He’s an Aussie who has moved more than 8,000 miles to Cali and taken on the role of CEO—and he’s a father to five daughters. Havas San Francisco’s Alan Burgis has a lot on his plate. He says that work feels a little less like work, however, when you’re at a company with a soul. With a keen sense of humor, Burgis shares some candid advice on how to balance professional and personal successes.
So give us your story.
Well, I was born in Australia and spent the first half of my career there. Armed with a degree in marketing and a “why not” feeling, I had several director of marketing positions at Reckitt Benckiser, Bristol-Myers, and Frito-Lay before the advertising industry caught my attention.
I made the jump, and I became the Managing Director of McCann Erickson. I must have done OK because they then moved me to Los Angeles, where I worked for the next five years. I loved California, but I got an opportunity in Australia. So I went back to Australia to become the CEO of FCB and then, eventually, to Euro RSCG.
I enjoyed another five wonderful years, a marriage, and two beautiful baby girls. But, with California still on my mind, I moved back to Euro RSCG in San Francisco, and the rest has been a great journey—a nearly 20-year journey with 10 of those at Havas and four at my own agency. During that time we moved to Marin County, and I now have five wonderful girls. Lucky man from the lucky country.
What’s the most interesting thing about working at Havas San Francisco?
This is the only company I have ever worked for that has a soul. Everyone, including our friends in finance, care greatly about the work and our relationships. While money is important for any business, it seems working with great people who are doing great things is even more important at Havas.
What is the most interesting part of being a chief executive?
You have to love change and managed chaos. It is a people business and, therefore, an entrepreneurial business. There are plenty of rules and guidelines in our business, but the most interesting aspect of my job is dealing with the unexpected, unwanted, and unchartered—all in real time.
How would you describe your job to a five-year-old?
My job has three basic parts: Make sure we keep the promises that we make to our customers and staff. Make sure we have the right resources available at all times to allow everyone to do their best work everyday. Have an eye on the future so that we are ready when it comes.
San Francisco is a competitive market for many industries—including advertising. What advice do you have for excelling in such a top market?
Unfortunately, there is no one thing. You need to hire good people and give them a nonpolitical work environment that allows them to only focus on what is ahead of them. Be honest about what you do well and make that your calling card. Always learn from your missteps and never lose the hunger to do things better, faster, and more cost effectively. You need to solve problems quickly and move on opportunities even more quickly. And you need to have a bit of luck.
So what qualities do you feel are absolute must-haves to be a successful leader?
A successful leader, to me, does not have a couple of great years. He or she sustains success and competes at a high level over a long period of time. Look at General Manager Bill Belichick and his New England Patriots. I see tenacity, focus, honesty, and uncompromising passion. They are good at their jobs—and they’ve sustained high performance over a long period of time. I would also add that hiring and retaining good people are essentials for a successful leader.
And what inspires you?
Any underdog story. Situations where the odds were against succeeding, but that person pushed on and then succeeded anyway.
How do you inspire others?
I try to lead by example. I am always harder on myself than I am on anyone else. I also place a high priority on providing unfiltered feedback so everyone knows the expectations and how they are doing. I see any type of feedback as being positive because the goal is to motivate people to be even better in the future.
What’s something that you are most proud of in your career?
This is a simple one: I believe that I have done a really good job at being both a good father to my five girls and being a successful entrepreneur. I could have definitely done better in either case if I had given it more priority, but I certainly did the best I could to find the balance required to do both well.
In my spare time, I cook, manage an orchard and vegetable garden, hike the national park trails, mountain bike, golf, swim, watch Tour de France, and help our girls get into and out of college. I don’t do all of these things well. Just ask the girls.
Name an accomplishment you’re most proud of from your team at Havas San Francisco.
When I rejoined Havas 10 years ago, the office had nine people and was about to lose $3 million in profit, and the intention—although I was not aware of this at the time (laughs)—was to close it within 12 months if the situation was not reversed. In 2017, we are 65 people strong, making almost $3 million in profit, and a consistent new business winner. No one person could have achieved this—it was a pure team effort.
Tell us about an epiphany that you’ve had in your career.
As the CEO of Euro RSCG, while working on a pitch for Volvo, I asked my ECD when he could show me the creative work. He told me to get out of my office and go talk to the teams working on it. Lesson learned: This is a business where getting off your butt is not just a good thing—it’s mandatory.
What’s something that you hope to learn in the next five years?
Will Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos become the next President of the United States? Or will he simply just buy the states he likes?
What advice do you have for those who are at the beginning of their careers?
Hard work won’t kill you. Ask more questions than anyone else. Be curious. Never settle. Take interesting vacations. Avoid politics. Make friends with the really smart people you meet. And always aim high.