Nicole Taylor and Fran Clayton are a female leadership duo shaking up the Australian advertising landscape. Nic and Fran are newly appointed CEO and CSO at McCann WorldGroup Australia, and are introducing a new culture, way of thinking and behaving.
Both place huge emphasis on creativity and allowing people the space they need to digest information and come up with the best ideas. Nic and Fran value open and direct communication, and are removing the patriarchy and hierarchy from the business.
What attracted you both to McCann specifically rather than starting your own agency?
Nic: we shared the belief that McCann Australia could be a platform for creating an agency where our people could thrive, with creativity at its heart. We wanted to do away with the limitations we’ve experienced or seen in the industry at large – increasing conservatism, weird hierarchy, and a lack of brilliant ideas. It felt like the next best thing to starting our own agency, with a great set of resources and a philosophy we subscribed to around the truth well told.
Fran: we were attracted to McCann’s global vision to help brands play a meaningful role in people’s lives. We have no intention of rewriting that for Australia because we believe brands can and should do their part to make a positive impact in the world. It’s a big part of why we joined McCann and something we see missing in the Australian market.
As female leaders you’re definitely breaking the traditional male-led mould of the advertising industry. How are you shaking things up and what has the reaction been?
Nic: Female leadership comes with an implication on culture. Some think it comes with a softer cultural impact, but for me it’s a more direct and accountable space. We value less ego, more directness and a more honest dialogue in general. That can be a big shift for people.
There seems to be a willingness to talk to us because we’re women. It comes with a different set of expectation I think – less bullshit and more accountability.
You place a huge emphasis on creativity and the need to allow for space for creative flow. What practical things do you do to create this?
Fran: The neuroscience around the importance of space, time out from a problem, and connection to the real world and nature, are all things that we advocate for. As this can be at odds with the pressure and time pressure in our industry, we are building in really tangible and practical initiatives – like after a briefing, we will allow time out to digest and get out of the office. Being off the tools is an important part of the creative process. It’s interestingly more about ‘being on’ creatively by letting the subconscious solve the problem.
We have a physical space in the office that’s become a screen free ‘rest space’. The ping pong table in agencies been frowned upon as a cliché and a time waster but there’s a really good reason for having it. Repetitive action is the sort of timeout that aids creativity most. It’s the perfect activity to take a break, rather than gaming or checking your feed.
McCann Worldgroup Australia is today’s iteration of a company founded in New York City in 1902! How are you injecting new values into the company here?
Nic: we have a set of words that define McCann values globally and I love what they mean – integrity, courage, generosity. Values don’t really exist until they are practiced every day. My approach is to define and practice the relevant behaviours that demonstrate those values.
– Integrity: do the right thing even when no one else is looking. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Do what you say.
– Bravery: do things that make you uncomfortable. Speak up in meetings. Always share your point of view on the work. Give and receive feedback. Don’t just “please” people. Say “no” sometimes.
– Generosity: say good morning to everyone when you walk in. Ask your desk buddy if they want a coffee. Talk to the receptionist. Talk to finance. Give other people credit.
Listen to everyone’s point of view. Don’t have your mobile with you when you have a meeting with someone.
Nic, can you tell us about your journey to becoming CEO of a multinational advertising agency?
Nic: My story is an underdog one. My first job was in a small family agency and I fell in love with the people and the power of creativity. I worked hard and, in some cases, felt overlooked, but I stayed focussed on mastering the business by seeking out challenging learning environments. I never took the easy road.
My self-belief accelerated 10 years ago when I was sponsored by an incredibly brave female leader. I learnt exactly what it would take for me to be taken seriously and get a seat at the top table. I had to be prepared for the labels, criticisms, and being underestimated because I was a woman. I learned that the only way I would reach my leadership goal was to do it my way – authentically and on solid ground. To never be something I’m not.
Be bold. Be brilliant. Keep learning. And here I am. Nicole Taylor from Cessnock. No privilege. Just good working-class values, a love for learning and a wonderful family and mum that encouraged me to dream big.
Did you ever experience discrimination for being female? How did you address this? What do you do in your role now to ensure equal opportunity?
Nic: I recall one major moment where I was openly ridiculed by some senior leaders about my sexuality. It was confronting because it explained a lot about how I was being treated at the time. I used their negativity to propel me forward and now I feel more relevant than ever. The world has moved on and is less tolerant of this bias.
Joining McCann was a decision to continue my growth journey and step out of my comfort zone. I believe my best years are still ahead of me, and that my story can help young women and men who don’t fit the cliché of ‘ad wanker’ types to have a long and successful career in a business that is truly wonderful.
Fran, you come from a family who ran a small business. How did this shape your career and your entrepreneurial mindset?
Fran: Growing up I worked in the family business in women’s clothing from a young age. Everything from vacuuming the warehouse and ticketing garments to assisting production, and later on I was involved in sales, marketing and operations. It taught me the importance of getting stuck in, hands on, sleeves rolled up. No-one can sit on the sidelines in a small business.
What sparked your interest in strategy? Did you always want to pursue this career path?
Fran: it all started with failure and disappointment. When I finished my master’s degree I thought I wanted to be a management consultant, but I crashed and burned in my final interview at McKinsey. At the time I was devastated – I think I sat on the kitchen floor of my little flat and cried my eyes out – but looking back I think ‘thank god that happened’. If I hadn’t been forced to consider other paths I might never have found my way into a career in creativity.
As a strategist in a creative agency you have to use your brain in a sort of ambidextrous way, both analytical and imaginative. You have to learn how to be logical and lateral at the same time. I feel like I have this secret superpower now, and don’t think I would have learned how to do that in a management consulting.
You have a passion for people and creating a positive working environment, however this sadly isn’t the case with all leaders. Can you tell us about a time where you encountered a cultural issue in your workplace and how you overcame it?
Fran: some of my biggest learning experiences as a leader have been times that I’ve let myself or my people down. I have a real passion for people and culture, but I’ve made mistakes in the past, I didn’t always get it right. At times I haven’t given people the chance they deserve and other times I’ve steered good people in the wrong direction. That’s how you grow, you have to get it wrong sometimes so you never do it again.
I have had a bad boss once before. He was passive aggressive and a master of avoiding difficult conversations, so you were always left guessing and feeling fearful. It’s taught me to be really honest with people, no matter how uncomfortable it might feel.
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Photography supplied by McCann Australia.