It's not often you find global COOs who decided to leave school at 16, but George Rex came from ‘humble beginnings’ as he describes it. Yet he has only used this to his advantage throughout his career. Those beginnings and tough love from his father instilled an ambitious tenacity in George which saw him start his career in a post room at Omnicom but found himself quickly moving through the ranks in the advertising industry.
George was head hunted by Taylor James as Americas COO in 2018 and has been pivotal in the success of the business since it was bought by Tag. Now, with a pending move to New York and a new title as Global COO, George embarks on continuing the impressive business growth of Taylor James thus far and is on a warpath “to build nothing short of the best production company on the planet!” he says.
In this interview, LBB speaks to George about his notable career so far, what influences led him to be as adaptable and grounded as he is, and what he’s most excited about achieving in his new role in New York.
LBB> How did you first get into finance and business growth operations, was it something that always interested you growing up?
George Rex> I grew up in East London with a humble beginning - very much a working-class family. My dad’s a builder and most of my family are trades people. No one had ever really worked in a professional environment before which is something my dad really wanted me to do - he wanted me to go and grow professionally and deserve more than standing cold on a building site. So, he’s always been the driver for me to go and build a successful business.
During school I was always very outgoing, far too chatty and most likely annoying for most of my teachers but one of the things that helped shape me as a person was having to move schools and area at the age of 15, which is difficult for any young boy with lots of friends to leave. I’ve been brought up to be quite grounded ,and that, combined with having to hone my people skills when I moved schools, has always allowed me to be able to adapt to any environment or situation throughout my life.
LBB> What was your journey into the industry like before you joined Taylor James and how has your experience influenced the way in which you approach your work?
George> I left school at 16, in truth, without much of a plan, but I had a family friend Kate King at PHD Media (one of the media companies within Omnicom), who was a wonderful mentor and who put me forward for the position of post boy. My job was to deliver post to people’s desks and set up client meeting rooms. To be totally honest, I was absolutely useless at it. Luckily Kate saw that I could still bring something to the table, so they moved me into a media payables role within the finance department, the role was to pay the media owners for the media that we bought. It was then that I started to learn about the ad industry: dealing with media buyers, clients and colleagues, this was really the start of my 16 years of growing up in the ad industry.
Being around the likes of the founders David, Jonathan and Nick and watching how they managed to build such an amazing company was invaluable for a young kid. Then at the age of 20, I took a year out to go and discover the world outside of East London.
LBB> What influence did your travels have on you - did it change you in any way?
George> As a young teenager you don’t realise what a bubble you live in so going abroad away from family and friends, you have to grow up pretty quickly and start to do things for yourself. I met people from various different nations, countries and backgrounds which was amazing. I made some lifelong friends out there.
Coming back as a 21-year-old in advertising, it allowed me to be more adaptable. I could be a bit more of a chameleon changing my colours for different scenarios with the ability to walk into any meeting room and adapt to the situation as I saw it.
LBB> How did you find moving from a big company like Omnicom to the smaller businesses you then went on to work with?
George> It was a big culture shock to be honest! I joined Table19, going from being the young boy that everyone loved to mollycoddle at Omnicom, to my first managerial role as a finance and operations manager. It was a little daunting as I realised that every sale we made at a company like Table19 was crucial to everyone getting paid that month. That experience alone really really accelerated my growth.
The finance director, Laura Kinghorn, was absolutely amazing for me. She ran the business like clockwork and understood every little mechanism about how the business functioned. Learning from her set me up to be where I am today. Every single business I walk into now, I go in with that mindset to understand the finer details of how that business functions. That’s what has allowed me to be able to transform the businesses that I have gone on to work with since.
LBB> What have been some of your proudest achievements so far in terms of helping brands and businesses achieve their potential?
George> When I was at Table19 we grew year on year pretty substantially and we also landed Sainsbury’s which was a transforming client-win. Just as we won that business, I was headhunted for my next role; OnScroll were going through the process of selling their company to Sovrn, an ad tech company based in Boulder, Colorado. It was a small team of eight people based in a WeWork who needed to scale exponentially over the next couple of years.
It was a huge task, we had to set the business up from the ground and we had some very hefty targets to hit throughout my time there. We needed to scale quickly, efficiently and make money. There was a lot of pressure to deliver and I’m glad to say that we hit those growth targets and we launched Sovrn in the UK, which grew 400% over the three years I was there, winning many awards. I look back at this extremely proudly. On top of that, the team that we recruited and grew were absolutely amazing and became part of the family, and that makes me most proud.
LBB> What first attracted you to the role at Taylor James?
George> Well a similar thing happened where Taylor James approached me after being acquired by TAG. The first few months had been a challenge for them going through the integration whilst trying to deliver growth projections that were part of the deal. So it was once again a challenge that I felt I could help the CEO Glen Taylor overcome and it was perfectly suited to what I can bring to a business.
Again, there was a lot of pressure and we had to make some really tough decisions, having to adapt the business model across the Americas. I realised that you have to be flexible and the industry does go up and down, so you have to move with it. Looking at the key hires we made in that time and what has happened since with COVID, I can see that we set the business up to be successful even in a situation like the pandemic. We’ve managed to grow beyond budget projections this year, something that not many businesses will have the ability to do. We’re proving that this model that we’ve created, can not only make money when the economy is in a good spot, but is totally efficient and adaptable for when the economy isn’t. The team, structure and culture within Taylor James right now is the best it’s ever been.
LBB> Why do you think that is? How is it that you navigated the businesses through the pandemic?
George> As I mentioned earlier, being adaptable is something that is indicative of my leadership style in business. So, before the pandemic hit, we had already set up the businesses operationally to move with the peaks and troughs of the industry. We were set up to ‘breathe in’ and ‘breathe out’ - when we’re busy we ‘breathe out’, tapping into our many different regional offices, partners and freelancers we work with; and we contract back with the seasonal dips that the industry goes through. And what that allows us to do is become adaptable and solutions-focused.
Another key thing is that we looked at the situation as an opportunity. We’re an end-to-end production company: we do live action, we do CG, we do digital, we do print and are now making huge strides in interactive emerging technologies. There aren’t many production companies that can offer a solution to whatever the client’s problem is. In the heart of the pandemic, Glen quite rightly told us that content was in a crisis; clients couldn’t do live shoots due to global guidelines around social distancing but still needed content to drive consumer behaviour. This is where Taylor James’s ethos of being creative problem solvers really came to the rescue for many of our amazing clients.
LBB> And did you come up with any new services and solutions in this time to answer the unique creative problems that emerged?
George> One of the key solutions that we are delivering time and time again for our clients is moving their productions of content to a digitally centralised CG pipeline, where we can match like for like shoot quality but remove the pain of shoot logistics and ultimately drive longer term economic benefits which is a key KPI for many businesses right now.
As a business we were very very quick to adapt our business approach around providing content in a crisis for our clients. Taylor James was born in a recession, so it will survive and flourish in a recession again. I believe that we will be one of the strongest production companies to come out of this recession. I think that’s being proven by our growth through 2020.
LBB> What other lessons will be taking forward from this time?
George> One of the key things I learned was not to believe in the status quo. I was one that felt we had to be in the office in some capacity, and that the transition to working from home had the recipe for disaster. Pleased to say that although there is and will continue to be a lot of value in face-to-face interaction, I have certainly been proven wrong in terms of what can be achieved when there is no other choice.
And one thing I would like to highlight is that you can’t put a price on culture. The culture at Taylor James right now is the key ingredient behind our performance; the performance is a by-product of that. We’ve got the right mentality, and everyone’s swimming in the same direction towards our short and long term goals, which creates togetherness that gets you through these tough times. That feeling of when the company wins, we all win - it’s the bedrock to our success.
LBB> Moving on to the future of the company, how are you hoping to steer Taylor James as global COO?
George> One of my remits is obviously growth and I want to continue that for all the sectors that we specialise in. To do this we need to retain and nurture our client relationships and continue delivering the quality our clients expect when working with Taylor James. I was initially hired as COO for the Americas and I’d now like to take what we’ve created in the US - with the personality, the culture, the ruthlessness of winning - and push that global. The whole idea of being unicorns in production is something I want to make consistent across every region we work in.
I’m also really passionate about not being nailed down to a certain stereotype, persona or background when hiring - I’m proof that you don’t have to come from a traditional university education to do a good job, and I want us to be open to all different types of talent. As a business we have come on so far through 2020, and we now need to nurture our talent to help us go even further for the future.
LBB> You’ll be moving to New York with your family when you take up the new position as global COO. Have you ever visited before and what are you most looking forward to?
George> I’ve been there five or six times, on business and vacation. I’m excited for the adventure NYC brings for my young family. I’ve got a one-year old daughter called Florence and a new environment will help her learn the early lessons of life, although her grandparents might not agree. I can also see big opportunities for Taylor James and I’m excited to help the business capitalise on that.
LBB> Finally, what advice do you have for other business leaders when it comes to agile working and an ability to adapt and react to the changing landscape?
George> The key thing for me is to be able to take something that seems bad and spin that into an opportunity - we’ve got to see the current situation as an opportunity. It’s a time when our clients need us more than ever and with that comes a chance to navigate those choppy waters as a partner. It’s easy to spiral into negativity but my advice would be to look at the potentials.
The last point I would stress is communication. Being transparent with your team through periods like this is essential. Bring your team closer to you in tough times by being open. I think it’s a real backbone of a strong business.