52: "The Mistake Maker" - Wesley ter Haar

Wesley ter Haar, Media Monks .jpg

"The Mistake Maker"

Wesley ter Haar is the founder and Chief Operating Officer of MediaMonks, a global creative production company with 11 offices and almost 700 people.  We talked about hiring bad people, about how to scale while holding on to your standards, and about the importance of building and maintaining momentum.


Three Takeaways

  • The ability to stay focused on moving towards something with intention.
  • A willingness to learn from your own mistakes and to help others learn from theirs.
  • A genuine desire for other people to do well.

"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 52: "The Mistake Maker" Wesley ter Haar

I’m Charles Day and this is Fearless!!

This week, my conversation with Wesley ter Haar, which is called -

The Mistake Maker

“many of our people have invested a better part of their sort of formative years in what we're trying to do here so it would be disappointing if you sort of look at it a few years down the road and go that wasn't worth it. Just making sure that we're doing is honest and is exciting and even though we make a million mistakes, making sure that the reason we're making those mistakes comes from a good place. I think that, to me, is the most important.” 

Most companies for whom creativity is essential fuel, talks about the importance of creating a culture that encourages mistakes. Then they design both their p&l and their employee review systems to ensure that money plays no part in either the creation of or the reward for mistakes.

Creativity is dependent on the investments that leaders are willing to make in uncertainty. And uncertainty and commerce don’t play very nicely together. Which makes the whole thing uncomfortable. At best.

We are quick, as a species, to look for comfort. Which is why the status quo is so dangerous. It’s like comfort food. Only later do we understand how much damage it’s done.

Moving past those instincts requires real intention. The intention to do something worthwhile. It’s the only way to build a meaningful business. One capable of attracting and unlocking the best of the best.

One capable of making sure that when you reach end and ask yourself ‘was it worth it,’ that you have a better answer that, ‘no.’

Wesley ter Haar is the founder and Chief Operating Officer of MediaMonks, a global creative production company with 11 offices and 700 people. 

We talked about hiring bad people, about how to scale while holding on to your standards, and about the importance of building and maintaining momentum.

Charles:

Wesley, welcome to Fearless. Thank you so much for being here today.

Wesley ter Haar:

Thank you for the invite, very exciting.

Charles:

Technically, obviously you're not actually here today. I'm in upstate New York watching it snow and I know that you're in LA, where I'm assuming it's sunny and 70.

Wesley ter Haar:

It's, we're getting there. We've actually had a surprisingly not that great month of weather. I've been apologizing to a lot of people that have made it over because it's been quite gray, so my continuing apologies have been this is not what you expect from LA. But I think we're still beating out New York.

Charles:

Yes, yes absolutely. Based on what I'm looking at out of the window, anything is beating out New York at the moment. I ask all of the my guests the same question to start with so let me throw this one at you. When are you first conscious of creativity showing up in your life? When are you first conscious of looking at something or experiencing something and realizing that that was creative?

Wesley ter Haar:

That is an interesting question. I think, because I wasn't sort of that focused on creativity growing up. I think it was probably film related where I really started understanding creativity as something that could have a real cultural impact and thinking back about it now, I think something like Pulp Fiction, which I can just remember being in the cinema with this group of people that were just so taken by what we were seeing because it was so different for its time. That's probably the first moment I really started understanding creativity as something that could be a real force. And that, I think, sort of played into gaming quite a bit and then really the internet, which started bubbling up around the same time for me in my home country, the Netherlands.  

These things sort of came together to maybe not actively open my eyes to creativity, but at least feel it as something that was an interesting, powerful thing to be involved with.

Charles:

I'm curious. This is kind of a strange question but it just struck me. When you saw Pulp Fiction, did you see it in English or did you see it translated? Was it subtitled? How did you experience it?

Wesley ter Haar:

No, I saw it in English. I was lucky enough to grow up in one of the European countries that does not dub. So, no all of the things we saw was in English.

Charles:

So, did you learn English from a really young age?

Wesley ter Haar:

Yeah. Well, my mother is actually English so-

Charles:

Oh, is she really?

Wesley ter Haar:

Yeah, I'm born and raised in Amsterdam but my mother is English but I have to admit I probably learn most of my English just from TV and for any Dutch people that are listening to this, Lynn Lamore used to be on Sky TV talking a lot of English for her big career. So, no. Mostly TV based.

Charles:

What did you watch growing up, on TV did you watch?

Wesley ter Haar:

All the shows. What an amazing time to grow up, we had Night Rider, we had Air World, we have McGyver, we had staples of 80s culture. It was 80s, born in 78 but 80s kid when it comes to cultural consumption I would say.

Charles:

That's such an interesting references point. Yeah, it's funny isn't it how TV is a bit like music. When you name names of TV shows, it just takes you back to a time in your life and a place in your life.

Wesley ter Haar:

Yeah.

Charles:

When you start to remember McGyver, I so remember where I was and what I was doing back then. That's so funny.

Wesley ter Haar:

[inaudible] the whole time.

Charles:

Yeah, yeah, exactly. What did you focus on academically?

Wesley ter Haar:

Not being very academic was probably my main focus but so, I only really had a year of actual study after my sort of normal, formative school years. And I did communications for a year but to give a bit of context, there were really two studies that you would go to if you didn't really know what you wanted to do or be. One was law and one was communication studies. I actually went to a law intake class first and it was one of the most boring hours I've ever experienced in my life. So, it was communication by default really.

During that time, that was really for me when we [inaudible 00:10:47] now but I'm going to say the internet. That was really when it started bubbling up for me as a consumer thing. I was spending probably half my time at school in the computer room sort of playing around with what that was because it was so new and exciting.

Charles:

This was when? What kind of year was this? What year was this?

Wesley ter Haar:

This was late 90s in Amsterdam. It's probably about 98.

Charles:

Communication study focused on what for you? What areas were you concentrating on, given that you didn't any amount of anything.

Wesley ter Haar:

I did the first year which it was very broad and I dropped out after my first year. And my, I think that was really enough, even though the choice of study was so indiscriminate and really have no connection to any real thing I wanted to do or be. I think the irony there is being part of that study and sort of having the friction of seeing this new thing happen or new this for me, which was internet, and then seeing none of that reflected in the communication study, which was still very traditional, actually pushed me into what I did, which was sort of drop out and start a company.

Even though the study itself did very little for me, it did sort of position what I ended up doing as almost a wrong example for me at that time.

Charles:

Did your business come straight out of that experience? Was there something in between that happened?

Wesley ter Haar:

Well, so I dropped out. I think I was 20 at most. So, there is no way, or well when I was 20, I'm sure for a lot of people, this was different. There was no grand plan or amazing insight or vision. I dropped out and really just with friends started messing about doing internet things and that very quickly sort of turned into wait a minute, if we're doing this, maybe people want to pay us a bit of money for it. And if you want to get some money and then we'll be legally active as a company. It was sort of this very naturalist thing where we started doing some stuff for ourselves, for friends and family and then suddenly, you're 20 and you have what you could define as a company.  

That actually turned into a bit of a start up moment. We had our own very small, very non-exciting bubble in Amsterdam. Nothing like [inaudible 00:13:24] or these other things that were happening state-side. But I actually did a year in a failed start up that was another, I would almost say, eye opening moment to do things differently and out of that was really where, made MediaMonks happen. Yeah, that whole formative period, it was a lot of sort of bad examples that I disagreed with that made me do something that I hope was what I should be doing. It was by mistakes really that we sort of got to that point.

Charles:

What did you learn from the failed start up?

Wesley ter Haar:

I just, it took me awhile. I was there like a year maybe, year and a half. It was just the realization that we weren't doing anything of value and just hearing, I think I had the practicality to sort of hear stories about value and these amazing riches and streets paved with gold type stories and then look at our actual product and output and just go, but that doesn't make sense. This is, I think a recurring problem for me, I sometimes look at something that I don't know why that would be valuable and I turn out to be very, very wrong. But in this case, I think it sort of the understanding of trying to take away some of the best words and almost say bullshit and start doing things that were fun and interesting and had impact and people enjoyed was really the driving reason why MediaMonks happened.

Charles:

How did you recognize that stuff was having impact? What was your feedback loop that you were part of at that point, because obviously the internet was so naissant back then. It was hard to really understand what the effect of stuff was, right?

Wesley ter Haar:

Yeah, it was such a, I was actually talking about this not that long ago with a few people, it was so small, I think people just underestimated how small everything was where if you do something interesting today, you're sort of happy if you're a trending topic for an hour, right? It's the speed of culture and the speed with which things get consumed and then sort of passed through so quick now, that to win a day on the internet is this magical moment. But back then, the early 2000s, if you did something interesting, you would be the thing for a week, two weeks, a month.  

We sort of tapped into that very small community, which was all ... The community was very young, everybody was very non-commercially motivated I would say at that moment. It was a lot of celebration of interesting things that were happening out there. We really just focused on started understanding that because we were one of the people that got excited but work that other people did and that made us sort of go in almost a friendly competitive manner, how can we be part of that? How can something that gets our friends and our sort of small circle of like minded folks excited, that was really the feedback loop.

Charles:

Who is the we at that point? Who were you draw to working with and why?

Wesley ter Haar:

You had some amazing things happening at that time. You had a lot of design portals at that time. We actually ended up supporting something called Pixel Surgeon, we helped them with their hosting and you had like four or five these pieces that like you sort of, four or five of these sites that really find what the design community and the interactive community was talking about. So, we tapped into that, supported them. It was a really interesting scene in Amsterdam at that moment with some amazing creative talent, where we would just have meet ups. We would hang out with the 15 other nerds that were trying to be great Flash developers or 3D modelers and that type of stuff.

Yeah, it was just an exciting time but also internationally you had sort of the in group, the likes of PlayStation, the likes of [inaudible 00:17:33], the likes of [inaudible 00:17:35]. These are all names that in many cases still exist where just these amazing creative talents that were doing things that literally blew our mind and also motivated us to try and do similar things.

Charles:

When did you form the company officially and what was the kind of deciding factor behind doing that?

Wesley ter Haar:

Officially, 2001. Early 2001 was the official where I'm sure a lot of the listeners will know, 2001 was not the best year to start a company in the internet space. That was sort of probably a very barren period for internet related things because of the bubble bursting and of course, 9-11 happened. We started early 2001 and the real motivation there was just trying to I think find, I don't think we thought about it as a company at that time to be honest. I would almost say the first three to four years was more a way to sort of, it was almost an excuse not to have to go to school or get a real job. It was a bit of the ability to say no, I'm doing a thing. I run a company but it was really I think in many cases an excuse to just try and get out of what we sort of weren't interested in doing at that moment.

Charles:

Yeah, it's hard to explain who didn't live through 2001 and into two to your point, what that was like, isn't it? In terms of building a creative business. We made a big shift in our business in 2001 two weeks after 9-11 actually and we bought another company. And then suddenly we're faced with the economic reality of the industry and all the projections about how this was going to change our revenue stream and our PNL went out the window. But in hindsight, I think going through that experience was actually a really powerful foundation for our business because it forced us to get very disciplined and very focused about what was really important and kind of what wasn't.  

When we came out of that recession, I think it really was, it was almost a depression, wasn't it? In the advertising communication industry for a year or so, but coming out the other side, we had built so many competitive advantages, it was impossible for other people to catch up. I think sometimes, we underestimate the value of living through a really tough time if you get really focused about what your business needs and what it doesn't need.

Wesley ter Haar:

Yeah. I completely agree. You have the Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers. I like the sort of the thinking around not, it's not about specific talent or this sort of God given right to be successful. A lot of it is timing. I actually look at those formative years as such an important driver behind our later sort of growth. Because we were allowed to make mistakes because nobody was really paying attention to what we were doing and we'd go to work with these really big bags that just didn't pay any attention to what we were doing literally in a basement with a few guys because they weren't really paying money, it was very low budget. Nobody really understood the potential impact.  

There was a lot of sort unchecked creativity that happened in that time. And the ability to make mistakes, learn from them and not get into a situations that sort of could hurt a very naissant business. I completely agree. I think that time was formative for us that it gave us that foundational basis to actually grow when everything started to come out of the doldrums a bit.

Charles:

Yeah. I think that certainly resonates for me. How do you, just as kind of a side bump, I'm curious. How do you define creativity? What is creativity to you?

Wesley ter Haar:

It's so, for me, I almost think a bit about the mechanics. I often don't really think about creativity as this sort of flash of inspiration. And that's mostly because that's not how I work creativity. For me, creativity is you try and be an open minded person that sort of provides your brain with a lot of input, diverse input and then for me, creativity for me is the ability to talk about something and then follow the trend. I'm very bad at just sitting in a corner and being creative. I often need to do it in a conversation to really get my mind working. And then, it's just about this sort of synthesis of information you have that allows you to look at a question or a problem or an opportunity in a slightly angled way, that for me is often creativity because it's doing things that maybe are already being done elsewhere but then for a different industry or it's doing things slightly askew, that for me, often is where creativity is.  

Yeah, I'm more about the mechanics of it sometimes then this huge eureka moment.

Charles:

That's an interesting perspective. What do the mechanics look like to you? I'm a big believer that creativity requires structure and order and actually well designed process in order to thrive. But I'm really interested in what do you mean by mechanics?

Wesley ter Haar:

I sort of lock into the idea that you get a lot of free work, free credit with them if you're prepared. Again, this is how my brain works, I know if I read up on a problem or a brief or an opportunity, and then spend a bit of time thinking about it and then maybe gathering additional information, I can sort of let it sit for a while because I know there is a subconscious working model that then sort of marinates what's there. And then if I then have a conversation around it. I'll sort of stumble upon new insights that I wouldn't get if I'm just sitting in a corner and sort of do the heavy lifting of creative thinking.  

For me, it's a more organic, almost naturalistic way to treat it. Which for me, has become very structured. I know how I sort of work so I try and align with that as much as I can.

Charles:

I know that you're the COO of MediaMonks, which I think is an interesting perspective, do you bring your own understanding about your own creative process to the organizational structure and the organizational dynamics of MediaMonks?

Wesley ter Haar:

Yeah, I hope so. I think the interesting thing for me is I've always been, I like the sort of the power of a [inaudible] because I think there is an excitement to sort of working in a slightly less formatted and structured way. For me, it's always been about how do you scale up, especially scale up a creative business. That's sort of this very, it's almost something that tends to fail because scaling up creative people and creative business and creative process tends to be something that takes away some of the things you need to be creative.

For us, it's always been about not trying to layer in too many steps, too many sort of process but trying to get people to have that slight amount of chaotic friction that I think you need in a creative business. So that, to me, has been maybe the role I try and play from a COO level. Which is, yes we're growing but just because we're growing, we shouldn't lose some of the things that made us a really great creative offering when we were 15 people. It's an interesting balance to try and find but I think we've done well.

And also, just understanding that I'm 39 now. I was better as a creative when I was 21 or 22 because there was a lack of knowing that allows you to be completely fresh about something. So, also just understanding you need a lot of up and coming talent, and you need to empower them to have a similar impact that we were able to have.

Charles:

How did you end up as the COO?

Wesley ter Haar:

So, when we started, I was the developer, I was a Flash developer/animator but that was, if you talk about mechanics, that was working like. I could get us to where we sort of wanted to be with work but it was my graphs and not so much talent. So, when we started hiring people, I was very quickly, I would say I failed upwards into project management very quickly because that is where those formative years were I think really important. I'd gone through a lot of projects and understood sort of the dos and don'ts. I became the project manager for a very small team, probably about 10 or 15 people and that grew into a bigger team where suddenly, you need other project manager so you become head of operations. You start adding offices around the world and then you need, we need something with the C in the name.  

I sort of grew through that scaling the company path into this operational role. But I think everybody that started at the time we started our company sort of is used to doing all of the things. You're sort of part creative, part operational, part design, part animation. There were a lot of McGyvers in our time because you needed to make things work, right? It was such an exploratory industry at that time.

Charles:

Project management has become such a fundamentally critical part of the best creative businesses. There's so many more disciplines involved today then there were 10 or 15 years ago obviously. What do you think of a really well structured, really well run project management team? How do you see project management? What is the role that project management plays and what do you think of the characteristics of it when it's done well?

Wesley ter Haar:

Yeah, we've always been a company that isn't afraid to sort of fly a more production/operational flag because I think the power of a great PM, a great PM gives me all of the things I need. He gives me, he or she gives me a good project, a happy team and a happy client. If all goes well, a bit of margin as well. A good PM brings together and actually has a huge amount of impact on a project, on a business, if they're empowered. I think what I've seen happen too often I think is PMs being put into role of sort of an admin or clerk type position. That to me, is not a project manager. We really look for project managers to be a personality in the room and be sort of a powerful leader, we call it leading from behind. Powerful leader that then drives everybody towards an ambition and goal and facilitates that everybody can work at the very best of their abilities.  

Which means, while we have a lot of process around project management, we try and make sure that people's own personality drives it. I think personality in that role is so key. You don't try and sort of get people just to checklist and try and make machines out of them.

Charles:

What are the characteristics that you look for in that kind of personality? What do you think makes a great project manager?

Wesley ter Haar:

Somebody that is solution oriented, which is a bit of an open door but I think as a creative, as a client, as a colleague, you're looking for people that are going to be next to you in the trenches and pushing towards somethings ambitious. I think the easiest thing to be in our industry, in our sort of type of company, is be too easily satisfied with a seven because we hit the deadline and the client is okay with it and we're on to the next. We look for people that real ambition about the thing they're delivering and not just the process they're putting in place. Because there's so much tooling and there's so much process and there's so much documentation we can all sort of spin through, it's really a people business.  

It's about people deciding they're going to do something that's great and that's uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable because it often means you have to push a bit harder against a project then you're sort of comfortable with. You're probably spending a bit more time on it, past the point that it's fun. It's all these small points of friction that take you from delivering a six or a seven to an eight or a nine. That's a huge key part of what a project manager needs to bring to the table..

Charles:

And to your earlier point, how do you retain that kind of vitality, that kind of constructive tension as you grow a business? You're what 10 offices now, is that right?

Wesley ter Haar:

Just opened 11 in Mexico City.

Charles:

Congratulations.

Wesley ter Haar:

Thank you, thank you.

Charles:

How do you maintain those sensibilities?

Wesley ter Haar:

Well, the main thing is that I think is the most powerful part to MediaMonks, we probably have the best hiring spree in, that I can imagine when we first started. So, we had probably our first 15 people. Most of them are still at MediaMonks and that's been an easy way for us to scale DNA. It's been an easy way for us to sort of scale the understanding of what we are trying to do. That's sort of the beginning and that has been sort of really a spread throughout the wealth. And then the other part of that is this real understanding that if we're not delivering quality, we're not delivering what we have promised our clients but also the people that work for us.  

People don't come to work for MediaMonks to sort of do, I would say almost, rote work. They're coming to MediaMonks because there's a promise of doing exciting things. The moment we lose that, then we start losing what our promise is and if you start losing that, I think it's very easy to default into sort of this, not bad work but mediocre work. It's a constant question we ask ourselves. We actually have a recurring refrain which is how big can you get before you get bad at what we do? There's a lot of sort of internal realization that it's a constant watch out.

Charles:

Have you come up with an answer to that question yet? Do you know how big you could get before you become bad?

Wesley ter Haar:

I think we're, honestly, creatively, I think 2017 was one of our best years ever. Which is exciting, you look at the work, you look at the diversity of the work, the regional spread of the work and you go, this is still heading in the right direction. But in growth, there are moments. There are moments that I think we very good at recognizing where you can just go, wait a minute. We're seeing a trend. We're seeing something trend downwards, we're see a lack of craft in a certain area, we're seeing a lack of ambition in a certain area and being able to recognize that quickly and then really try and find what the reason is and change it, I think has been a defining, it's been a defining catalyst. Really being able to weed that out and solve it quickly.  

I think we can grow. I think there is an excitement for us to try and a 1,000 person company that does amazing creative at our scale. We're at 650 now, nearing 700. We think that's possible but you have to be so aware of what you're doing, which is yeah, I would say almost a job on itself at the moment.

Charles:

As the person responsible for maintaining the standards of all of that and pulling people together, how do you build the indicators into an 11 office network with 700 people that let you know, you know what? That's an early warning sign or there's a leading indicator that some of this stuff isn't happening the way we need it to. How have you gone about instilling that kind of practice, methodology, structure? Call it what you will.

Wesley ter Haar:

So, there's definitely process but what I like most about the model and it's probably down to still having a fair amount of Dutch people in our company and I'm not sure how many Dutch people you've worked with in the past, but Dutch people are very outspoken and aren't afraid of complaining, which is sort of a day to day can be an interesting management challenge but it means we just get signals straight away. If people are looking at work and they're not, it feels like we didn't hit where we need to be, you'll get those signals quickly. Just from the floor, from the people that are actually doing the work. That's sort of a, I would almost say a point of pride that we've been able to instill that into a lot of the people that have been at the company a long time but also a lot of people that have joined recently.

The second thing is there's just this ongoing structure of leadership where people are constantly just looking at the work that's being done and trying to look at it through our filter, which is, is this our version of what we should be doing? Does it hit our ambition for what we should be doing with this type of work? There's a lot of sort of gut checking and soul searching that happens, which is tiring. It's not easy to be good at sort of difficult creative work. But it's the only way I think to keep everyone honest.

Charles:

Here's a massively unfair question for you. Do you think the company would have been successful if it didn't have Dutch DNA?

Wesley ter Haar:

That's an interesting question, I don't think it's maybe not the thing that defines us from a success perspective but has allowed us to create sort of checks and balances that do work well in production. I think the interesting thing for me has been, it's almost more of ... And then I look at America for instance as a counter point, there is such a almost loyalty between employee and employer within our social system, within our sort of employment system, that it's you are working together to get somewhere. That's been really powerful for us because that means that you can build a team and you can grow it together, where a system like the US, where there is such a- Well, it's not a system that allows for a lot of mistakes. It means people are less prone to actually staying somewhere and making things better versus being afraid of potentially losing their job and already finding something new.

So, there's definitely a component of Dutch culture that I think works really well in product but I think the employment system was actually a bit of a hidden shrink there as well.

Charles:

Do you look for people with specific characteristics? What's the profile of people that succeed at MediaMonks?

Wesley ter Haar:

So, for me, and it's actually a really interesting discussion we're also having internally, we need baseline talent but after that it's all personality and ambition. You want people that are enthusiastic, that are ambitious, that work well with others, it's all of those sort of open doors but there needs to be an internalized ambition to do something exciting and to try and push through the barriers to actually get there. I think what I find an interesting challenge on our scale, there's so many people in our company that we hired when they were ... They were okay but, it wasn't so much about looking at what they were doing at that time. It was understanding that they had the personality and drive and just the enjoyment of getting somewhere else.

I think for me, personally, one of the challenges now is a lot of those people have grown into amazingly senior spots in our company, but they tend to be sometimes people forget how bad they were when we hired them. That's sort of my mantra. I go but you were so bad when we hired you so it's about giving people a chance in a way that sort of I think gives you a much broader ability to tap into people's sort of natural ambition. That's an interesting balance because now we're sort of this big global operation and we work for all these big brands. There's sometimes I think an easy choice, which is just going for somebody that has a portfolio and has the CV and has the seniority. For me, it's been important to have those successions to go, let's make sure we give people a chance, right? Let's get people in here who aren't finished product but can give us something new and exciting, just because they the ambition to become that.

Charles:

Is there a risk to doing that, from your perspective?

Wesley ter Haar:

No. No. For me, no. I think it's so and I'll be honest. I have sort of a tendency to push back against the it's okay to fail mantra that I think a lot of the San Francisco, Silicon Valley business models have driven into the rest of the world because I'm not like that. I think that there's too little responsibility behind that as a mantra but when you get people in your organization, they should be able to fail without consequence and without consequence means just because somebody makes a mistake, doesn't mean they should be fearful for their role or their job. But also, just because somebody makes a mistake, we should be able to buffer that mistake becoming something that hits a client or a project in an important way.

It's building these safety nets for people to make mistakes. Sometimes actively letting people make mistakes so they get a bit of scar tissue and they have the learning cycle. Because honestly, I always tell people the only reason I was a good project manage is because I made all of the mistakes. Every single mistake and I learned from it and sometimes I didn't learn from it and I had to make the mistake several times but that made me really good as a project manager. It's people, it's like touching a hot stove when you're a kid. That scar tissue is what makes you learn and I think if you do not have that as part of your company culture it's really difficult for people to grow.

Charles:

Yeah, I think that's really resonate. One of the best pieces of advice I got early in my career was from somebody who said to me it's not how bad you fuck it up, it's how well you fix it that is the secret to great production. And I think to your point great project management.

Wesley ter Haar:

I can remember talking to somebody at our company a while back who had just made so many mistakes, like a record amount of mistakes in a record amount of time that I said you're either the worst project manager of all time or you're going to be the best because I've never seen somebody create so much scar tissue in such a short amount of time. Yeah.

Charles:

Well that's a brave culture to have that kind of perspective I think. As you look back at the growth of the company, over what now, 17 years, right?

Wesley ter Haar:

Yep.

Charles:

Was there a point that you think was really pivotal? Is there a point at which you can, looked into the chasm and said, you know what? We've got to make this leap otherwise we're not going to make it.

Wesley ter Haar:

Yeah, I think we had ... There is an interesting almost sort of vibration of the company when it starts scaling and we've had a few of those moments we used to call it the MediaMonk sensation because we had moments where we did the thing that maybe wasn't, maybe it didn't make the most amount of sense or wasn't completely though through but it felt like the thing we needed to keep momentum. For me, the most important thing in those 17 years, has been the ability to have momentum. That, to me, is the most important thing. Momentum is sort of vibrancy, it's growth. It's the ability to do new things. We've always looked at how do we get momentum in place? That was as early as moving to an actual [inaudible 00:43:55] when we started the company was in a basement and then our second office spot was this very weird hidden away location above a garage.

When we actually decided to move into an actual office, which was too expensive for us at that time, that was a huge deal for us. That type of decision where you almost force yourself into momentum was really powerful for us. Our first office outside of Amsterdam in London, that was an amazing sort of visionary decision on global growth. That was what do we do to get to the next step, so almost forcing it to happen versus waiting for it to happen. Those have been key moments. There are sort of these interesting moments when you hit certain numbers. The first time you sort of become a company of 40 people, you sort of lose the founder model because you can't control everything anymore. It's a huge moment and when it hits 100, huge moment.  

Those are really the areas where I think you survive or you sort of fall. Falling doesn't mean maybe it goes bust but it just becomes a lesser version of what you wanted to be. But we've been able to push through those and sometimes I think power them by taking decisions that put ourselves maybe in uncomfortable situations.

Charles:

How early in the company's history did you start to establish a vision or a definition of the future. Because you've referenced that a couple of times and I'm struck by that.

Wesley ter Haar:

I think so, our company, if you look at stages, probably the first ... If we go 2001, 2004, I think that was us not wanting to get a real job and just being so excited to be part of this burgeoning, creative community. That was really just about us learning what our own interests were I think. After that was really when the marketeers in our local market started to come back and spend money on what we were doing. We went through a cycle and I think that was a defining thing for our company. We went through a cycle of growth. We went through a cycle of work that ended up in a space where I think we looked around at the talent that we had and then we matched it to the work we were doing. This was probably about 2007, maybe, yeah. 2007, maybe 2008. We went even though this is a successful company and it's doing well, it's growing, it's making money. We aren't excited by the work we're doing.

That was I think the moment we really started to define what we wanted to be because it just felt like we were doing something that wasn't, it just wasn't going to be something that was going to excite us long term but it also was I think something that I wasn't going to excite the talent we were trying to build. 2007, that's the moment where we took this ... And I still, I'm not quite sure how we took the position or even how we decided on it but I would say that was probably one of those decisions to push ourselves into an uncomfortable space. We actually dropped a lot of our clients, even though for the time running a very successful business.  

We dropped a bunch of clients. We started working with international agencies more than local marketeers because we wanted to power to a level of creative sort of excellence that we weren't getting. That vision has been in place for the last decade and it has been a north star.

Charles:

As you look back over the journey so far and what you've learned about yourself, how do you now lead? What do you bring as a leader?

Wesley ter Haar:

It's one of those questions that's probably difficult to answer about yourself. I think, I hope, so my model has always been I can maybe almost an easy model and I've had to grow out of it slightly. The easy model is you're there with everybody and you're doing the work and you're putting in the time and you're sort of at the front of the battle, so to speak. That's an easy leadership role because it's more about just being part of it and showing that you are not skirting any responsibilities. And then, just being very good hopefully at what you're trying to do.

That leadership model worked really well but it becomes sort of a version of hero ball, where it's the Lebron James model, where it just is one person sort of trying to be a leader by just actually executing and I think there's a limit to that when you start scaling.

This is the point where I tell you I'm not technically inclined so I actually struggle with this. But the leadership model now is, I try and it's about empathy. We have a global company with so many different cultures and backgrounds and time zones and talents and teams but I'm mostly making sure people are very empathetic of people's roles and ambitions and understanding how we can get people to sort of grow within that. It's actually going from more of a being there in the midst of trying to be more of a mentor and trying to be more almost moving into the coaching world, which is enjoyable but I think leadership is such an interesting part of what we do.

I'm definitely finding what my version of that is at this scale at the moment because it isn't as easy as it used to be where it was just about let me do this thing and show everybody how it's done or let me work the longest or work the hardest. It's interesting how that needs to scale.

Charles:

Yeah, I think that last point is really, is particularly interesting. I've got a friend who talks about, who is a very high powered leader and talks about their early experience of moving into a very senior position and deciding that they were going to spend the night with the team, getting a pitch ready. The team leader came over to them at about 9:30 at night and said do you think you could go home because I think we'd all appreciate it if you would make your job look like something we might want to do one day. I thought that's a powerful reference point, right? That the leader does need to show up in a different way for all kinds of different reasons. Not because there's arrogance or entitlement but because in fact, people are looking for leaders to act differently.

Wesley ter Haar:

Yeah, and there are so many versions of it. It's an interesting thing to think about because it's, there's often the focus is how do we grow others and how do we grow a team and how do we grow a company but it comes with such a need for your own sort of version of growth as well. I really enjoy sort of thinking about that. I think it's a very interesting challenge.

Charles:

Yeah, I agree. What are you afraid of?

Wesley ter Haar:

What am I afraid of? That's, honestly, I don't know. It's going to sound a bit sort of effected but from a work perspective, I've learned to treat things as information. I don't really see things as good or bad because if you're part of that, up and down cycle constantly, I think it's not good. You can sort of be too emotionally invested in sort of a small data points. I try and look at things quite disconnected in the sense that I don't want to sort of be directly impacted by any good or bad piece of information. I'm not that, I don't really have a fear from that perspective.  

If I think about the thing that frightens me, probably about just not, we've been doing this for a while, right? So, you've invested and many of our people have invested a better part of their sort of formative years in what we're trying to do here so it would be disappointing if you sort of look at it a few years down the road and go that wasn't worth it. Just making sure that we're doing is honest and is exciting and even though we make a million mistakes, making sure that the reason we're making those mistakes comes from a good place. I think that, to me, is the most important.

Charles:

I wrap up every episode with three takeaways. Things that I've heard that I think distinctive or part of your success from a leadership standpoint. Let me put these to you and see what you think. One thing that I'm struck by is the intention behind what you did, that both as a company clearly but I think as a leader, you're clearly always focused on trying to move the process forward towards something and that context I think is powerful for people around you. Second is the comfort of learning from mistakes, whether yours as you talked about but also helping other people learn from theirs. I think, you've made this point a couple of times, there are too many instances and sometimes it's cultural, sometimes it's organizational that companies are so quick to just punish mistakes and not take the time to learn from them and teach from them.

Third, I think is you've referenced a couple of different times, this notion of leading from behind, empathy, which I think is really powerful and I think comes from a generosity towards other people, that I think is very much part of many of the most effective leaders that I've come across. One of the interesting themes that's come out of doing these podcasts actually is my consciousness of the implicit, inherent generosity and the very best leaders, that they have a real desire for other people to do really well.  

The other thing I would say just as a kind of an added observation, that just has really struck me, is that you're willing to push yourself into uncomfortable spaces and again, to learn from that. Again, I think that that kind of courage, fearlessness, if you want to be euphemism is a powerful part of successful leadership these days. How do those strike you?

Wesley ter Haar:

Well, I made notes. I'm going to update my LinkedIn bio with these notes.

Charles:

Excellent.

Wesley ter Haar:

No, well it's again, I think difficult sometimes to sort of talk about yourself in that fashion but it's definitely, I'd say the way you're describing it, these are definitely things that I want to be and that I want to focus on because I do think there's such an interesting impact of leadership and being able to sort of see others do it well I think is inspiring to me to try to be better at it. The main thing is being honest about it. We're trying, I always tell that to people because even though we're a big company and sometimes people see the sensation that ripples down and does something that they think is a bad thing, I always try to explain to people, we're never actively trying to make people's lives more difficult or less interesting. It's interesting to see even though we're doing everything to get everybody to a great place, of course you can't have everybody be happy all the time but just being really transparent about that without trying to ... We're not making decisions that we think are bad because there's bad intention.  

That can be that, that transparency and that open discussion with the people that we're lucky enough to have work for us, for me, has been really important the last four or five years of growth.

Charles:

That's beautifully said. Wesley, thank you very much for being here today. I've really, really, really enjoyed this conversation and I'm really interested to see how you and MediaMonks continue to grow.

Wesley ter Haar:

Thank you. Super enjoyable, I'm glad we didn't have to do this in New York snow and I hope we get to catch up in person somewhere soon.

Charles:

I hope so too. Thank you again, enjoy the weekend.