Bossing It: From Aotearoa to Adland with Graeme Blake
Graeme Blake is founder and CEO of Blutui, the web platform for the creative sector and digital agency PAN.
His dual role affords him amazing insights into the advertising and creative industry, studio production and the world of SaaS MarTech. As a Kiwi digital agency owner who is fortunate enough to be building a global SaaS business he's passionate about bringing innovation from Aotearoa, New Zealand to the world of creative studios, digital production houses and advertising agencies who together form adland, a special place brimming with talent and a drive to do better for clients and judging panels every day.
LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?
Graeme> I hurled myself in at the deep end when I was relatively young and naïve. I started my first design consultancy 30 years ago when a single workstation was the same price as a modest apartment...that’s here in '90s Aotearoa, New Zealand at least!
Being essentially self employed means it’s easy to rise to the top, you quickly find there is no-one else to compete with except yourself and equally, nobody to provide guidance.
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?
Graeme> The business grew, attracting larger and larger accounts, commercial partners and staff. My growth as a business leader has been underpinned by a background in design and creative direction, combine this with being a business owner since I was 23 and my dominant trait is empathy. I’ve been there and done that from the ideation and creative side of the business and spent years roasting in front of VCs, pacing hotel rooms in cities all around the world and countless hours at boardroom tables.
LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?
Graeme> Ever the entrepreneur, I had the opportunity to meet and strike a business relationship with the late Sir Eion Edgar, a delightful man, tough negotiator and serial investor here in New Zealand and with interests the world over. I clearly recall my first ‘lions den’ moment with Eion where he grilled me on the product I had developed; a wine packaging concept destined for the travel industry. While he mercilessly poked and prodded at my idea, my business model, my experience and my general worth as a human being he was all the while testing my resolve. All these years later I constantly recount Sir Eion's approach and use it to find prospective partners' grit. “Attitude is everything, it’ll get you places people prone to giving up will never enjoy”.
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?
Graeme> To this day I don’t consciously think of myself as a ‘boss’. In fact I have open disdain for business hierarchy as to my mind it limits talent growth and creativity. That said I realised fairly immediately upon striking out to create my own business that being a leader was somewhat inevitable. That said, now with essentially two businesses, a digital agency and a SaaS development business, I’m happy to say that I have it in me to lead both. Differing paths but most of the fundamentals have proven to be transferable.
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?
Graeme> I’ve not once been to a leadership training session, that's not to say that I could possibly get a fabulous amount out of one but I’ve relied completely on my ability to be me and it’s served me well so far. I’m firmly in the ‘old dog, new tricks’ camp.
LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?
Graeme> Structured HR management and managing sales people are my two Achilles' heels. Not surprisingly this stems from a creatives’ loathing of process and admin but when these responsibilities have resulted in near catastrophic consequences. Lesson learned, we contract both functions now and I take great delight in managing relationships and expectations from a distance.
LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?
Graeme> Constantly, all the time and probably right at this very moment. I think addressing failure is a fundamental trait and responsibility of every successful entrepreneur as failures provide so many opportunities to learn and develop. Failure is a funny thing, it's inevitable and the consequences of failure tend to determine your success. As I mentioned earlier, a person's attitude especially toward failure will define their future success.
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?
Graeme> I’m an open book, possibly to my detriment but being a creative spirit in a creative business I find transparency to be the best policy. All the people with whom I work are fundamentally more intelligent than I. As such I figure they are likely to see through any kind of smokescreen we could ever put up so in order to show them the respect they deserve as colleagues we run with a policy of absolute transparency.
Timing is another matter, there may be times when commercial or personal confidentiality over-ride this policy but in the main I like to treat staff in the same way as partners. I don’t even like thinking of the people we employ as staff - colleagues is a far better way to think and treat the people who provide us with their talent.
LBB> 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?
Graeme> I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to learn many lessons from a huge range of people in my life, not all from the commercial environment. These people and experiences have shaped me but I’ve not had a formal mentor, nor have I officially mentored anyone. There may be people out there who have observed how I operate though I wouldn’t guarantee for a moment they should rely on what they’ve seen and apply it to their own lives as everything in life relies on a unique and individual context. That's why I don’t read how-to self help books, they’re only relevant to the author IMO.
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?
Graeme> That comes back to transparency and having what I hope is a good communicative relationship with colleagues. In our business, in the main, we create in an open studio environment and as such there’s no hiding. As such we get to know each other’s sense of humour, tolerance for nonsense and each other’s work ethic, this was incredibly valuable when it meant we were plunged into our various Covid lockdowns. As business owners we had complete confidence in the integrity of our people - this meant leadership transitioned from face-to-face in-studio to work-from-home seamlessly and with no loss of sleep over business performance.
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?
Graeme> We are a small team and have a completely open approach. We celebrate diversity when we can and encourage it in our own small way. I’m reasonably sure progress is being made, possibly at a pace not realised, or at least this is my hope. The entire industry being focused online for such an extended time has surely meant more time being exposed to diversity and inclusion related content and ideas.
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?
Graeme> Culture is critical in our business, as it surely is with every ambitious group. We are a small digital team endeavouring to effect positive change around web development in Adland with Blutui. Advertising and marketing is an aggressive, high stakes industry where winning counts, whether its winning clients, awards or admiration from the industry every agency has an ego.
Our talented team share a vision for success by supporting the web development aspect of this industry we love. Money may well be a by-product of this shared mission, but delivering positive change is the driver, our people are smart, agile and completely immersed in the world of digital agency life, that’s our cultural difference from other technologies and in turn it defines our platform.
LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?
Graeme> There are two ‘F’ words that spring to mind.
Friends in business, whether they are clients who evolve into friends or talented people whose friendships are picked up along the way. Friends and fear. From the moment we strike out on a business leadership journey fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of getting it all wrong are your unlikely companions and guides. Success is wonderful and should be celebrated when it arrives but relying entirely on success is, in my view at least, a short sighted approach to leading. True leaders have the ability to inspire progress through thick and thin, against the odds not only when the odds are in ones favour. This isn’t a glass half empty approach, quite the opposite, when the odds are stacked against a project and the ‘boss’ successfully leads a team of colleagues through to the next success milestone that takes mettle, perseverance, trust in team and attitude.
Category: Business Services , Business Software