"Brands are simply collections of associations."
Emma Cookson has been able to filter the noise for brands and businesses from early in her career. She is regarded as one of the world's foremost brand strategists, taking over the role of Global Head of Strategic Planning at BBH before becoming CEO and then Chairman of BBH, New York.
Today she is a partner at You and Mr Jones, the disruptive company designed to build brands by combining marketing and technology expertise.
I talked to Emma about how she turned an Oxford university english literature degree into a career in advertising, about her unique definition of a brand and about her personal desire for global domination.
- A willingness to follow your instincts.
- The confidence to bet on yourself.
- The ability to assess vast numbers of inputs and construct a cogent story of the future.
"Fearless Creative Leadership" Podcast - Transcript
Episode 17: Emma Cookson
Hello, you're listening to Fearless, where we explore the art and science of leading creativity. That unpredictable, amorphous, and invaluable resource that's critical to every modern business. Each week, we talk to leaders of the world most disruptive companies about how they're jumping into the fire, crossing the chasm and blowing up the status quo. Leaders who've mastered turning the impossible into the profitable.
Today, the world needs leaders who can unlock creativity like never before. Fearless leaders. Why shouldn't that be you?
The simplifier. Modern businesses present their leaders with complex decisions. The speed with which those decisions have to be made are best served by a brain that's capable of absorbing, evaluating, filtering, prioritizing, combining and then acting upon hundreds, sometimes thousands of pieces of information. Of all of these leadership attributes, I think the capacity to filter is at the top of the list. To be able to cut through the noise and to sense, or even more than that, to know what's important almost in real time, is critical to modern leadership.
Today, that's harder than ever before because there's far more data and many more inputs and possibilities than there is time. No leader can assess every piece of information that is available to them before making a decision. They have to have the ability to recognize what's relevant and discard the rest. From chaos, they have to be able to create simplicity.
Some people bring that skill to the leadership table as a natural attribute. For others, it requires more effort and thought. Mastering the ability to filter the extraneous helps you unlock the creativity of others for two simple reasons. First, it allows you to focus their efforts on the most important problems. Problems where they can see and feel their impact. Nothing inspires original thinkers like evidence of a fact they are making a difference.
Second, it gives you as the leader clarity and confidence in your own decision making, which in turn encourages you to be more open to risk, which is the price of creativity. The best leaders encourage others to open new doors, to explore what ifs. That encouragement is more meaningful when it's amplified by a leader's personal confidence that these are the right areas to explore.
The best way to increase your ability to filter what's critical from what's not is pretty simple in my experience. It requires only that you have a clear picture of what you're trying to achieve and a way to know when you're there. If the goal is precise, the decisions you need to make become easier to see even in the maelstrom of modern business.
If you find yourself floundering and uncertain of the right course, check whether you have clarity about and confidence in your own vision of the future. If you're second guessing that, every input becomes potentially important, with the inevitable outcome being that you'll drown in a sea of possibility.
Emma Cookson has been able to filter the noise for brands and businesses from early in her career. She is regarded as one of the foremost brand strategists in the world, taking over the role of global head of strategic planning at Bartle Bogle Hegarty in London before becoming CEO and then chairman of BBH New York.
Today she is a partner at You & Mr. Jones, the highly disruptive company that's designed to build brands by combing marketing and technology expertise. I talked to Emma about how she turned an Oxford University English literature degree into a career in advertising, about her unique definition of a brand, and about her personal desire for global domination.
Charles: Emma, thanks so much for being here. Welcome to the show.
Emma Cookson: Thank you very much. It's lovely to be here.
Charles: I'd like to start occasionally with a simple question. What's your first memory of creativity? Something being creative.
Emma Cookson: That's quite an interesting question. I've always ... I think actually, I'm conscious of creativity particularly in verbal forms earliest. I was a really keen reader early on and I still love particularly the power of powerful words. I think ... I can remember being as a child and a teenager, really, really immersed in and enthusiastic about books, particularly fiction. Just being really ... being able to get really, really lost in words and ... I think it starts there. That certainly has continued to be a lifelong, I suppose enthusiasm and passion. I studied English literature as my degree and I really, really like reading and ... yeah, I think I still at a visceral level ... I really do like some forms of visual art as well, but I think I especially resonate to, as I say, the extraordinary verbal impact of poets or playwrights or novelists or whatever.
That's what I remember earliest.
Charles: Is that true for whether it's written or whether it's spoken? Do you find the use of language-
Emma Cookson: I'm a reader.
Charles: You're a reader?
Emma Cookson: I'm a reader. Yeah, what I remember is ... and I still consider it, I think, the biggest luxury to spend time immersed in a book. I've noticed that when I'm in a good book, life feels better. Like I literally, I am in a good book at the moment, and I ... I don't know, I just really ... I look forward to coming home. I look forward to the time reading it. I just really, yeah, creativity first of all for me I think is still, on a personal level, is very verbal.
Charles: I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you what's the book you're reading now.
Emma Cookson: Oh well I'm rereading ... it's a boring answer. I'm actually rereading "Middlemarch" at the moment.
Charles: Oh, I don't think that's boring at all.
Emma Cookson: Yeah, I'd forgotten, I haven't read it for years and I said, "Oh, I should reread that." I wonder if it's good, or I wonder I was just some ... you know, sort of pretentious student when I read it the first time. Of course, it's totally brilliant. You realize with these texts that are obviously so famous and enjoyed that there's a good reason why. It's just astonishing. Well, I think it's astonishing, I really like it.
Charles: Yeah, my father's an avid reader and I saw him probably a year ago. I've seen him since then, but I saw him a year ago and I walked in and I said, "What are you reading?" And he said, "I'm rereading Dickens. All of it."
Emma Cookson: Yeah.
Charles: From start to finish. It was interesting, because I thought I'd detected him speaking slightly differently after that for a while.
Emma Cookson: That's quite funny, that's quite funny. Yeah, no, I remember when I was ... when I had a sabbatical amidst, oh gosh I can't remember the year of this. Going back a few years, it was ... I was going to be off for three months and I remember I was ... in typical me fashion, I was sort of over-planning what I was gonna do with this three months and I remember one of the things I was gonna do was reread Shakespeare. I remember Damian, my husband, pointing out the sabbatical is supposed to be sort of restful and reinvigorating and I was in danger of making it a sort of checklist and a to-do endeavor. So I didn't in fact, reread Shakespeare.
Still, it feels like a luxurious thing to me, really. Well, or should I say that? Then I think of some of the history plays. Maybe it's not so luxurious, but it's ... Yeah, I don't read as much as I should or I would like to but it's definitely a big indulgence.
Charles: Did you have a plan for how you were going to use English literature as a degree.
Emma Cookson: Oh, of course not.
Charles: No, just dived into it?
Emma Cookson: No one does, do they? Do they? I just thought ... I just couldn't believe my luck. Someone says, "The world allows you to do a thing that you really, really, really like." That's where I love to spend my time. Reading books or poetry or whatever and then pontificating about it in pretentious fashion and talking to other people about it and someone says, "Do you want to go to a really, really, really beautiful place and spend three years doing that while you meet lots of other people who are also into that, and because this is the U.K. and it's the 1980s someone else is gonna pay as well?"
You don't have to think very hard about whether that's a good deal, do you? Absolutely no vocational relevance whatsoever.
Charles: What happened when you got out of university? What was your decision tree like about ...
Emma Cookson: I like that you say decision tree.
Charles: Well you are known for being strategic, so I'm sure there was ...
Emma Cookson: When I was ... Well, yes, but not about my own life in the slightest. I don't know.
I'm slightly ashamed to say that I think my career and work life has been a sort of series of ... I had this conviction that something will turn up, and it usually does. It started ... yeah, when I was at university, in my third year I thought, well, obviously start thinking about what you want to do and in those days, there was a career office. It was an actual physical place, you know? You had physical files, paper. They were alphabetically arranged and I started at the beginning, and I didn't really like the sound of accountancy and then there was advertising and I thought, "Oh, that sounds quite interesting." If I get into that I don't have to through the rest of the alphabet considering all those other options. I'll do the advertising thing, I'll apply to some of those agencies, it sounds an interesting prospect. And so I did. So yes, it was definitely not a particularly measured or strategic plan.
Charles: It's clearly alphabetical, you could have ended up being a bellhop
Emma Cookson: Exactly, agriculture was close behind so the farmer option was obviously the next option.
No, I ... obviously, I'm being slightly facetious, it is true that I started at the beginning and didn't go further, but there was definitely an appeal. Advertising is ... advertising at that time, I really liked the way it was ... It was the U.K., and the U.K. has a tradition, particularly then, advertising was still part of pop culture. It was still ... it was something people liked and talked about. The good parts of it. There were executions. There were ads and commercials that people really related to and discussed and had a big impact. It was kind of cool, like some of the best advertising was cool. It was partly, this is a moment in time, obviously it's not the case now, but also, it was partly, I think more pronounced in the U.K. It was more of a culture of creativity and originality in advertising so there was more, I think, more evidence of that.
I liked that. I loved the idea of, "Oh, I can have a business job but it can be a business job where this interesting, artistic, creative stuff is the force that you're using for business, for commercial effect." That sounded really good and then, as I say superficially, "Oh, it's kind of cool. People think you're cool if you're in advertising." It's amazing to say that now, isn't it? It's certainly amazing to say in the U.S. the idea that it could actually be a sort of respectable, let alone desirable occupation. But it was. I liked it. I liked it and I ended up in a good place though. It was good.
Charles: Where did your business interest come? Where did the marriage of language, your love of language, and the business side come from?
Emma Cookson: I think ... I don't know. Do I like business for its own sake? I suppose ... I think the thing I've ... I think I'm interested in influencing people. I think, God, this is a really ... not gonna go well, is it? It makes me sound like some kind of megalomaniac. Immediately, that was out of my mouth, I was like, "Ooh."
I like ... I've always remained very interested in how people think and act and make decisions and what affects that, and obviously that's all marketing is. I think it's just a series of systems and strategies and behaviors to impact how ... to influence how people think, as I say. Or what they like or what they believe or what they do.
I've always been interested in that. I think it's more that than business as business, per se. When I say the appeal of advertising was that you could marshal creativity to a commercial outcome, I think I was reacting to it more in terms of a behavioral outcome than actually a money outcome. Obviously, the money outcome is the cumulative effect of that.
I think that was it. As I say, I am not liking this line of discussion because I'm sounding slightly megalomaniac. "I like to wield power."
Even more uncomfortably, I'm remembering that the other career that was slightly appealed to me was being a politician, which, as I say, definitely playing into this sphere as well.
Charles: A journey of self discovery.
Emma Cookson: Yeah, exactly. Because you could definitely think as well, I mean, I think a lot of politicians have really just brands, certainly political thoughts systems are kind of brands, just sets of associations, aren't they, and beliefs. Yeah, so there you go, maybe I was quite lucky that I got into the advertising realm and didn't truck down the political path. Maybe it's good that politics begins with P and I didn't get anywhere near that phase of the alphabet.
Charles: What was your first job? Where did you work?
Emma Cookson: My first job was ... my first proper job was at BSB Dorland, Backer Spielvogel Bates Dorland, which is an advertising agency. I was an account ... I don't know, executive assistant or whatever. I just learned the basics. I mean, the advertising industry was very defined in those days, so you learned all the ins and outs of creating and running and executing. Mostly print, TV, sometimes cinema if you were really fancy ... campaigns, so I did that for a couple of years then I went to a really small startup agency called LSD, unfortunate. Then it became LSDC, luckily Chick arrived as the final initial later to rescue us from our drug association. Legas, Chaffron, Davis, then Chick.
I went there because they offered me two thousand pounds more a year, so that seemed like a really good reason, and in the sort of something turns up, career strategy mode, I was just like, just met someone who said, "You know, you could get two thousand pounds more." So I went there, and then I went to Ogilvy and Mather, which again is one of the ... was one of the bigger ones, and that was because a woman I used to work with asked me to go there. I think they may have offered me even three thousand pounds more. So I was obviously on a extremely sharp incline at this point. And then the woman who hired me there, Beth Barry, had spotted that maybe I would be a better brand strategist than I would account planner, account exec.
But again, you see like, it's terrible isn't it? Other people spot these things before me, I know you're supposed to run your careers ... "And then I realized and I analyzed my strengths and my weaknesses and I realized I had to pivot in the modern term to a new path," but actually it wasn't that. Other people spotted it, and I went, "Oh, that sounds a good idea."
Charles: Were you aware of the difference enough to be able to decide, "Yeah, actually that does make sense?"
Emma Cookson: Yes, absolutely, because it was ... the brand strategists are really, if we get ... all that brand strategy is is just working out what's the ... what is the most compelling path to tread to be most persuasive, to be most influential? Who are the best people that maybe ... who are the best people that you should focus on for this particular service or brand or whatever, and what are the kind of messages or experiences that would work best, and why? So it's all just putting together a story and a strategy of, "This is what would work most effectively, to have most influence, most efficiently." I'm actually really different from the account management job, although I ended up kind of doing a fusion of the two, I suppose, later on in my career.
So I did that, then I ended up at BBH where I spent a very long time, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, because again, a friend of mine moved from Ogilvy to BBH, said, "It's better over here, come on over." And they were ... and at the time ... And BBH was very, very important. I stayed there for a long time, almost 15, 16, 17 years, in different guises, and BBH was ... Bartle Bogle Hegarty, especially at the time, and especially in the U.K. was the sort of ... was the acknowledged leader of the advertising industry, it was doing certainly the most famous and influential work. The Levi's campaign, if you're as old as me, and European, like the '80s and early '90s were a time, where that was just like a really big deal, and the agency was just very, very good at its craft and very rigorous, and earnest, and perfectionist, and somewhat puritanical in its approach to doing its craft, and I really liked that. It was really good, I learned a lot, and it had a very, very, good, strong, ethical core as well. The founders were just very decent people.
Charles: I don't think I knew this, but I actually interviewed at BBH in London.
Emma Cookson: Oh, did you?
Charles: Right then.
Emma Cookson: Yeah?
Charles: Yeah, we could have ended up working together.
Emma Cookson: There you go, Charles. Yes.
Charles: That would have been crazy. I was interviewed by Jerry Judge.
Emma Cookson: Ah, right. See, I never knew Jerry Judge, but he was a big character who'd left just before I got there.
Charles: Oh, it must have been before you. Yeah. You're right, I mean, looking at the work back then, it was just extraordinary. Wasn't it Phineas Fogg Snacks ?
Emma Cookson: That's right, yeah.
Charles: That stuff was incredible.
Emma Cookson: That was one. Phineas Fogg.
Charles: So much extraordinary work on the reel.
Emma Cookson: That early Haagen-Dazs campaign.
Charles: So you went over there to work on brand strategy?
Emma Cookson: Yeah, I was still a brand strategist planner, and then I ended up running a sort of business group, which was quite a shock to the system. Then yeah, then come to the U.S. and-
Charles: What was the shock to the system running a business group?
Emma Cookson: Oh, well when you ... I think it's a very big deal that it was decided that it would be a good idea to divide the agency up into six units, into six groups, and sort of run them almost like mini-agencies. Mostly, most of the six people who ... this was a fiasco, by the way. I mean, anyone at BBH, I don't feel disloyal to John, John, and Nigel saying this, it was an absolute disaster for so many reasons. But I was one of the leaders of those groups. As a strategy person, it was quite ... it was a bit of a jolt because I hadn't ... Two things are different. One is if you're an account person, you've gone through a whole series of steps of managing bigger and bigger teams. But strategists kind of tend to work solo, and then maybe have one support person as they get more senior. So I'd never really managed groups of people, and I'd never run a P&L. I was running a sort of mini-sub P&L, which was somewhat confusing to me.
But the main thing was the people management. I just couldn't believe it. We only had about 25, 30 people. But it was just astonishing how many personal issues came up. It's like, people, they're really quite temperamental. I just remember endlessly, I'm thinking, "Was I this high maintenance? All of these people are so high maintenance." There was only about 30 people. I think in a period of only ... We only did this for about a year and a half. I just must have seen 90% of them in tears at least two times. It was just, you know, it was quite a lot. My memories are just like this constant line of people who had to be managed. You know, came to be quite into it, but it was very weird to start with. I couldn't believe it. I felt like, you know, it was very surprising. People management is quite challenging.
Charles: How did you adapt to that? Because obviously, you got very good at the people managing thing. You ended up as the chairman of one of the best agencies in the world. So you must have figured out something.
Emma Cookson: Yeah. I don't know if I did at that time, actually. I mean, I find it quite interesting that I used to get told for ... Until about, oh I don't know, six or seven years ago, I always got the same review, which was ... I mean, we all do, don't we? We all get the same review. "Oh, yes, she's very smart. She is very good at coming up with solutions," and duh duh duh, "but everyone's scared of her." That I was quite fierce and judgmental. There were some hilarious quotes in my reviews about how apparently I have a way of saying, "I think this presentation isn't very good" in a way that clearly communicates, "I think you are no good." I don't know, I gradually though, I think I grew out of that. I don't think I'm at all alarming or scary or aggressive now. I think I just realized it didn't work very well. Maybe I went soft when I had kids as well. I think that might be part of it.
Anyway, I'm not really answering your question. How did I adapt to that? I found it really bewildering. You know, you try to be empathetic and understanding, and ... yeah, then sometimes ... yeah. I suppose you realize it ... you start to realize that it can work. I don't know, people can usually tell if you really have their best interest at heart. But I definitely, I must have made some terrible errors along the way. I didn't even ... yeah.
Charles: I mean, it's a challenge in the creative industries, isn't it? The people get really, really excellent at specific disciplines, and then inevitably get promoted into positions where you have to manage people. Suddenly, you're confronted by the realities of human beings looking at you like, "I need your help, because I've got this problem at home."
Emma Cookson: Exactly.
Charles: You're like, "I didn't sign up for any of that. I just got really good at brand strategy. I'd like to actually influence people in a massive scale, really." I always find it interesting to see how people adapted and adjusted to that. It's a real challenge, I think, for the creative industry.
Emma Cookson: That's a bigger point, isn't it? That's not just about people management. That's a general truism that ... leadership, yeah. There's definitely a career step change that happens when you go into some sort of leadership management position where you know, it's that old cliché of ... what's that, the Irish joke, "How do you get to an Irish ... How do you get to X place? Well, you don't want to start from here." What gets you to a certain level is basically being very proficient at your discipline, your specialism, your craft, your expertise, and then they put you in a leadership position and you're like, "Oh, well, none of that really helps or applies anymore because all" ... I don't know. I think leadership is just ... is enabling other people to do things. There's a critical point where you do well in your career through doing stuff, and then you do well in your career by enabling other people to do stuff. It's such a different set of capabilities. Yeah, it's just really different, and it's sort of random luck whether you actually have got them or can develop them, I think.
Then, it's especially ... I think that's always especially challenging for creative people, people who are actually creative practitioners because there's a particularly huge chasm between being a creative practitioner genius talent, which is, I think, fundamentally quite self-absorbed and almost selfish. I think you necessarily have to cocoon yourself in a sort of sense of conviction and sort of personal drive to what's right. Then suddenly, you're asked to be a manager and a sort of leader. That's such a different dynamic. So hard.
Charles: Did you want to be a leader? Did you have that ambition?
Emma Cookson: Yes, well of course, because of my power-crazed mania for influence from the beginning. Yeah, no, I really ... I do like being in charge, I think. If my mother was alive, she would say, "She was always very bossy." I am much more comfortable being in charge than being bossed around. So yeah, I suppose I do. I also have that personality type where I find disorder or lack of a forward path extremely uncomfortable. So I really don't like laid back or chaotic milling around, just letting things dwell. I like to know that there is a way forward and X is going to happen followed by Y, and if it's not there, then I will do it. I am the person who ... I just find it agonizing, those meetings which just go round in circles. I just ... yeah. I have to work out how to go forward. Which is quite interesting clash with what I've just said about the fact that in my life, I actually don't do that, I just wait until things turn up. But in work stuff, I'm like, "We better get ... Yes, there seems to be no forward path here. Someone better step in, and if no one else is going to do that, that's going to be me."
Charles: When you came over to the States, I'm actually interested in two questions, I think. The first is, did you find you had to adapt that to a different culture? Because obviously, we both experienced being English and coming over to the States, there's a dynamic about that. Did you find it was different managing creativity in England versus the States?
Emma Cookson: I think second point, not so much. I think there are certain skills about managing creativity which I think are quite consistent and quite universal. But in terms of the business culture and leadership, yeah, wow. Yeah, really, really different. There are so many different dimensions to it, but I think the one that comes home the quickest to all of us is the extraordinary error of self-deprecation that British people make the whole time. As you know, Charles, you're British, if you're British, it is mandatory to show how talented you are by self-denigration. So every British person knows that when I say in a meeting, "This might be a bit stupid, but" ... That is code for, "What I'm about to say is really clever, so pay attention." Or you know, "I don't know if this is a good idea, but I've just been thinking means. I'm pretty certain this is a really good idea."
Charles: This might be the best idea you've ever had.
Emma Cookson: Yeah, exactly, and of course. I don't think that is ... the American codes are really different. I can see people thinking, "Well, if this is a really stupid idea, don't say it." There is definitely a ... there is a business culture of overt confidence and front-foot promotion and so on. Then there's also a different form of communication to promote stuff. You can see it. The culture of ... I don't know. I suppose a culture of selling.
Have you noticed how the definition of good service in a really good shop in the U.K. is very stand-back? If you have really good service, you go into an incredible boutique, the shop assistant will sort of make eye contact and then move away and leave you to have space and certainly not bother you. That's the definition of bad service in American terms. In America, that's like standoffish and unhelpful. The definition of American good service is obviously to step forward and offer help and make suggestions and be proactive. So it's just totally different. I think that comes through in the codes of communication as well. I got a bit off the track there, but yeah. There's a really different business culture, and then there's also ... there's lots of ... I think, funnily enough, I still don't understand this ... I think there's more reverence for status and achievement in America. I gave out more business cards. I remember being quite impressed by that. People wanted to know your exact title more. There's certainly an-
Charles: That's true, actually. If you go to a cocktail party in America, "What do you do, and who are you," and so on. In England-
Emma Cookson: It's quite ... it's not-
Charles: You can leave and never have found out what anybody does because it's just kind of slightly uncomfortable to talk about that.
Emma Cookson: I think so. Also, it's very ... I'm so interested as well by how much personal networks are important here. More so, I think, even. I think it's something to do with the scale of the country. I was astonished. I'm still astonished by how much business gets done via personal trusts and personal relationships. My theory is it's because the country's so big and the businesses are so big potentially, and so much is at stake that there's almost just too much possibility, too many options and too much ... Yeah, too much at stake, so you just default to known quantities, and the biggest proxy for known quantities is someone I know and I've worked with before and I know they delivered. So I feel like networking and personal networks is a bigger part of business in the U.S. as well. Which is odd, because obviously the cliché is that Britain, obviously, is supposed to be hobbled by its class system and its stratified system of connections and recommendation, I think, but I don't know. I find in business, it's less so, I'd say it was more-
Charles: It's interesting, actually, because I've always thought ... You know the old adage, "If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere." My experience has been the opposite. I think that New York is one of the easiest and best places to do business because it's so hyper-connected. You run into people and the networks are so extraordinary. To your point, once you get into a network, it feeds on itself very rapidly. If you're in ... I spent a long time in Chicago, and it was harder there, I think, because there were just fewer people doing the things you wanted to do or needed access too. So I think there's an energy and a dynamic about New York that feeds right into that point, I'd never thought about it from that lens. But I think you're right, actually, I think it makes a lot of sense.
Emma Cookson: Yeah.
Charles: So when you got over here and you're adapting your leadership style to BBH and to American business in general, what were your ambitions when you got here? What were you looking, what were you thinking success would be ... given the fact that you were interested in, "Okay, what comes next and what comes next," what were the next steps looking like to you?
Emma Cookson: Yeah, you see, I don't really think like that. I thought ... I came to New York because I really liked the place and because, to the old adage, I thought ... No, I still think ... There's a few more years ... that New York is still, I think probably, in some senses, the center of the world. The center of power in the world. America is still just the biggest, most influential economy and still a center of cultural influence. New York is the center of it, so I just thought ... I think I thought instinctively, "Right, yeah, if I can make it there, I can make it anywhere." I did think at a visceral level, I thought, "I want to show I can do well on that stage. It's the biggest stage." God, this is so cliché. So I like that, but there was also a much more visceral thing. I just really, I still love the city. I love the ... I take very little advantage of it, but I love the energy of it and I think it's beautiful. I find it physically really, really beautiful, and I love the sort of can-do-ness of the vibe. That's obviously an American thing, more generally. But it was also partly a change. I wanted to stay at BBH, I wanted a new opportunity, and I'll come and do a role here. I've forgotten what the question was. What was I supposed to be talking about?
Charles: What were you looking at from an ambition standpoint?
Emma Cookson: Oh, yes, okay. So it was, I think it was just like, "Okay, I'm relatively successful in this advertising sphere, and there's the biggest stage of it, so I'll go and try and do it in America." I didn't really think much ahead of that. But I liked being here as well. Well, I liked being in New York, definitely. Then, you know, you get here and ... yeah. I liked it and you know, settle in and do other stuff, et cetera, so you get to feel like you belong. Actually, I say that I feel like I belong, I don't. I think I feel the appeal is a lot to do with the fact that I still feel like a bit of an outsider. You're still marked as an outsider, and there's a sort of ... a sort of in-built exoticism, I think, about that. You can never be totally boring if you come from somewhere else.
There's also that thing that you can't really be judged very easily. It's very hard to place someone. You know what it's like, as soon as I meet another British person, I only need one minute and two sentences and I can totally ... We can all do it, place their background and their associations and where they fit in Britishness. But I can't do it with American people, and they can't do it with me. I can't ... I can obviously tell if someone's from the South or if someone's got a particularly strong Brooklyn accent, but I can't place anything else about them, and even when they start giving me what would be really strong codes, like you know, where they went to college for example, or what jobs ... I still can't place it, because I don't know those institutions and I don't know ... I don't know what they mean, and they don't know what mine mean. Obviously, if someone says, "I've been to Harvard or MIT," I can do it, but not much more than that. I find that very nice, very refreshing. Yeah, it's very interesting.
Charles: What state was BBH in here when you came in?
Emma Cookson: We were the startup team. We were launching the agency into the U.S., and that was really ... that was certainly challenging. Quite a rollercoaster ride, but really invigorating.
Charles: You had this enormous reputation from England. Was that an asset or a liability?
Emma Cookson: Yes, it's definitely an asset, but it's a sort of asset, isn't it? Because we're a sort of novelty in American terms. I also used to say to people, "Be aware that being the most successful advertising agency in the U.K. is a bit like being in the U.K. and saying, 'I'd like you to meet the most successful Croatian advertising agency. They're just entering the U.K.'" So we're sort of like this novelty. So I don't think it helped too much, but we did have a strong creative reputation. We did have some very big successes, and then we had some ... You know, just had lots of ups and downs. Yeah, we launched just in the midst of the ... just before the dot com boom and then bust. Yeah, there was lots of ups and downs. That in itself was a very interesting path, to feel that sort of close accountability for how things are going or not going, and yeah, shaping ... I had the protection, of course, of a bigger infrastructure of a wider company, but it was ... Yeah, it felt much more exposed.
Charles: What did you discover about yourself?
Emma Cookson: I think you just discover ... Nothing, I don't think, particularly profound. You discover you can work really, really hard when you have to. I think you discover more when you're small just how disproportionately important having really, really good people is. I've always had this theory that a really great person isn't just worth, you know, twice as much. Although, really, really great talent is worth like ten times as much as a not very good one, and a negative or poisonous person is a ten times detractor as well. Really, really ... There's some sort of exponential curve effect, I think, when you're in [inaudible 00:37:42], and you know, it was a services business, so you are just your people. I think you feel that impact and that importance of hiring the right team and the right people even more acutely when there's not that many of you.
Charles: Did you find you became protective of that team and the qualities that were necessary to succeed? I'm curious to a very specific [inaudible 00:38:05]. I asked somebody this ... one of the earlier episodes. I think one of the challenges that a lot of leaders find, especially when they're coming into positions for the first time, is the challenge of firing people. People are nice, and they feel personally invested and bad and worry about what's going to happen to the person, and they tend to kind of over-imbue that and under-recognize the impact on the group. I just wonder, did you become very protective of the team? Were you willing to make those decisions quickly?
Emma Cookson: I was lucky. I didn't have to do much firing early on, because we were growing, but it's certainly never comfortable. But I think, no, I do think you realize that group impact quite quickly. Also, it's almost always true that the person that ... if you're going to fire someone, they're almost always unhappy anyway, because they know they're not doing very well. Yeah, it's ... I mean, I've had one or two instances where someone has been surprised, but really very few. The much worse thing is when you have to fire people not for cause but because of economic impact. The first time I stepped into the CEO role at BBH, which was impeccably poor timing right before the financial crisis ... I think I took the role about two weeks before Lehman Brothers went down, and we quickly had to fire, you know, I don't know, probably almost a third of the agency. That's not to do with anything other than just economic necessity, and I found that horrendous.
Charles: It's hard to explain, isn't it? Living through that, it's hard to explain how far, how fast things went down. It was almost hourly-
Emma Cookson: Yeah, it was horrible.
Charles: You're looking at businesses changing in front of your eyes in visceral terms.
Emma Cookson: Yeah, exactly.
Charles: How did you deal with that?
Emma Cookson: I think you just ... Well, I mean, there was no magic answer. You had to make ... Well, I'll tell you what I actually got right. That I'd got some wrong and then I had to get it right later on. I think I wasn't quick enough to make some of the cuts I needed to make. I didn't decide quick enough. I did the CEO role sort of twice, one acting CEO after a business disruption a few years later, and I've got that bit much better the second time around. Then you just have to be quite systematic. There's a systematic plan about how you do it. I think once you've worked out that there is a systematic plan and they move quickly and get into it, it's fine. But it was ... I don't know.
There's nothing good about firing people, and the only saving grace ... I remember just being so grateful that most people in the industry are relatively young, so you didn't feel that awful impact of ... as a result, they have fewer dependents. So you didn't feel that horrible impact of wrecking not just someone's life but, you know, it's much worse for anyone not ... Everyone can deal with their own personal hardship, but they find it much harder to deal with other people's personal hardship that they love. So I was really grateful that there were very few people who were old enough to have dependents and that sort of stuff. Also, because I ... It was at least as well there was a climate where there was no shame, or everyone understood. It wasn't a negative thing, really, if you were being laid off at that time. So many people were in the industry that it was like just luck factor, so it didn't necessarily reflect badly on you.
Charles: When you took over the job as CEO, what was your approach? Did you say, "I need a plan, I need a vision"? How did you approach it?
Emma Cookson: Well, I did start with a plan, but then, as I say ... What was it? All plans evaporate on the first contact with the enemy.
Charles: Mike Tyson famously said everyone's got a plan until they get punched in the face.
Emma Cookson: Punched in the face, exactly. I was punched in the face pretty quickly by the economic crisis. So no, I think I was in quite react mode. But the one thing we did get right was that the industry was in a huge transition because it was when the whole tech and digital industry was just growing up, and we did at least ... I did, at least, work through, "Okay, we got to find a way to start investing in new skills." We did that in a particular model of investing. Sort of an IP-led approach and a new sort of mini-unit based on that. Yeah, there was a plan for at least starting to lean in towards a future, even as the start was quite painful.
Charles: Did you find as you started working with American brands that there was a difference between what you'd experienced in England? Or did you have to connect with them in a different way? See them through a different lens?
Emma Cookson: Well, there's definitely some differences, because ... yeah, I mean, obviously, there's a thing in America that is ... it's not really, I mean it is a country, but it's really ... It's more akin to Europe than it is akin to the U.K. So you get these extraordinary regional differences, and you have to keep remembering to take that into account. Then you have ... there's bigger social conservatism in lots of the country, so when you're building brands and communicating [inaudible 00:43:35], you have to take account of that. But no, I think really the fundamentals of brands are quite similar. The way they work ...
Oh, there is another thing, which is England is small. England. The U.K. is small. So you can still get ... it was easier to get a sort of cultural total effect, those ... You still have more of the things where there'd be a TV show that everyone was watching at that time of TV, or a phenomenon that hit everyone. It's just like, the scale of America means that's much less common. Happens much less, so you can count on it much less. But I think the fundamentals, I thought the principles were fairly similar. But again, back to that scale point. There's a higher risk aversion, because there's more at stake. There's more to lose and more to gain. Despite the entrepreneurialism of this country, and despite all that ... Yeah, it's the ultimate pioneer nation, et cetera. I think there's more conservatism and risk aversion in a lot of business. I'm not surprised. I don't think it's ... Yeah, it's completely understandable.
Charles: When you left BBH, I know you spent some time on the brand side helping out for a while. What did you learn from that experience?
Emma Cookson: That it's very good to see how ... I mean, it's the cliché that everyone talks about, but it's so true. How small a piece of the total work relates to anything that the agencies are doing. How irrelevant a lot of what I was saying in meeting or doing actually was. I learned that ... how complex internal stakeholder management is, the big companies especially. You just ... yeah, you spend an awful lot of time managing the systems and internal ... not exactly politics, but internal bureaucracies and processes and managed behaviors of ... managed behaviors, not managed behaviors. Practiced behaviors of different entities. Yeah, that was very interesting. Also, of course, because even though it should always be the case that if you're on the services side, you're very, very acutely aware of the commercial impact of whatever you're doing, it feels closer when you're on the brand side. You're more directly, quickly, and closely accountable to the commercial outcomes.
Charles: You can see how to move the needle more.
Emma Cookson: Yeah, you can see it more, but also just you're directly called to account on it, more ... There's none of this intermediate stuff about how extraordinarily well-received the work was, or how high-impact it was, or how on brief it was. All that stuff. Those are all just intermediates, like are you selling more stuff at a higher price with greater frequency? Do you have a higher lifetime customer value? These are just hard things, and they feel closer.
Charles: Did you see creativity through a different lens when you were on the brand side?
Emma Cookson: You realize that when you get a very strong creative idea, it really, really stands out and is really worth having and doesn't tend to get generated in the brand side organizations. So you realize yeah, the agencies ... they have gotten ... There is a magic power still to that, and that it's ... you know, that actually, I think we didn't necessarily always promote it most prominently.
Charles: I'm interested, because you joined You and Mr. Jones how long ago now?
Emma Cookson: Nearly a year, yeah. Year ago.
Charles: So I'm interested because picking up on something you said earlier about looking at creative people and recognizing that in many ways, it's a very insular, lonely, sometimes selfish profession expression, I guess-
Emma Cookson: Yeah, necessarily so, I think.
Charles: Yeah, necessarily so, I think that's right. But clearly, the world of creativity and the business world has shifted a lot, and these days, it's virtually impossible to do anything at scale without being collaborative. Do you see the essential nature of creative people changing in the business world?
Emma Cookson: Well, I think obviously, the nature of what a creative person is is quite different, because it's ... I mean, obviously, it's always been ... there's always been different permutations of it. But I think it's probably more useful to think of creative problem-solving or innovation. Because creativity implies a little bit more executional craft, I think. Which is important, but I think it's more about fresh and original ways to solve stuff. So I think what is needed is a little bit more diverse. But I think it's still the same core talents. Some people have an ability to make connections or see situations or problems from an angle that other people don't see them from. It's just that surprise factor that is ... You know, whether that manifests in a business model or an image or a user experience or a platform, whatever it manifests in, it's a really extraordinary brain pattern, the ability to think creatively. It seems ... yeah. You can slightly get better at it, but some people just seem to have it. Yeah, I still find it very extraordinary when you encounter it.
Charles: Tell us about You and Mr. Jones, because it's a different ... you have a different relationship now with businesses than you've had in the past.
Emma Cookson: Yeah, it's a ... Yeah, You and Mr. Jones is ... we call ourselves the first Brandtech group. When I left BBH and then I ... I thought I wanted to look after a brand, but I thought, "Okay, I've worked on the agency side for ages and now I'm going to be a brand person, brand steward." For years as an agency person, you're like a sort of foster parent. Now it's like, "I want to be the actual parent of a brand. I can make the actual decisions."
Charles: And influence all these people.
Emma Cookson: And influence all these people, exactly. They will do my bidding. Then I met David Jones, who's the eponymous Jones of You and Mr. Jones. He ... I mean, he's a very compelling and, I think, successful leader, and he's also a very decent person, so there's a lot of appeal of like, "Okay, I can recognize a strong leader when I see one." But also, I mean, it just had a very, very simple vision, which was the future of marketing is going to be bound up in technology. That technology's going to ... pretty much all the different things that we do with marketing, you can do better or faster or cheaper with technology. So having a whole model of marketing services which is people-based is not really going to be appropriate in the future. The model is going to need to be technology-based. There will be people of course, but that's how it's going to go. His vision was just simply, "That's going to be it. I'm going to build from the ground up the future of a group that brand owners need to accelerate their growth, and it's going to be Brandtech, not brand service." He also had the talent to raise a lot of money to do it.
So he's building a group, he's building it from scratch, and it's a whole bunch of tech and tech-enabled companies that are either wholly owned or they're majority-owned or minority investments, all of which use technology to do some different facet of marketing, whether it's content creation or it's distribution or it's driving commerce. I mean, this is all sorts of different parts of it. For me, I was like, "Oh, well, that just makes sense. That's where the world's going. I don't know exactly how that will shape out, but that feels like the right bet to me, and he's got good people, and he has great trusted connections. People trust him, because he's been proven to be successful. So I think I'd like to get on that train, thank you." I also thought, and this has definitely proved to be right, "Well, look, what's the worst that can happen? I'll learn a lot. I will learn a lot about where we're headed in the future."
But it's a really different ... yeah, it's a really different role because my role is as a partner, I'm sitting at the center of this group, and it's a lot of ... there's a lot of business development, introducing, "This is what we do and who we are" to marketing leaders. There's a lot of company advisory, company building ... Some of our companies, they're growing fast, they might have very young founders, there's lots of stuff that you can hopefully help with. Some of it's advising. We have, obviously, an investment and a finance team that deal with the acquisitions side, but I'm another ... I suppose I'm one of the other perspectives about whether a certain company is the right one in the group. Then there's loads of just, "Whatever's going down today, because there's not very many of us, someone's got to sort problem X, problem Y," et cetera. Yeah, it's just fascinating. It's fascinating to be constantly exposed to new platforms, new technologies, new ways to do all sorts of different ... whether it's just understanding people or ways to reach them or ways to create content that might appeal to them or ways to know about them and understand their day ... I mean, it's just ... yeah, it's really different. It's really different.
Charles: Is there an element of leading by influence? Because obviously, you're not involved inside these businesses, you're sitting on an advisory, sometimes ownership role, but are you finding that there's a different kind of leadership you have to bring to the table?
Emma Cookson: I think at the end of the day, you have to earn it, really. Because if you don't prove yourself useful ... I mean, I don't know. I've never believed in leadership anyway by title. It doesn't work. Everyone knows it doesn't work. You always just have to prove your value. But yeah, there are certain things that you really take for granted that you realize a lot of ... I mean, these are tech companies and tech-enabled companies. There's lots of stuff that is quite bewildering. They're all businesses that for the most part need ... most of their revenues come from brand owners and marketing clients, that's why they're part of our group. They're ... It's constantly bewildering, I think, to some of them, the how decisions get made and how these brand-owning companies work. So I spend quite a lot of my time explaining, "Just because that meeting went well doesn't mean anything's going to happen," or, "You know, there's actually a chain we have to go through here to make something get sorted out," or, "You know, it's really quite difficult to even get noticed in the first place by this set of brand owners." So some of the things you kind of take for granted are quite valuable.
Then on the other side, it's quite interesting, I find another thing that I always bring to bear is making quite complicated things quite simple. There's a definitely truism of pretty much any ... probably any business person, but certainly any marketing leader nowadays is that everybody is totally overwhelmed. Nobody can keep track. There's just infinite, exponentially-growing opportunities. You just can't know everything. You just can't keep up. They're all totally overwhelmed. So if you can't frame whatever you think might be a good idea in quite straightforward and easily buyable terms, nothing else matters. It doesn't matter how brilliant you are. So I think I spend quite a lot of my time sort of helping to, I think, translate very sophisticated and often very advanced capabilities and solutions into terms that makes them, yeah, more easily graspable and easily buyable.
Charles: I want to pick up on the comment you just made a couple of minutes ago about leadership not working. Tell us a bit more about what you mean by that.
Emma Cookson: Sorry, what did I say?
Charles: You said everyone knows leadership doesn't work.
Emma Cookson: Oh, no, I don't mean leadership doesn't work ... I hope I didn't say it quite as imprecisely as that. I just meant leadership by title doesn't work. You aren't a leader because you have a big title. It's interesting how impotent you are as a leader just because of title. The drag factors in people's behavior in organizations are so strong that yeah, you can't get anything done just by having a title or a set of formal responsibilities. You have to prove capability.
Charles: Yeah, I agree with that. Certainly. Do you think that's changed? I mean, when you were the CEO of BBH, did you find people paid attention because you were the CEO of BBH in a different way than they perhaps do today?
Emma Cookson: Obviously. I was absolutely revered and obeyed every minute.
Charles: There's that influence thing.
Emma Cookson: Yeah, exactly.
Charles: You might be right about that, actually.
Emma Cookson: No, I don't think so. I don't think that's a different ... I'm not aware of a difference in how you have to lead nowadays versus how you used to have to lead.
Charles: You have to provide value, you have to show up. You have to demonstrate you can make a difference.
Emma Cookson: Yeah, of course, you have to show up and add value.
Charles: You are worth following.
Emma Cookson: Yeah, exactly. Maybe it's always been the case most acutely when you were in, as I used to be, in a people business. Because if people weren't impressed and inspired, they'd just go. So there's a big case to be made if you're running a service business as I used to that the only talent you need is really people management. The job is really mostly about getting ... about finding, getting, and keeping the people who can ... the best people who can do anything. Obviously, you do need to set a vision, but even that, frankly, if you get good people, they can even do that for you.
Now, but in my new role, that's a bit less the case, as I say, because the value is in the tech, and the tech platforms. Not only the leaders. The leader doesn't really matter. But it's still the case, isn't it? There's just a ... everybody gravitates towards proven leaders, and you can tell. In a room or in a discussion, people have a quality of followership. They have a quality of ... you can tell who can persuade, who can make things happen, who's clearly insightful and can forge a path forward. It's hard to put your finger on it, but you know, if we were in a room in a meeting and there are 25 people there and afterwards, we're all asked, "Who do you think was a good leader in that meeting?" We'd all say the same person or people. It's just palpable.
Charles: I've got a, I think, a final question, which is actually kind of a quasi-research project question for me. I read something the other day Sheryl Sandberg said, when she said, "There's a lot of people talking about personal brands from a leadership standpoint." She said, "I don't believe in that. I think people have a voice. I don't think they should be a personal brand." What's your take on that?
Emma Cookson: All that brands are are collections of associations or meaning, and you know, people can be brands and countries are brands and movements are brands, as well as products and services are brands. So all brands are is collections of associations. The reason why they're really, really important is because humans don't make decisions rationally. They make them in a very lazy, shortcut way. So if you haven't got that set of established associations, you're really at a disadvantage when someone is choosing, whether it's a pot of jam or a potential employee. So if you don't have a set of associations around you, you are at a disadvantage when it comes to potentially being employed.
I would say it's a sensible self-interest to build some set of associations with yourself, whether that's just, you know, having recommendations on your LinkedIn profile or having written certain things in the public domain, et cetera, et cetera. But it's like everything, isn't it? There's a limit. Then there are people whose primary energy appears to be in building the prominence of that personal brand rather than the substance of it. That's where it all gets a bit weird. It's very interesting, I know ... just in the marketing space, it is certainly not the case ... the very, very best marketers I have worked with who have produced the best results are not ... there is not a strict correlation with personal brand and reputation. I wouldn't say there's inverse correlation like I was saying about candidates before, but definitely the most effective, most talented are not the most revered and famous, et cetera. I think it's just because when you're putting that much energy into, and time and effort into your own personal brand and set of associations, it doesn't leave enough time for other stuff. So yeah, I'd ... I think a certain degree of establishing of positive associations is sort of necessary, but there are some weirdo star builders, aren't there?
Charles: So at the end of each episode, I make an attempt to provide a wrap which I call "Three Themes" based on what I've heard. Maybe a little bit of what I know about you. Things I think have made you successful as a leader. So let me take a crack at that, and you can tell me whether you think they're rubbish. The first, I think, is that you've always demonstrated a willingness to follow your instinct. I mean, you know, great story about going through the alphabet and stopping at A, but clearly, something about that appealed to you and you just decided to follow that. I think there's some consistency around that that I discern, anyway.
B is, my sense of you is that you're willing to bet on yourself. That having followed your instinct, you're willing to say, "You know what? I'm going to give this a go, see what happens. I feel reasonably confident that I can do something out of this." Then C is you have this incredible ability, I think, to take and to take in enormous amounts of information and to distill it down to a very simple, singular thought that provides a real point of connection for people. I think whether that's a brand or within a company, I think the thing that I've seen in you and the thing that I've heard you talk about is that, is a very powerful asset for a leader. Does that resonate with you?
Emma Cookson: Yeah, I mean, the first two somewhat make me sound like a sort of chaotic, haphazard sort of instinct ... Yeah, I mean, I think that there is some truth in that. Not chaotic, but yeah, I do ... you know I'm very interested in neuroscience ... instinct is not a random force, it's just a subconscious processing of vast amounts of information. So there's a lot of evidence that it does work well. But it's true, I do do a lot of decision-making by instinct. Not so much in my work, more in my personal career. Then yeah, I really ... To your third point, I really ... If I'm good at anything, I think I'm quite good at just reading lots of different ... well, people, but also inputs, and constructing out of them a cogent perspective on, "This is what's going on. This is the issue. This is why, and this is therefore what we should do."
That's what a brand strategist does for the future of a brand endlessly. "These are all the inputs of association and situation and where it is in the market," and duh duh duh, "and this is therefore what's going on, and this is therefore what we should be able, and this is where we should go, and this is what we should do." But I think leadership is quite like that as well. "This is a situation of our company or our division, or our business planning situation right now. This is where we're at, and this is why. This is where we should go, and this is why, and this is how we're going to do it." So it's just this sort of constructuring of, ordering of vast amounts of complexity and blur into a cogent story.
There's another thing. Again, as I'm really, really interested in that whole thing of how people make decisions and how they ... yeah. How people make decisions and how people live. The human brain is wired to understand the world through stories. We attribute causation to anything. It's why stories work. It's why if I say to you now ten facts of my career, you won't remember them, but if I tell you a story that strings them together, you will. Actually, that's a really important talent in business, to be able to just constantly, in a meeting or in a planning process or in a leadership role, to be able to say, "Right, here's a cogent, clear, understandable, simple story of where we're at and where we're going." Much more cogent and simple and clear than that waffle-y conclusion.
Charles: No, not at all. I think it was actually a fantastic wrap, and I agree with you entirely. I think the power of story is essential to leaders. Actually, I think I talked about that a little bit last week, but I think you're absolutely right that leaders who can tell great stories are, I think, consistently more successful than those that can't. Thank you so much for being here today, and thank you for sharing part of your story, it's been fascinating.
Emma Cookson: It's been a pleasure. Thank you Charles.
Charles: You've been listening to Fearless: The Art of Creative Leadership. If you like what you've heard, please rate us on iTunes. It helps a lot. If you want more information on this episode or any of the others, go to fearlesscreativeleadership.com. Thanks for listening.