Meet The CEO
Claire Hollands: Meet The New Challenger Changing It Up At MullenLowe
The new CEO at MullenLowe Group UK on her ambition to speed up the pace of change
05 July 2023
It happens every decade or so that there’s a generational shift in agency leadership. The new CEO at MullenLowe Group UK, Claire Hollands represents just that. In May, Hollands was promoted from her managing director role to being the agency boss, following the news that Jeremy Hine was stepping down after five years in the CEO role. The move also marked the first time the agency has had a female CEO since 2008, when Amanda Walsh quit the role.
Hollands’ promotion to CEO only 18 months after she joined the agency didn't come as a surprise to many. Fair to say that the industry hasn't been closely watching this IPG-owned agency for a while. Under the radar for a very long time, the one time the agency did make a splash was when it hired stellar creative talent Nicky Bullard, former European chairwoman and UK CEO at MRM, as group chief creative officer in March last year.
Hollands joined MullenLowe in November 2021 from Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, where she spent 13 years, most recently as chief client officer. But her succession plan was carved out from the start, she says in her rather unpretentious but very direct manner. "The one thing I learned at AMV was just how important good people are and to have people to learn from, and that was one of the main reasons I chose MullenLowe." Reflecting on her decision to leave AMV BBDO, she adds she wasn't sure about joining an agency that she hadn't heard much about. That’s something that she is massively keen to change - the profile and the fame of the agency is very much on top of her agenda. The words "pace" and "change" pepper her vocabulary.
"When I was going to move, I wanted to experience what it was like to work in a different holding company. And then I also wanted a different type of agency. So I actively wanted to find something that had a more integrated set of capabilities all sitting under one roof. And I was transparent with Jezz (Jeremy Hine) that I do want to run an agency, but I also felt like I needed a runway in order to do that," she explains. From restructuring of the business from four units (MullenLowe London, MullenLowe Profero, MullenLowe Salt and MediaHub. MediaHub is now part of Mediabrands) to one, to upping the creative and new-business credentials of a once-struggling agency by winning Bayer, Co-op, Ferrero and Bupa (and now Freemans), Hine was busy helping her build the runway. Not long after, IPG promoted Kristen Cavallo, the CEO of The Martin Agency, to global CEO of the MullenLowe Group. For Hollands, this has meant "perfect timing" for her to speed up her own agenda when it comes to winning domestic work and to sharpen the industry's perception about the agency's creative credentials.
There is a sense that Hollands applies her medical training skills - of problem solving and the ability to deal with uncertainty - to show both clients and her peers what the agency has to offer. She set out to be a doctor, but three years into her training decided it was not for her. To get into advertising she tried everything from knocking on agency doors to emailing agency MDs and applying to every work experience scheme and job out there and sleeping on sofas to get her first gig, all of which has meant that Hollands is very thoughtful about her own role within the advertising world. She certainly has a keen mix of empathy and emotional intelligence when it comes to managing the most important assets in our industry – people.
Creative Salon spoke with Hollands about the future of MullenLowe Group UK and her ambitions for the agency:
Creative Salon: How do you think the agency has developed since you first joined as an MD? And how will you help to develop its positioning in the market as CEO?
Claire Hollands: It's changed hugely in the 18 months that I've been here. I joined MullenLowe, which was one agency of four - [MullenLowe Profero, MullenLowe Open and MullenLowe Salt]. Bringing all these agencies together has been a huge fundamental step change for us as a business. Mediahub is obviously separate and part of Mediabrands. I don't think we actually realised how much capability we had under one roof, because we're all kind of operating in our own swim lanes. That integration piece has been empowering for everybody and made us realise we're kind of stronger together. We all knew during the back half of last year that this was going to happen, so we started working closely together. I think it's kind of been proven in our growth. The Co-Op and the Ferrero wins last year were a testament to just that. And we've just won Freemans. We're having a really good year, we've landed three big pieces of business. Growth and pitch wins are always the biggest part of momentum of any agency. And if you get that right then you're getting your DNA of your agency right.
Have you got a 100-day plan?
Yeah, I do. But you have to remember that I've kind of grown into the role. It's not like I'm just a new CEO into an agency. I've had a very clear point of view since the day I started here. And that's around creativity that drives growth. When Jezz and I did the handover, I said to the people here that you're probably wondering what changes I will now make. Actually, we'd already set a strategy for the year and it's working really well. I'm not going to be changing a lot because I think we are winning, we are growing, our creative work is getting better and better. What I think I want to put behind it is more pace.
I'm fairly hungry around the change agendas that need to happen. And so I think just driving our culture and also creating that right environment to really help people to be their best and flourish, which I think is about being nice and doing right thing by everybody. But it's also around creating the right environment to have difficult conversations around the work - Is it good enough? Could it be better? I call that a 'high support- high challenge' environment and that is what I shall be building.
Your change agenda: what kind of shape would that take?
It's really perfect timing, because along with my changing role there’s also Kristen Cavallo, who's come in as our new global CEO. She's brought in a new global identity, a new global positioning, which hasn't just been born out of the US. It's been a piece of work that we've all been co-collaborating on with her. We all feel like we already own that new positioning. And I'm really excited about that new positioning, because it's about always being a challenger. And how we do that is by staying positively dissatisfied, and I love that.
The new positioning has really set our stall out in terms of what that means for us as an agency in London. What that means for our culture internally, but also what that means in terms of the types of clients we want to go after, the type of capabilities we want to grow.
You talk about your agency culture - and the one thing we have been hearing loads about the London agency is all the work it has done on employee benefits - family policies, inclusivity, work around ageism. But perhaps what has been missing is the big famous work. Or maybe the agency just hasn't been talking enough about its work. Are you ready to start shouting about your product?
Yes and yes. My strategy is around creativity that drives growth. The work will always have to be the shop window, and we've always talked about needing to get more domestic business. And if you take a look at our reel - I'm so proud of the most brilliant work we have been producing. The work for the NHS we did around life changing careers. We've done some new Sloggi work that I think is really different. Same with our New Balance campaign at the back end of last year.
In the second half of the year, as a Group we will have come together as one, we will have landed more new business and work that will make us feel different. The challenger that we really want to be.
As I said, the big thing that I'm really doing is speeding up the pace in terms of the change agenda. What that really means is looking at how we innovate. What I'm finding interesting about innovation is I feel the whole industry is talking about AI being a game changer. But I'm seeing innovation slightly differently in terms of innovation being about a set of behaviours. And trying new things - risk taking, we just want to test and learn and see where we get to and do things differently. So how do we now drive forward and have more future facing capabilities? How are we positioning our content? How are we driving our social agenda? How are we setting up our production department for the future needs of our clients? And what are the partners that we're going to work with? Because we're not a huge agency, and we're not going to buy in every piece of expertise. But what we do need to be able to do is have the partners that we can go out and do those things with. So for me, it's a very integral part of our agency offering moving forwards.
What is that one big unharnessed opportunity for your agency?
Culturally as a network, I've always found us to be very collaborative. For example Ferrero was a network win that is being run out of the UK. What I am now excited about is having a real clarity about who we are. And that will lead to domestic growth. We also have a huge amount of global experience, through Unilever, Bayer and now Ferrero, and so we've always had sort of two sides to the agency. I now want to grow and win in terms of us being more of a European hub for the netwok
You are the agency's first female CEO since 2008, when Amanda Walsh stepped down from the role. There has been a new wave of agency chiefs in the last few years - younger and more diverse (in terms of gender) - and new kinds of leaders. What do you make of that?
There are more and more female leaders running agencies now. But I'm as much a mum as I am a CEO. Sometimes people forget how little my kids are - they're five and two. They're diddy.
I do feel that I want to be a kind of a role model in terms of making it work. And I think I have a responsibility to set out a way of working that functions not just for mums, or indeed working parents, but for everybody. Our agency has worked hard on making sure that all our employees feel looked after. What's interesting is that post Covid there's a lot more female leaders running agencies that I think have a chance to carve out what the future looks like in terms of work-life balance. I also think it's all very well having policies in place, but you have to live by them. For me, a huge part of that is flexible working. I think if I had to be in the office five days, I think it would tip the applecart and just be too much. As ever, the important piece here is not the policies themselves but living by them. It’s why you’ll often see me rushing out the door for pick ups.
But the industry is still struggling in terms of proper diversity. We need to fix it. At MullenLowe we're looking at redoing our apprenticeship scheme, which has been really successful in terms of bringing in new diverse talent. But we want to ramp it up.
What aspirations do you have about the kind of work that you want the agency to be famous for?
The work I'm most proud of from the agency is the Big Zuu work for Co-Op. It was just the first big piece of work we did on Co-Op and I love the fact that it was challenging the category. For me at the time of the cost of living crisis, it was important to be able to talk about Christmas in a completely different way. That was the right note for Co-Op and the kind of work that you will see more of from us. Having to pick a favourite piece of work is like choosing between your children. The Sloggi and New Balance work, for example, I was very close to as well and these campaigns have changed our reels. Fresh and challenging.