The partner and CEO at M&C Saatchi Chilanga talks to Laura Swinton about the difference between leadership and just being in charge
For Alvaro Dopico, openness and emotional intelligence are the key between simply being in charge and true leadership. And that means being open about failures, as well as successes – though in an industry that’s all about fame and image, that can be particularly challenging.
Throughout his career, Alvaro has come across various challenges that have built that emotional intelligence and forced him to up his game. In Guatemala, while at BBDO, he learned about what it takes to lead beyond borders. In Colombia, he found himself confronted with the feeling of being an outsider and having to forge a connections based on common love of ideas.
At M&C Saatchi Chilanga, he’s been focusing on not just leading but nurturing. Nurturing the agency’s culture, encouraging female creative talent through the M&C (Mujeres Creativas) initiative. And now, as he steers the agency through Covid alongside CCO Manolo Techera, nurturing an agency culture that transcends the restraints of working from home.
LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?
Alvaro> I have always been in charge of people in some form or other, but maybe the moment when I really felt in charge as the leader of a team - giving direction and keeping people motivated, and above all coordinating everything - was when I had the opportunity to lead a team for PepsiCo Beverages NOLA (North of LATAM) in Guatemala. That included the responsibility for more than 26 markets in Central America and the Caribbean. Many agencies in the BBDO Network were led from the hub in Guatemala and the company requirement was that in two of those markets Pepsi should become the leader over Coca Cola, which of course was, and is, the global focus.
LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?
Alvaro> Maturity and experience give you a road map in order to be able to confront problems. The experience of different markets and cultures have made me who I am. My time in Colombia was a great example of this. I was the only foreigner in the agency, with a team that needed to be guided to the understanding that our business is fundamentally based on ideas. It was a great challenge.
The truth is that when you arrive at a new market or country, everybody expects a lot from you. There are a high expectation and yet you still don’t know how anything really works or have had time to adapt to the culture.
One of the keys to leadership is emotional intelligence. A leader without emotional intelligence is just a person that is in charge because he has a title on his business card, but nobody, or very few, respect them. Above all in our business we work in an industry of egos, and as a leader you have to know how to manage said egos. To know when to push them, when to inspire them, and when to put the brakes on certain situations.
LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?
Alvaro> There was a well-known incident in Mexico with a famous brand of chocolate, which I cannot go into too deeply for reasons of confidentiality, but where I found myself in the aftermath of an event where established protocols were breached and a certain situation got out of control. What I can say is that I felt very alone in that moment. I remember a phone call from a chairman where he told me I had to resolve it on my own without offering any guidance. From that moment I took control of the situation, did what I had to do, and was able to both save the whole team, and have the client return to us all the brands they had threatened to strip from us once they understood that I knew how to handle difficult situations.
There have been very few times that I have had to dig that deep, but thankfully I was able to count on a great client and a great creative VP working together as allies to find a way through a seemingly impossible mess. That was a watershed moment in my career.
LBB> Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so, how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?
Alvaro> I believe that that desire has always been there. I had to learn how to build a team and how to take it forward. Not everyone has to be a superstar, teams also need people on the sidelines, everyone has a role, everyone plays in a position, and each one does the best he can to reach a common goal. I understood early on that to just have a great idea means nothing if it never sees the light, so there has to be a team that is capable of achieving that end, and a leader who understands how to get there.
I always take time to get to know each member of my team, to know what they need, what they want to achieve, where and with whom they live. If we don’t know what is happening with each individual and understand that before being an employee, they are first and foremost a person, we cannot lead anyone.
LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?
Alvaro> I sincerely believe that one can get better or improve one’s leadership skills, but not without first having empathy. That is perhaps something that can’t be taught. If the latter is not important to you, you can’t improve because either in the short, or in the long-term people are going to see through you and realise you don’t care - that you are not authentic. It’s something you either have or don’t. If not, it will be difficult for you to become an effective leader. Yes, you could one day become the president of a company for example, but there is a great distinction between the two.
LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?
Alvaro< To find a team that believes in what you believe, to inspire them to achieve a common goal, this takes time and a lot of dedication - and when I speak of dedication I speak of leading by example. To be hands-on in the day-to-day, to demonstrate through action, not just through talk. When something clicks and everybody gets on board, including those who were perhaps not fully committed previously - that is a tremendous moment. The day that “click” starts to happen, where a team of many people is working together in perfect sync, that is the moment you know great things are going to happen. Everybody wants to be part of it.
LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed while in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?
Alvaro> We maybe speak very little about this, and it’s right that we should talk about it more. Too often we only ever talk about the successes in our career.
There is an agency president with whom I talk to now and again, and we always talk about our failures together, because in this business everybody already knows about your successes.
Personally, I am very self-critical, I am always thinking about what I could have done better or what I should have said in a certain moment. But the truth is, I don’t believe that we should beat ourselves up all the time. I believe that we must keep learning about what it is we do in this business and be more sensitive to each other - too often this is perceived as weakness, but I’m talking again about empathy, about understanding.
If I am sure of anything, however it is that we can always do better, and the only way to achieve this is to be truly introspective from time to time.
LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?
Alvaro> I think you always have to be clear with people, even in the very worst moments. Something I have learned as a leader is to always speak the truth, even if at times it may be difficult for people to hear. The value of any type of leadership is based on its credibility.
Also, if we are diligent about always speaking the truth, we will never have to ask ourselves what we said previously, or have to manipulate perception because we have only the one truth.
I think people value this, and as a result their respect grows. People in a team do not value or respect a leader that lies or hides information. Sometimes being completely frank can seem a little brutal, but clients look for people to work with who have such values; people who believe in what they do, and in what they say. I think maybe in our industry this is something that is prized more and more but, conversely, found less and less.
LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?
Alvaro> This is something that I would have loved to have had in my career. I have had people that have given me advice and pushed me - though not a mentor as such, but sincerely I advise those that want to grow in an agency or in any company to look for a mentor. I’ve been lucky enough to receive some very good advice over the years from people such as; Alvaro Moré, president at VMLY&R Uruguay, Estuardo Aguilar, president at FCB Dos Puntos Crea Guatemala, Claudia Martínez, former president at GREY México, Andrés Martínez, former creative VP at JWT México, now CEO of M&C SAATCHI Madrid, these are the people who have pushed me and guided me most in my career.
Also, last but not least is my business partner at M&C SAATCHI, Manolo Techera. He listens to me, he allows me to express myself, and with very few words is able to communicate a lot. He has given me a sense of balance in order to become a better leader.
We are also providing mentoring at the agency with some startups. I am currently in talks with Endeavor Mexico to do some mentorship through them as I believe I can add a lot of value to others and help them to grow in the same way that I would like to have been helped when I was starting out.
LBB> It's been a really challenging year - and that's an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?
Alvaro> I have a business partner with whom I share the leadership of the agency, each of us with our own role. Yes, it has been very challenging during the pandemic but I believe that it is these moments in life where one discovers the best of ones-self. It’s this resilience that has brought us to where we are today as an agency.
There are no secrets between us as a team. We talk with all our personnel, ask how they are, what is happening in their lives, how they are coping - and always from a place of real interest. We’re diligent about sharing with them the exact situation, what is happening, to always be clear about our expectations, and to say openly that we know that each one of them is different, but that together as a team we are stronger.
LBB> This year has seen the industry confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?
Alvaro> We believe in talent first and foremost, and that true talent has no nationality, skin colour, religion, gender or sexual orientation. If we manage things in this way we will have a more open industry where what is valued is diversity of thought - and surely, a more diverse working environment will help us grow as individuals not just as an industry. This has been, and will always be my point of view on this subject.
If the question refers to what we have done as an agency, we have been working on a project called M&C - like the agency - but in this case the letters don’t refer to Maurice & Charles! The M is for Mujeres and the C is for Creativas (Creative Women), where we are trying to connect more women in the industry, whether be it from agencies, account services, creative, planning, production, research companies, or production companies. The aim being that these women can get to know, connect, and empower each other in order to create a better industry where women have the same opportunities as men. Ultimately the idea is to expand this to media companies in the future as well.
LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely in 2020?
Alvaro> M&C SAATCHI is a company with a great culture. Moray MacLennan, CEO of the group is someone that continually promotes this within the company. He has taken the time to speak one-on-one with each of the team and he created a monthly Worldwide Meeting and as a result we are more and more united as a network.
Our mantra is Brutal Simplicity of Thought, and in these times that’s something that is more and more necessary, but it’s also more and more difficult to keep every member of the team aligned in a single purpose when we are not all working together in the same room. Something that I have done since the first day, with Manolo, is to try and create a culture within the agency that promotes a certain way of thinking. I believe that this is noticeable when you see our work for our clients. We have also tried to take care of our people individually, and during these times this is more important than ever. We have created spaces to chat during work hours, not to talk about work, but just to listen to music, recommend new series, or talk about what’s happening in our personal lives. We started Virtual Beer Thursdays, where everyone in the agency gets a six pack of beer delivered to their homes, and we have a drink together online. We continue looking for ways to do things for the team that feel good and are relevant to the ethos of the agency.
LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?
Alvaro> Getting good advice from people I admire and trust. But above all just working hard on being better every day and listening to the people I lead. I want to lead by example and speak the truth - always.