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Bossing It: Taking Action with Neil White



President and CEO of BBDO MPLS on his insatiable curiosity, his time in the army and why now is a time for transparency and empathy

Bossing It: Taking Action with Neil White

Neil White is the president & CEO of BBDO MPLS. He is responsible for setting the agency’s strategic direction and managing key client relationships. Neil joined BBDO MPLS in 2008 and brings over twenty years of international advertising agency experience gained in South Africa and Canada. He has an MSc, Marketing, from the University of Leicester (UK) and is passionate about life-long learning.

Neil has an insatiable curiosity: “What I love about advertising is partnering with clients in a multitude of different categories, and working in an industry that is constantly changing.” He lives a few blocks from one of Minneapolis’ city lakes with his wife and two children. He is sometimes spotted running around these lakes, except in winter when he can be found at home, cooking a meal for his family while enjoying a glass of red wine.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Neil> As a cub scout growing up in South Africa, I was a 'sixer' troop leader. You got to have two yellow stripes on your shirt pocket, a sign of competence in scouting activities and leadership abilities. It’s where I discovered that responsibility and fun don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

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?

Neil> I was conscripted in the army and became an instructor and non-commissioned officer. I was told, “Don’t fraternize with the troops”. The style of leadership was autocratic, top down, and with little regard for others’ thoughts or feelings. It may have worked for the army, but it didn’t work for me. That was when I first started to realize that I prefer a more open and inclusive leadership style.

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

Neil> Hmmm…can’t point to just one. As a leader people often look to me for final decision making. But what I realized is that no decision is ever perfect. Despite how difficult the decisions may be, you must make them, and then you have to manage the imperfections of your decision. Each difficult decision also brings with it a learning opportunity, and I’m still learning every day. Perhaps my biggest lesson in leadership is yet to come. 

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?

Neil> I’ve always had a bias to action, the need to make things happen, which led others to see me as a leader. It wasn’t about having people follow, it was about discovery, new experiences, and problem solving. With this driving force, even at a young age, I was recognized as a leader from my school days.

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?

Neil> I don’t think there is one leadership personality, but rather that different personality types result in different leadership styles. 

Many attributes of leadership can be taught. I’ve been fortunate to participate in Senior Leadership training at Omnicom U, provided by our holding company, in conjunction with Harvard. I’ve learned so much during this three-year program and established a smart and supportive peer network.

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

Neil> There are times where you have to make difficult people decisions, decisions that could impact people’s lives, both good and bad. It helps to try to think about the big picture. How will this decision impact the performance of the team, the culture of the agency, and the performance on the client’s business.

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?

Neil> There are many times where I felt I could have done better in a situation, where I could have done better for myself and my team. In those cases, it’s always an opportunity to learn and to grow from the experience and to always strive to do better next time.

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?

Neil> This shouldn’t be an “or” question, the answer is “and” in my view. You have to be careful and considered, and as transparent as possible. 

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?

Neil> Yes, besides the agency peer group network, my predecessor and I meet regularly for lunch and talk about issues. What I’ve learned is that there are multiple ways to see a problem or opportunity, and multiple ways to attack it. 

I’ve mentored several students entering the industry and people who have just started out. I have met them primarily through the University of Minnesota and the Effies. I love giving back to our industry, and I think I learn as much, or more from the opportunity.

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?

Neil> If ever there was a time for transparency and empathy, it’s been the past 18 months. While I like to give people the strategic direction and provide certainty, it’s been impossible over the past year as there have been so many unknowns. I’ve learned to embrace uncertainty, to be flexible. Along with our leadership team we’ve tried to give our employees regular updates on issues like, changing client needs, back to the office plans (or the future of work), and workflow changes. 

In Minneapolis, the impact of George Floyd’s murder and Derek Chauvin’s trial were felt more intensely. As a leader I knew I needed to do something, action was better than inaction. We created a time and space for people to be with each other and share their thoughts and feelings. We gave them the floor. It was powerful, and it was intense. 

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?

Neil> We’ve always had diversity goals. Our challenge, as an industry, is that we don’t have enough diverse talent. Many people from different ethnic groups have never thought about marketing and advertising as a career opportunity. We partner with The BrandLab whose mission is to change the face and voice of the marketing industry. We partner with them on many initiatives, including their internship program. We’ve hired several of their graduates.

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?

Neil> As a network, BBDO believes that culture eats strategy for breakfast. That is true in Minneapolis too. We hire, and incentivize, people who best represent our agency’s people values. We get together frequently to celebrate them and their successes. 

We haven’t had as many get-togethers in our office, while social distancing has been in place. Instead we embraced the outdoors because when you live in the land of 10,000 lakes, you have to take advantage of them. My favorite get together was on lake Bde Maka Ska, in individual Kayaks. 

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

Neil> I try to stay informed on developments in our industry, so I subscribe to several industry trades, including LBB. There are also a ton of briefs available by industry sector and from business chambers.

I read a lot and am always trying to grow and stretch. Currently I’m reading “Quantum Marketing, Mastering The New Marketing Mindset for Tomorrow’s Consumers”, by Raja Rajamannar.

I’m also fortunate to have a smart and thoughtful leadership team. They are knowledgeable experts in their fields, who guide and inspire me. 

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BBDO Minneapolis, Wed, 03 Nov 2021 15:01:52 GMT