Chris Hirst: 'I thought I'd screwed my career'

Feeling like an industry pariah while at Grey, Chris Hirst believed he'd blown his career until a trip to Harvard helped him tap his inner leader. And now the Havas chief has global domination in his sights.

There was a time eight, nine years ago, when if you’d asked me I’d have said Chris Hirst was a washed-up never-quite-was-it.

He’d have said the same.

He was seven years in at Grey London, the last man standing from a bunch of young guns led by the infamous Garry Lace (ask Google) who’d been brought in to turn the agency around.

"After seven miserable years, it was a disaster. I’d joined when we were all superstars and I definitely wasn’t a superstar any more. I was the MD when I arrived, I was still the MD; they’d passed me over various times to be CEO, which I was very sulky about. I couldn’t point to anything I’d achieved at Grey. I thought I’d screwed my career up and I just didn’t know where to go from there. That really was a low point for me."

Where he went from there was Harvard. Grey paid for him to take a two-month business course and it changed his life.

"Nobody knew anything about me at Harvard, so I could be anybody I wanted to be. I suddenly realised that everything that makes you you is entirely in your head, stories you tell yourself. That was an astonishing experience for me."

From there his story takes in a promotion to Grey CEO, working with his then partner Nils Leonard to achieve the unthinkable: they made Grey hot, quitting suddenly to make sense of the messy Havas as head of Europe and, last month, taking the helm of Havas’ global creative network.

As head of the Havas creative network, Hirst takes charge of the 8,500 people working at creative agencies across 52 Havas Villages – the local office complexes that unify all Havas communications businesses, including media and health as well as creative services, under one roof. And he will still be heading up the whole Havas Village group as UK CEO.

By size, Havas Creative Network probably scrapes into the global top 10 rankings, depending on how you calculate the numbers, with clients including RB, Molson Coors, IBM, Peugeot; when it comes to creative plaudits, it rarely registers.

But although running Havas is not quite the most prestigious job in the business, it’s heavy with potential. Havas is owned by Vivendi, a €36bn company controlled by French billionaire corporate raider Vincent Bolloré, and its assets also include Universal Music Group, Gameloft and Canal+. The group has already begun exploring how its music, film, gaming and marcoms companies can work together, offering brands solutions across the content spectrum – and the possibilities are dazzling. Mind you, there’s speculation that the group might get sold off to, say, one of the big management consultancies so don’t get too excited quite yet.

"Up to Harvard I'd never thought, to my shame, about what leadership was or how to go about doing what I was supposed to be doing" 

Either way, Hirst is now one of a small handful of British adlanders to wield international power. From the misery of career paralysis less than a decade ago, he’s one of the stars of his generation. The turning point was Harvard. From there, Hirst was able to reinvent himself as a clear-eyed, straight-talking leader. "Up to that point I’d honestly never really thought, to my shame, about what leadership was or how to go about doing what I was supposed to be doing." Now, his management vision is starkly simple. "My whole philosophy of our industry is that it’s difficult, but not complicated."

More specifically: "If you’re an established business like ours, the most important thing you can do is learn to win pitches. It’s so obvious, anybody who reads that is just going to go ‘well, duh’. But it’s easy to say, not so easy to do. To prioritise winning really forces you to answer so many other important questions about how you spend your time, the investment decisions you make, the sort of people you hire, the kind of office space you create, how you talk about yourselves."

Here I should point out, in case you hadn’t noticed, that there’s rarely anything startlingly unique or excitingly surprising in what Hirst has to say. But that’s the smart trick: in an industry where making things complicated and layering on the empty pizzazz so often stands in for strategic depth, it’s the simple, dull, obvious that is frequently forgotten, despite being foundational. Hirst – himself rather uncomplicated and light on pizzazz – stands out precisely because he focuses on the obvious, the necessary, and works at them until they’re as good as they can possibly be.

Again: "All we need to do to have the best agency is achieve three things: happy clients, win pitches and make money. Those three things are totally obvious, but if you’re the leader of a business that’s a pretty clarifying way of thinking about what you need to be doing. And the way you go about doing it is absolutely centred on talent and culture – and really if you have to choose one of those things, it has to be culture. And that’s not Pilates at lunchtime and that sort of thing, it’s the environment leaders create in order for their people to outperform."

If all this is starting to sound as though Hirst has swallowed a management self-help book, well, it’s the opposite. He’s spewed one – his own. No Bullshit Leadership: Why the World Needs More Everyday Leaders and Why That Leader is You is out in May (available to pre-order on Amazon now, natch). The cover blurb sums up pretty much all you need to know about the endearingly down-to-earth Hirst and his no bullshit, straight-forwardly honest approach.

"Based on the author’s hard-won experience, this smart, fun book… demystifies an overanalysed subject to get to the heart of modern leadership: the life-changing, career-transforming power to get stuff done and make stuff better."

Whatever happens next, Hirst will never again be a never-quite-was-it.

Hirst picks Havas' creative highlights

Department for Education
Havas London

I love work that has substance, craft and demonstrably works – real campaigns that solve real client problems. This example is a good old-fashioned advertising solution to a big scary client problem: we need a lot more teachers. A pretty hard metric. The campaign brings tears to the eyes – but, more importantly, after six years of missed targets, teacher recruitment is now 20% ahead of target. (Great) advertising works, shock.

Palau Pledge
Host/Havas Australia

This is scalpel-like in its elegance and precision. It won three Grands Prix at Cannes and will be a hot contender for an effectiveness Lion this year. The most exciting campaigns are often those that find new ways to solve what seem like familiar challenges – Host/Havas’ solution is a dazzling example of just that.

TD Ameritrade
Havas New York

I love this campaign for TD Ameritrade – embedded in the digital ledger of the Bitcoin blockchain, it is the world’s first permanent piece of advertising. It drove millions of media impressions and a 26% increase in new accounts open. All for an ad cost of $23.15. That’s ROI. As a former colleague used to say: do your best work for your biggest clients.

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