A New Way of Thinking

James Wright, an Englishman who moved across the world for the opportunity to create and shape an advertising agency as he saw fit, is not a man short on experience. The Group CEO of Red Agency APAC and Chief Commercial Officer of Havas Group ANZ reveals how he inspires his employees and is inspired by his family.

So tell us your story. How did you get where you are?

I grew up on a farm in rural Lincolnshire, England where our family business has been in operation for 126 years. In that part of the world, it falls on the oldest sibling to run that kind of business—so, I left my older brother to it and headed for the hills.

I studied marketing and public relations in college, did a few internships, and then was offered a position at one of the agencies I had worked for. Within three years, I was an account director, and shortly after, the agency was bought by Huntsworth—an international PR and communications group. We were merged with their large global PR brand, Grayling. The business grew very quickly, and I began operating pan-European and global accounts.

They must have thought I knew what I was doing, because, within another three years, I was a managing director in London. I was 26 years old. They let me set up a few specialist divisions, including one of the very first sustainability communications practices, “Grayling Future Planet,” and we went on to pick up some big pitches, significantly growing what we had while picking up a swag of awards.

In 2010, my wife and I were expecting our first child and wanted to get out of the UK for a while. When Havas came knocking and convinced me to join with the opportunity to move to Australia and shape an agency as I saw fit, we packed our bags and moved to the other side of the world in 2011.

Six years on, Red Agency has four offices—Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Singapore—and is traveling very well creatively, culturally, and commercially. We are regularly winning “Agency of the Year” titles and can genuinely say we are leading the market.

What is the most interesting part of being a chief executive?

Helping the team be the best they can be collectively and individually. Our best assets walk in and out of the building every day, so if we can get the most out of our people and support them to maximize their potential, then the agency will be a strong one.  

I am incredibly fortunate to have a very strong senior team and some outstanding talents coming through the “Redster” ranks who support our philosophy. I feel it is why we have such strong staff and client retention.

I was always taught, “Hire good people and get out of their way.” So that’s what I have done.

What are the biggest differences between Havas Group ANZ and Red Agency Australia?

The Havas Group ANZ is comprised of a number of agencies. Red Agency is one, but we also have Host/Havas, Havas Media, Havas Melbourne, Havas NZ, and One Green Bean, along with a number of sub-brands and around 500 people. While I run Red Agency, which is a PR, social, and experiential agency, my role across the Group is more focused on mergers and acquisitions, Group new business, tech investment, and start-ups—ultimately helping us continue to evolve and grow in key markets.

In terms of managing my time and role between the Group and Red, I feel quite comfortable juggling multiple roles, priorities, and pressures. I have been doing it in various capacities for a long time. I would say that it is more instinctive than anything—I spend my time where I think it needs to be spent. Of course, it helps having a very strong senior leadership group and support from the Havas regional HQ in Singapore.  

How would you describe your job to a five-year-old?

Well, as someone with both a six-year-old and a four-year-old, I get this question a lot. Particularly when I have to explain why Daddy is away so often. I tell them I am like a superhero, saving the world one campaign at a time.

Actually, I don’t say that. I tell them I help businesses sell their products through the power of fun. I then proceed to try and sell them on vegetables and why they should eat more of them. Occasionally it works, but only if I also promise an ice cream after.

What’s the best thing about working at Havas?

I like that we are a young group pioneering a new way of thinking and a new breed of agency. It’s the entrepreneurial spirit and togetherness we have, and I truly believe that the most successful agencies in the future will be the most agile, so Havas is a perfect home for me.

What advice do you have for excelling in a top market, such as Australia?

For me, it is all about attitude. You can teach skills but you can’t teach attitude. Be proactive and consistently show initiative. Always go above and beyond for your clients, your manager, and your team.

Finally, there is a lot to be said for hard work, so be patient, put in the yards, and trust that your boss will see your dedication and how valuable you are. They should then create a pathway for your next step.

And what inspires you?

My children inspire me. I smile when they smile and I laugh when they laugh. They remind me not to sweat the small stuff, but to celebrate small wins and the simple things, to slow down and take things in. Kids are so quick to get over stuff and much more resilient in many ways than adults.

How do you inspire others?

By leading from the front: Never shy away from the tough calls. Don’t be frightened to make mistakes and let your team make mistakes. Back yourself to get it right a lot more than you get it wrong.

Also, make the time to be available to everyone, from interns to directors. It will pay you back in spades down the line.

Can you share something that you are most proud of in your career?

This year I was named “Asia-Pacific Agency Head of the Year” at the PR Awards Asia, run by Haymarket and judged by a group of around 20 or so very senior in-house judges. It is a pretty humbling accolade and proof of the high regard in which our agency in Australia (and now Singapore, which we opened in September 2016) is viewed across the region.

I am also extremely proud that I have played a small role in the development of a lot of amazing people that have subsequently left our agency and gone on to take very senior roles overseas at other agencies, and in-house. They remain great friends of the agency and of me personally.

Tell us about an epiphany that you’ve had in your career.

Once you have sold, shut up.

People have a tendency to sell, sell, and sell again. I believe you should trust the client. There is a great power in presenting an idea succinctly and with authority and then being comfortable with the silence as they take in what you have said.

What’s something that you hope to learn in the next five years?

Getting over my FOLO (fear of living off-line). I need to switch off more.

What advice do you have for those who are at the beginning of their careers?

Always have respect. Treat everyone as you wish to be treated.