of their way. I didn’t do that enough when I was a CEO the first time around.


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

Any bold decisions you take for the good of the agency, but that coming at the expense of having to restructure and potentially lose colleagues is the hardest thing to do. These things can only be worked through by fairness, compassion and, if possible, generosity.

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

I’m not sure it is ‘failure’, but every leader makes mistakes. I would say that two areas around which I have learned the most are focus and talent. I think you need to be clear about you want your company to be, and strive to be the very best at it. If you diversify your offer too much you dilute the core competence, and I have been guilty of throwing resource at pitch opportunities that were never right for us. It is hard because the joy of pitching and winning is such a great part of the business, but you have to learn not to chase ambulances. The second is that not every hire you make is going to work out. I have been guilty of being slow to acknowledge a mistake, and hanging on to individuals for too long. It is difficult not to, but actually you only exacerbate the problem.

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?

I think it’s a balance. I lean more towards transparency, not least because our senior management is a Partnership, and so the management is intentionally collaborative. I also think you get more out of teams by working with them, not above them. But in any business a leader needs to be thinking ahead and considering possibilities for the future. Some of the braver thoughts might scare the horses if shared without due consideration and analysis beforehand.

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?

I learned a huge amount from an old boss and mentor of mine at TBWA, Paul Bainsfair. Behind his charming urbane manner was a wise council who cared about people, and who was and remains passionate about good creative work. He also got the balance right between serious professionalism, and light-heratedness. A lot of the fuel for our business is from having fun.

My current mentor is Louise Charlton, co-founder of Brunswick. She is effortlessly brilliant at giving advice on how to approach a tricky situation. Her guidance around tone and sensitivity to achieve the outcome you are looking for is always faultless. For the colleagues I mentor, I take the task of developing their careers seriously, but mentoring to me is always best when managed informally.  

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?

I haven’t felt the responsibility is any different really. In leadership you always have to adapt. But I have increased the frequency of my communication to all of our offices around the world, and I have been more aware and focused than ever on the mental wellbeing of my colleagues. I think being empathetic and agile has never been more important, and I hope I have been both in 2020.


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?

We are very fortunate to be a part of the Brunswick Group, and I can confidently say that we can’t be accused of any shortcomings that the industry might be guilty of. It has been a strategic priority for the group for 2020, and amongst other things as a leadership group we have appointed independent I&D advisers, introduced mandatory Unconscious Bias training for every employee, partnered with Stonewall in the UK, MLT in the US…etc. In short we are dealing with it by doing something about it.

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?

I think two things have happened around culture. The first is that a significant element of culture comes from trust. We have all had to trust each other to deliver for clients and for each other, despite not being able to physically get together. In many ways we are closer than ever as a result. The second is that in any partner meeting, department meeting, all staff meeting etc the first point of concern for all of us is people. Is everyone ok? How are we coping? The adversity we face on account of the Coronavirus has brought the best out in people, and I am unbelievably proud of how that has happened naturally, and brought everyone closer together. In fact I would say that our culture has been enhanced, not eroded over the last year.

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

In creative agencies your best resource is your colleagues. Great people always give you confidence and belief, and the diverse nature of the colleagues across our offices are always an inspiration. I don’t need much more help than that.

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Brunswick Creative Campaigns and Content, Wed, 13 Jan 2021 11:44:21 GMT