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Human of the Year: Catherine Harris on inspiration, motivation and smashing the glass cliff phenomenon

At the end of 2019, Catherine Harris, CEO of TBWA, took home the Human of the Year Award in our third annual Stoppies Awards night. The judges acknowledged that Harris’s work across TBWA since her joining in 2017 had seen the company gradually incline after she was made CEO from managing director last year. Courtney Devereux sat down with Catherine Harris to hear about the year that was and how her personal life affects what she brings into her job each day. 

2019 for Harris was a year of growing agency profile, and the award for Human of the Year was unexpected as “there are so many other great people within the industry.”

“We got really good momentum in 2019 but we know big things are ahead in 2020. We were so focused on what we have coming up that we didn’t expect to be acknowledged for 2019. But it was lovely, my mum was proud. ‘I have no idea what that means,’ she said ‘but it sounds good.’”

One of the biggest highlights for Harris in 2019 was the leadership that TBWA has curated over the last year, including new moves in the shape of Shane Bradnick as chief creative officer at the close of 2018. In 2019, Harris brought on board Matt Kingston as head of strategy and planning and Guy Roberts as ECD.

“The magic of Shane joining and then Guy and Matt, and the way that the leadership team has come together has been amazing. The work we’re starting to do, which is just what we live and breathe for is awesome. We have literally the loveliest clients you can imagine and the network’s been really behind us. So we’ve been able to do some projects for the global network as well lead some new product development for global, which is amazing.” 

Shane Bradnick and Harris

The global focus has been a big part of Harris’ handle of the TBWA helm, and the global arm of the TBWA network has shown great support towards what she is trying to achieve. 

“Global has been amazingly supportive of me in this agency and believed that this market is something really special, and TBWA should have a really special business here to reflect that. We’re expecting the UX design side to come in huge this year, and globally that will be big for TBWA, taking brand platforms and moving it into experiences, and then also into the product.”

Harris says her time across the UK and Australia was a great experience that helped her learn the international market. Yet Harris says it’s the local opportunities in our own landscape that enticed her back. 

“I had worked in TBWA before and I loved the network and the leadership, so those two pillars sold it for me. Beforehand, I had worked in London and Sydney and I wasn’t planning on coming back to New Zealand, but this offer was on the table and being able to see what was possible in this market was a big sell… New Zealand is one of the most exciting markets you can work in. It’s of a size where you can be incredibly experimental. Clients are really curious, looking for more, and prepared to take different risks.”

Balance from all sides

Last year Harris promoted Kate Heatley to general manager, meaning a stronger balance was created in TBWA for women and men executives. Harris says for her, diversity plays a huge role in creativity, yet expresses we are in no way as progressive as we need to be. 

“It’s shocking the lack of high-end leadership from women in the big agencies. It’s not the same with clients, there’s a lot of incredibly talented, very senior female clients. It’s just in the big network agencies, there seems to be a complete lack of female representation, in particular, the ones that are setting the business agenda.

“It was a massive surprise when I came over because I’d spoken to clients, I had assumed that New Zealand would be progressive.” 

For Harris, a perk of her job is getting to work alongside other amazing women, yet she says an inclusive environment cannot be forced, it must be nurtured. 

“Shifting the scope is interesting because you can’t just appoint people to level things out, you need the right environment for that to work and you need global and regional support to adapt to different styles. You need clients and CEO’s who are supportive that you do bring different styles and ways of working. That’s something that sticks out about our leadership team, its 50/50 from a gender perspective, and the men on the team are so lovely and open and women can be themselves in that environment.”

Harris says that on re-joining TBWA was part of her mantra to always make the bravest and most courageous move when it comes to taking a big leap in your career.

“TBWA was in a lot of trouble, It was the highest risk move to take. And you know, I often say it’s one of the things I try to encourage women to do is take the scarier role, take the one that looks like it’s in the worst shape because even though the glass cliff is a phenomenon, think there is so much to learn from doing that and the upside is so much bigger when you take on a trickier opportunity.” 

Although a leader in the industry now, the creative industry was not Harris’ first plan. After a year of law school, she decided the professional career both her siblings went into was not for her, and decided to try something more creatively based. 

“I took a year off and went and worked in PR, looked around and just sort of went, ‘I’ve got to find the world for myself’. I worked out that I also didn’t want to PR. But it opened doors, I went to the Comms Council and someone showed me a video of what happens in an agency and I thought ‘that seems cool’. From that first job at Oglivy I loved it. I knew I wanted to be in and around creativity and making things happen by working with all types of partners and helping business.”

Fair, Firm, Fun.  

Harris leads her team the same way she leads herself, through working to be better than the day before. For her, it’s both important to look forward, but also to stop and take pride in past accomplishments. 

“Someone said I was fair, firm and fun. I’m constantly trying to meet our house rules about generosity and courage and seeing if I can live up to those. And honestly most days I’ll look back and think nope, did not hit them every minute of that day, but I think it’s about trying.

TBWA senior leadership team

When asked about her personal brand, Harris draws back to the people that surround her, and how they encourage her to be fearless when it comes to everyday decisions. 

“For me, I try to make sure I’m always honest and always courageous. We take an enormous amount of care. In this industry you have to care about what you make, and you have to care about the people you work with. Finally, you need to be generous, generous with your time, generous with how you understand other people’s perspectives and where the client and team members are coming from.” 

In a highly competitive industry, most get their inspiration for a plethora of different aspects, for Harris her inspiration is more inwards than the media she consumes.

“It’s a funny industry because the joy and happiness you experience becomes part of what you bring in to work every day. So for me, it’s from the conversations I have with friends to just being inspired by the world happening around me. It’s funny just what everyone brings and what everyone thinks. Everyone’s experiences are different. I don’t think you could work for a more inspiring industry. You can be looking at and learning from almost anything.” 

However more specifically Harris says she is a “huge nerd for biographies.” 

Growing up and now returning to her home suburb of Remuera, Harris has a very grounded outlook on where she goes to take a break from her hectic CEO schedule. 

“I absolutely love my home. It’s such a peaceful space for me. I’m out and about a lot so getting to come back to a space that’s quite is very meaningful. But I also reset by spending time with friends and family, they are a testament to what I have achieved.”

“If you’re lucky enough to have amazing people who you’ve worked with and people that have been in your life a long time, for all the mistakes you make having those people around you is the biggest signal you’re doing something right.” 

No place like home 

Harris who has lived both in Sydney and London acknowledges the luck she has had being able to travel and work where she needs to. She says although she can love wherever she is, “nothing beats being home.” 

“There are people that can find the joy where ever they are, but when I used to travel a lot I tried to make the most out of every different city and see what I could. Yet that would lead me to feel conflicted about trying to work, and fit in being a tourist. Now my mindset is more if I have to travel anywhere for work, and all I get is one breakfast with a different view, how lucky am I?

“I think that’s just one of the joys of getting older is being able to stop and remind yourself to take the joy and whatever’s happening around you and the opportunities that are in front of you and stop worrying.”

She touches upon a topic that has a growing importance in our industry, that of the high demand and eventual burn out of creatives. For Harris 2020 is her “year of health” which includes knowing when to switch off and check-in.

“When you gain momentum so quickly you’ve got to watch out that you don’t get slowly boiled down, because that just happens naturally when you’re busy. You end up taking on more and you think you’re feeling better when you’re actually just feeling slightly less bad. One of the reasons big breaks are so important is you really do get to look and go, am I genuinely okay?”

Circling again to her support team both in and out of the office, Harris says the thing she was most proud of in 2019 was the people she has kept in her life as, “the people in your life are a sign you’ve done some things right in amongst all the mistakes.”

She says mistakes are part and parcel of a leadership role, but “the wrongs are the way to get the right answer.”

“You are never not learning in a leadership role. I’d say I’m always reflecting but I do look ahead much more than I look back. So I reflect a lot. I look ahead much more than backward.”

Harris continues that leadership can be so different when it’s partnership-driven, as her TBWA team focuses heavily on.

“I think we’re taught so often that it’s a triangle that goes to the top and your aim is to sit at the top of the triangle. When actually if you can have the right people around you, you go up together, it’s the difference between your success and failure.”

As a young player in this industry, you often look up to the strong women manning the front lines, those who have used their influence to bring up those around them, and inspire those underneath. For me, Catherine Harris was one of those women, her outlook on success is strongly rooted in who she has around her and what she delivers back to other people.

Although there is no denying the impressive nature of her success across TBWA and international agencies, her success only comes off as encouragement, that maybe if we focused as she does, on surrounding ourselves with inspiring people, maybe we could reach that level of pure gratitude simply for what surrounds us. 

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