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Exit interview: Livia Esterhazy

Following news of her resignation, departing Clemenger BBDO managing director Livia Esterhazy sits down for a chat about working in adland, overcoming failures and the importance of diverse thinking.

By Damien Venuto | February 17, 2017 | news

Late last week, the Clemenger Group confirmed the resignation of Livia Esterhazy, who, after two years at the helm of Clemenger BBDO, had decided to start her own consultancy, Galantha Consulting.

This move brought an end to Esterhazy’s ten-year stint, leading agencies in the Wellington region during what has been a period of enormous change. And it certainly hasn’t been an easy ride for her.

Shortly after her appointment, Clemenger lost veritable ad legends Peter Biggs and Philip ‘Duster’ Andrew to Windy City competitors Assignment Group. One StopPress commenter went has far as calling it a hospital pass.

However, Esterhazy doesn’t see things this way and has no regrets about taking on what was, at the time, one of the toughest jobs in advertising.          

StopPress: What has it been like managing a business with one of the most recognised names in New Zealand advertising?

Livia Esterhazy: “To be honest, it was never my goal in life to become a managing director of an advertising agency, but I do love leading teams and businesses and it’s been a privilege to do that for ten years in adland. I actually fell into adland quite late in my career. I started off with a marketing and finance background, working on the client side in big businesses like Commonwealth Bank of Australian and IT and places like that. Then, when I moved to Wellington, I got given a shot running Ogilvy as my first step into advertising. I fell immediately fell in love with the opportunity to work strategically across many different brands rather than just one.”

Do you have a sense of trepidation about starting your own thing, knowing that you’re now going to have to go out there and hunt for every client and find a way to make it work?

“I wouldn’t be human if I wasn’t a bit nervous, but I think that’s a good thing. I think you need to push your own boundaries and feel nervous because then you feel as though you’re alive. And it’s under these circumstances that you create better work. It’s always good to push yourself.”

One of the StopPress commenters compared your appointment at Clemenger BBDO as a hospital pass. It couldn't have been easy to lose Peter Biggs and Philip 'Duster' Andrew so early in your tenure. What was it like dealing with all this change?

“It has been a transitional period for the last two years. I wouldn’t call it a hospital pass to be honest. A business is a business, and when you take over the leadership of a business, you see things that you feel can be improved upon, while others are actually working really well. I think that having both Assignment and Clems in Wellington is a good thing. The agencies are very distinct, and in that respect, it isn’t tough because we [had a clear idea] of where we wanted to take our business. I think we’ve coped with the marketplace really well. What’s key for me is to ensure that there’s good competition in Wellington. Without competition, the industry won’t thrive in the city and it won’t attract great talent. It’s hard because we’re all winning business off each other, but we really need to promote healthy competition here.”

What are some of the things that you felt needed to change when you inherited the agency?

“One thing that remains relevant across the whole industry is the need for diversity of thinking. And you can’t have diversity of thinking if you have processes that are not inclusive and uncollaborative. So, we’ve worked hard to push for agile thinking approaches that lead to a single team rather than hierarchies based on the idea that the ECD or the MD knows best. It’s about having the right people around the work at the right time.” 

So how do you go about ensuring that?      

“Sometimes it can just be small things. One example was when we first got here, all three of us [Clemenger ECD Brigid Alkema and Proximity ECD Brett Hoskin] had our own offices, and we went ‘what?’. So, we all jumped out of our offices and turned them into agile thinking rooms, with whiteboard and magnet walls, so we can throw work up. It’s about showing that experience doesn’t always know best. It’s about building a culture where everyone thinks that they can actually have a voice. And that can be done in many different ways.”

That’s a really important point, in that one person doesn’t have all the ideas. And I think we still sometimes have the ECD presented as a regal entity sitting on this throne and deciding what’s good and what’s not.

“Correct. And I believe, we’ve definitely taken steps away from that. Another small example would be our all-agency meetings on Tuesday mornings, which have everyone coming together to discuss issues. In the first few months, there was always silence. I would open up the floor and no one would say anything. And now, you can’t shut them up. Everyone is chatting about work they’re doing with clients. It’s a lot more collaborative and everyone feels a lot more comfortable.”

How has the business been tracking, financially, during what has been a period of rebuilding?

“It’s been going well. Admittedly, it has been tough, because we have been transforming as an agency. One thing I heard the other day was that we’re building the plane and flying it at the same time. I guess what I would add to that is that we didn’t lose any altitude. We’ve won some fabulous new clients over the last two years, including the Flag Consideration Project, New Zealand Statistics, Open Polytechnic, New Zealand Defence Force, Farrah Wraps as well as some great projects for government organisations as well. So, we certainly haven’t been quiet on the new business front. Also, we’ve been hugely recognised in global and local awards shows. We’ve won gold Lions, Axis awards, Effies and even the IPA effectiveness awards from the States, which was a huge win last year. So, while we’ve transformed the business, it’s been a really exciting time.”

Clemenger has always been a standout agency when it comes to government work. Is that something that works in your favour or is it something that you need to move away? Does it hinder or help you?

“It certainly doesn’t hinder us. We love that work. It’s very much based on human-centered design and this is something we’re very curious about. There are three reason our government work stands out. Firstly, it’s about the relationship we have with our clients; secondly, it’s the art-science approach that we apply; and thirdly, it’s the passion our team has for the work. I see the passion in the team all the time. We literally had a creative turn around and tell the team last week, ‘This could be some of the most important work you’re ever going to do in your careers, guys.’”

What is the best type of client-agency relationship?

“When a client knows how to use the agency and really work together, magic keeps happens. If you look at NZTA as an example of work that keeps hitting the mark, it all starts with core teams on both sides that have enormous respect for each other. There’s no brief and reverse brief type chain link of events. We’re all in it together hand in hand from the beginning. And this is something we’re trying to instigate across all our clients. There are clients in non-government agencies that might not work like that, but we’re slowly moving toward that space, and, so far, everyone seems open to it. The other thing, especially with the transport agency, is that it always starts with a very clear research-led insight from the client, and only then the digging starts for the human truth behind that insight. This is a joint effort through the highs of finding something and potential lows of realising that it probably won’t work. There’s no blame. It’s just about finding the next nugget.”

Do you feel that a growing emphasis on research, particularly in the behavioural science space, is leading to better or more effective creative work?        

“An idea doesn’t come from one place. The more that we push each other, and the more diverse the thought, the better.”  

On the topic of diversity, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between your departure and that of Nicky Bell at the beginning of last year. What are your thoughts on the fact that two major female executives have departed over the last year, especially since they were both replaced by men?

“Luckily at Clems, we still have some fantastic female execs leading the business. We’ve got Brigid Alkema, who’s our ECD and who’s also on the Clemenger board, and then we’re got Amanda Sellers, our finance director, so Brett [Hoskin] is almost like the lone ranger. He’s always been the odd one out in the leadership of Clems. And also, we have a whole host of talent that works with the leadership team and is also coming to the fore as well. [That said,] I don’t think it’s about strong female leadership. I think it’s more about diversity in skills and approach, and that can come from a man or a woman at the end of the day. I understand that gender is an issue across the industry, but it really comes down to diversity of thinking at the top level. Anything that can be done to encourage that is key.”  

What have been some of the highlights of working at Clems?

“Working with very talented people on both the agency and the client side has definitely been a highlight. And in terms of the work, some of my favourites would be ‘Hello’ for NZTA, Tracksafe’s ‘Concious Crossing’, and then the other highlight, even though it caused some controversy, was ‘Meet Locals’ for the Zoo. That last campaign worked its socks off. The Zoo had its biggest launch campaign for any of its exhibitions and this was for local animals, which is usually the hardest to get Kiwis to go and see.

The most recent highlight is to see the change in direction for the ‘Speed’ work. The first chapter has just gone out and I’m really keen to see how it rolls out. Beyond the work perspective, I’ve also been incredibly proud to see the team win some global recognition for the work we’re doing, not just from an awards perspective but in phone calls from the US or Poland, asking to use our work.” 

     

It’s always easier to talk about highlights, but quite often our lives are defined by important failures and how we manage to pick ourselves up from those. So looking back at your career, what would you say is your biggest failure and how did you develop beyond that failure?   

“God, there have been quite a few of them, as there always are. But the one I keep struggling with is listening and trusting myself. I think that might sometimes be a bit more inherent in women than in men, but when I look at some of my failures on both the client and agency side, I almost kick myself for a while afterwards. It’s like, God, I knew it, why didn’t I just step up and say, ‘I’m not going to do this because it’s wrong’”. It’s not every time, but many of the times I’ve failed it’s been with stuff I really didn’t believe in. It’s all about how you pick yourself up after that.”

So how do you go about picking yourself up?

“Look, I have been raised by an amazingly strong mother, who has had some massive challenges in her life. Dad went through a bit of a medical trauma too early in his career, so she raised the family entirely on her own. She was constantly positive. No matter what was thrown at her, there was always a silver lining, and she really instilled in us this belief that bad happens, but for a good reason. Now, I look at my life and my failures and see that they led me to where I am now. I honestly have this belief that no matter what happens, it’s for a good reason. So when things go wrong in the agency, I always try to find a way for us to move beyond it. And I think clients appreciate that as well. We’re not just wiping stuff under the carpet and moving on. We’re actually looking for ways to fix things so that they don’t happen again.”   

Even the most optimistic of us, tend to become a bit despondent when things don’t work how, so how does this process of fixing things play out in the industry?

“This is part of the reason why we’ve developed the culture of encouraging people to talk up and contribute, rather than sitting there and feeling crap that it hasn’t worked. We really try to point those curious creative minds in a different direction. It’s about saying, ‘Well that didn’t work, so what part of that didn’t work and how can we solve that problem.’ And after that, they’re off and running again. They’re so curious, and you just have to work with that. We had a point in case just a few weeks ago with another government agency, where something didn’t work. And we literally had 48 hours to turn around an entirely new idea and design approach. We just sat down looked at the research and thought about it a different way, and the work that came out 48 hours later is just so much better. So even though it was crap to hear that news, it made the end product better.”

That covers all the questions I had jotted down, but is there anything else you’d like to share with the folks of adland before heading off on your next adventure?   

“I don’t know if it’s good-bye to adland overall, as much as it’s good-bye to leading advertising agencies. But if there’s one piece of advice I’d like to leave is for people to speak up and trust their intuition. The world is changing so fast, and experience alone can’t come up with all the great ideas. It’s about diversity of thought. So, anything we can do to encourage newbies, people from outside adland or those on the client side to speak up would be good for the industry. It’s been an absolute privilege and humbling experience to lead the team at Clemenger BBDO, so I really just want to say a big ‘thank you’.”  

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