“I'll start instinctively,” says James Morris when asked broadly about his priorities at this moment. “I would always say the biggest priority to me is working with good people.” For those who don’t personally know the dentsu CEO for creative in EMEA and the UK, this might not seem a particularly hard-nosed business answer to plump for. But it’s a good indication of the sort of trunk from which all of James’ business thinking branches off.
He goes on to explain his passion for talent and making sure the human element is prioritised. “If you look at the complexity of the business right now, there's lots to tackle. I think the art of leadership now is in simplicity and prioritising the important things and you can do all those things much more efficiently if you've got a team of what I call good people. We all need to look different, have different philosophies and obviously have diversity of thought. But you need to be good at heart. If you've got some challenging personalities in the team, that can be difficult – it creates a massive headwind that really unsettles everything else. So what is important to me at this stage in my career is actually working with good people, first and foremost.”
James isn’t just a creative agency man. He’s worked in a range of creative businesses in his career. Before joining dentsu, he was global CEO of Stink Group where he led its development as one of the industry’s most respected and awarded creative studios and production companies. So although he’s a business leader first and foremost, he has a fondness for makers and craft. He’s also held global leadership roles at Mediacom (leading Mediacom Beyond Advertising globally) and Twofour – the TV production and distribution house now owned by ITV.
These days he’s responsible for leading the group’s creative line of business and agencies across EMEA, including the various brands that feed into the overall dentsu creative group – dentsuMB and isobar across the region including UK, Italy, France, Germany and Poland, Comunica +A in Spain, dentsuACHTUNG! in the Netherlands, Partners in Portugal and FoxP2 in South Africa as well as dentsu’s content, digital talent and entertainment agencies including John Brown Media, Gleam Futures, MKTG and The Story Lab.
Across all of that, once he’s sure he’s got the ‘good people’ he needs in place, one of the agendas he’s keen to focus on is the future of creativity. “There's too much doubt, too much negativity around the future of creative,” he says. Crucial as they are, he quotes the stark difference in how the technology and media groups have taken to dominate the industry agenda. “To me, the future of creative is really clear. The best creative is about standing out from the crowd through a brilliant idea that is beautifully crafted and true to the brand. Today, this means the ideas and the craft can be in a huge variety of formats and this is where some creative agencies are failing to adapt. They don’t have the expertise in all the areas needed to reach today’s audiences. It could be gaming, live, an app or a TV show, but most of the creative industry, especially at the senior levels, is still solely focussed on the TV spot. The spot still has a crucial role to play, just look at Christmas and the Super Bowl, but these are tentpole moments in our lives and then we consume other media in our everyday lives.
“I think the way to stand out if you're in any category, is to tell your story. Tell your ‘why’. Come up with ideas that surprise and delight people and are then creatively applied across the whole ecosystem utilising the latest technology.”
That singular, optimistic vision for the future of creative is clearly the way James wants to align his priorities across the creative business he leads. But there are challenges to making sure that creativity is truly prioritised across legacy agencies that’ve had to bolt on technological and media capabilities over the decades to stay relevant. “What it means is that for some of our legacy agencies, they've got to go back and re-engineer their whole product and culture and way of working,” he says.
One of the major narratives of dentsu’s business recently has been how the company is working to consolidate brands. It’s in line with James’ general focus on simplicity. “In truth, what we’re doing is not really about the brands,” he says. “It's about simplifying our capability and service to clients. What I'm trying to create is the most diverse creative product in the industry, which means bringing together the brilliance that exists in our diverse brands and creative agencies.”
James then rattles off a comprehensive list of capabilities in which dentsu has pools of specialised talent. That expertise ranges from brand strategy, creative and design through to brand experiential, social and PR, integrated with experience creative, experience design, digital design and UX, technology and innovation and VR, alongside the “more culture-based stuff” that you can do in content and branded entertainment, utilising talent and influencers. “The truth is that there isn't a creative agency in the marketplace that has that full set of capabilities,” he says. “They have a subset. And so what we're trying to do is bring them together, removing any barriers to our clients and people being able to leverage any and all those skills for better storytelling, impact and engagement, as well as enabling them to have more exciting and fulfilling careers.”
But he’s realistic about the major obstacles in realising the potential of that talent. “Dentsu hasn't historically had a strong creative reputation outside of Japan,” he says. “So we're bringing in talent to raise that creative excellence bar, and knit together those full-service capabilities.”
Simon Lloyd is a prime example of that uniting talent, as James sees it. In 2020, dentsuMB appointed him as chief creative officer. James notes that Simon was at Isobar during his formative creative career in digital experience and creative before he went to adam&eveDDB and built up his brand, craft and film muscles. “Whilst he'll have a more conceptual creative team with brand design, he will also be bringing together experience creative with a design and technology team. So it's bringing in that talent that can work across the whole,” says James. “We do the same in strategy and in production and whatever. With one P&L, our capabilities are not siloed. We can work on a brief or with a client and deliver all of them in a way no one else is set up to do.”
This week’s appointment of Ete Davies
, formerly CEO of ENGINE creative, as dentsu creative’s EMEA chief operating officer, is another example of this talent strategy in action.
Across the region, there’s a lot to knit together, with dentsu spread over 29 EMEA markets to various scales in each, to a total of around 2,100 employees. The UK is around a third of the EMEA region for the company and second in size is Spain, where Comunica+A and Isobar both operate with quite some profile. For example, the dentsu agencies there do all of Orange’s above and below-the-line work – the only market where that business isn’t handled by Publicis. Italy is number three for the network in EMEA and dentsuMB, MKTG, The Story Lab and Isobar work there with a strong focus on digital experience work for the likes of Gucci. James also shouts out the surprising, delightful work coming out of offices in France and the Netherlands for the likes of Air France and KLM.
The priority at an EMEA level, which translates into every market, says James, is to drive that creative excellence and reputation. “Because of the diversity of the brands, lots of this great work hasn't always been associated with dentsu,” he says. “So anybody in Spain will know Comunica+A are one of the big players there, but they don't always know it's dentsu. So this year is about focusing on that consolidation, but to build that creative reputation, through creative excellence.”
As a business leader concerned with the value of ‘good people’, it’s no surprise that the international talent crisis is something James is concerned with. “That has partly been of the industry's own making, in that every network cut back during Covid and probably cut back too much,” he says. “That is the truth. And then the industry grew quicker than most networks' planned for. Those people who left sometimes went and did other things. So they've got to go out and hire again.”
He ventures that the broader context for this brain drain is around the cultures those agencies create. “Creative agencies have got to get that brilliant culture back,” he says. “If you can have a better lifestyle as a freelancer than being part of a creative agency, we should all just give up. Creative agencies, when they're brilliant, have strong cultures. They're the best places to be. It's cool, it's exciting.”
He wouldn’t question dentsu’s culture though. “I think we've got a really strong culture and we don't have open vacancies anywhere near at the same scale that I've heard of elsewhere. When we're hiring, we hire quite quickly.”
At junior levels, James is confident that the talent feeding dentsu is secure. “We've invested a lot in partnerships coming through at the junior levels,” he says, referring to the agency’s partnership with the School of Communication Arts,, its programme with The Prince's Trust, and its own programme called The Code
. “The junior levels are naturally diverse because we're recruiting from places that are. And we find that the talent that comes through those programmes stays longer and is often better than the old, traditional routes.”
As the chair of the dentsu UK and Ireland Diversity & Inclusion Council, James is engaged on ways dentsu’s culture can become more inclusive, focusing on subjects ranging from LGBTQ+ issues to domestic violence, menopause policies, and social mobility. “That's all the rewarding stuff,” he says. “The last two years, when we set up the council, has been the most aggressive learning curve I've ever been on around diversity, equity and inclusion. There's so much more to learn, because of the scope of it, but we’re making a lot of progress.”
dentsu has several employee groups
including an LGBTQ+ and allies network, one promoting and celebrating gender equality, one for parents and carers, an ethnic diversity network for underrepresented employees, one focused on social impact strategy, and one focusing on programmes of support available for everyone around mental, physical and financial wellbeing.
“Investing the time to do it makes you a better person,” he says. “Most people aren't horrible people. But a lot of it is down to lack of awareness, lack of understanding, in my experience, so it's really important that leadership role models this stuff.” That’s why dentsu mandates that every executive leadership team member is on the DE&I council. With every council member being reverse mentored too, there’s an abundance of opportunities to exchange perspectives.
All of that is inseparable from the central challenge of showing the world the creative capabilities that dentsu already has to hand in the EMEA region. “There's a lot of heavy lifting to re-engineer a company that's got a long history and legacy in different ways,” says James. “But the exciting thing for me was to build something new at dentsu where I think there is the appetite to do something very modern and different. I think we've come a long way in a short space of time. This year is when you'll see a lot more coming out of us – work that will explain the creative abilities we have and a way of organising ourselves that liberates ideas and people to do their best work. That capability is starting to come together.”