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Bossing It

Bossing It: Climbing Leadership Mountains with Jason Talbot

The Croc managing director on learning to be a different type of leader and accepting failure

Bossing It: Climbing Leadership Mountains with Jason Talbot

Having failed to break through into professional sports after puberty he did the next best thing and went into the advertising industry, starting at Saatchi & Saatchi. Since then Jason has been lucky enough to work with some of the finest marketers and brands in the world, from Masterfoods, Fiat and Emirates Airlines to AWS, London Stock Exchange Group and Cisco. To this day he continues to dabble and fail at sports.

What was your first experience of leadership?

I was a typical boy in the ‘70’s that grew up playing football – school, Sunday league, county, Watford FC. Throughout I always seemed to get handed the armband. Until this article I had never really thought about it but through years of childhood football captaincy I learned many basic principles of leading a team, understanding team dynamics, the essential role every member has, the unadulterated joy of competing and winning as a team.


How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?

Coming out of school and university it’s fair to say I was pretty rough round the edges. As a council estate boy joining Saatchi and Saatchi in the late 80’s it wasn’t hard to recognise I was short in my overall toolkit, plus I was short anyway. I quickly adopted mentors and literally studied them: body language, characteristics, communication techniques, how they handled situations. An early conclusion that I drew from watching the giants of the agency like David Kershaw, Ray Burden, Bill Muirhead was how relatable they were, human irrespective of who you were. Yes they had edge, were driven and a degree of swagger (arrogance?) but didn’t put themselves on a pedestal. They shared a common attribute of seeing the value in every individual while nurturing an even stronger team dynamic – we always had a sense that together we were unbeatable. I loved being part of that.


What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?

One moment that sticks out was as an Account Manager at D’Arcy’s. I was working under two of the best AD’s in the agency and they were like Venus and Mars in their management styles. They quite literally could not have more more opposite: one by the book, checklists, queen of organised. The other, well she just had brilliant instincts, a reader of the moment, but also expected perfection. Both of them actively helped me to find ‘my’ style in a way that was authentic to me, to recognise there is more than one way. This really helped me to embrace my strengths and deal with a long list of weaknesses but to essentially be me.


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?

Yes and no. Saatchi’s back in the day had a brilliant HR pitch – no matter if you start in the post room or accounts, if you have it in you there’s nothing stopping you running the agency one day. Yeah it was patter but it fitted the culture and was credible enough to buy into it, even if only a little bit.

As the first person in my family to get a white collar job, let only Saatchi, I knew a leadership role was somewhat of a mountain to climb. I guess my sporting instincts helped in my earlier career – put the time in, train, maintain a positive attitude, have a goal. I know this sounds cliché but these instincts were all I had to begin with. As a boy from the estate I knew I would have to put more time and effort in than many others. This wasn’t made easier by the fact everyone put a lot of bloody effort in.


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?

I would say most leaders have benefitted from some form of empirical learning and training, we all get influenced by others one way or another. We live and work in a complex society so my personal belief is that ongoing training is not only healthy, but a necessity. As a team member looking to the leaders I admired, most always had a blend of being comfortable with who they were combined with having a deep toolkit to draw from.


What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?

The challenge over the last few years is handing over control and learning to be a different type of leader. To trust others to drive and create answers before they’re needed – to give other leaders in the business the permission and autonomy to lead.

Then there are the thousand other things that I’m a bit shit at, how long have you got?


Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?

The simple truth is I fail in something almost every other day. The lesson is to accept failure, learn from it, don’t be deterred and move on.


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?

I think if you believe in building a strong team dynamic, the issue of trust is important. I think this requires you to be accessible and to be authentic, however to what level of transparency, care and consideration would entirely depend on the situation and the context. 


As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/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?

It’s fair to say I’ve had quite a few starting with Charles Fallon during my first year at Saatchi and Saatchi who helped me to understand the fundamentals of the job. Sharon Charlton at Barker & Ralston who gave me the confidence and belief I could be good at this. Daniel Taylor at DMB&B/D’Arcy who sponsored me into senior roles and gifted me some great lines that have stuck: “Know when to stop selling and shut the £%@& up”, and “have you ever considered what it would be like managing you?”.

I wouldn’t say I was a mentor at the moment. Across my management team I like to try and recruit or promote people that are better than me at what they do. In those relationships I look to sponsor, listen, support and create the conditions around them to succeed.


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?

Fortunately I’m not on my own and have great partners, a talented management team, and an agency culture with people at every level ready to go above and beyond. Everyone has been through so much and has given so much it’s both humbling and inspiring. We have not had to furlough anyone and have grown by over 30%, this and casual drinking seven nights a week helps to cope.


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?

We picked a fight with the B2B marketing industry in 2020. The world was burning and the industry was so tone deaf to culture, to what was happening in the real world and continued to obsess over things like account based marketing platforms. One of my management team called this out over social media with my backing and we got brutally trolled for it.

We take inclusion seriously and I believe as an agency we have much more work to do. We’re making progress with a 50:50 gender split in Heads of Department team, holding recruitment partners more accountable on their diversity practice, creating more tangibility in our D&I practice internally. Since picking the fight above we have founded a council of 5 like-minded, leading agencies in B2B that now collaborates to make a difference – we run a quarterly event series called IN covering key conversations on inclusion with 300+ attendees. Part of the thinking behind creating the council was to create a greater sense of community through the B2B industry, and to also create a greater sense of accountability to each other which helps to ensure we progress our standards quicker and simply be better.


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?

Well, we’ve certainly put ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ to the test. The Croc is built on a call to arms of Where Fierce Thinking Lives, 80+ people with the mandate to challenge convention. In 2020 they’ve been busy across some of the biggest issues from helping to tackle COVID-19 with Biobank, getting under the skin of global small businesses with Cisco, and Climate Resilience with Milliman.

Yes, as a management team we’ve overly communicated, run virtual social events, sent care packages, looked to create support mechanisms around mental well being. Above and beyond this we have had great briefs to work on, that stimulate and inspire. 


What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?

Eyes and ears!


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