Meet the New CEO
So what exactly is Sam Hawkey doing to fix AMV?
Since he took over as CEO last autumn, Hawkey has set about rebuilding the once-mighty agency
07 June 2022
For a man who pretty much rose without trace at his last agency, Sam Hawkey has been hogging the spotlight at his new one.
It’s not surprising. He’s an excitingly young (35), unapologetically ambitious and powerfully clear-eyed, bullshit-free leader taking on the delicious challenge of reigniting what was for decades the UK’s biggest - and one of the very best - agencies: Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.
Hawkey’s already given plenty of interviews outlining why he decided to trade in the CEO-ship at Saatchi & Saatchi for the AMV task. But what Creative Salon wanted to know is how he’s actually going to rebuild AMV.
The agency has won every big creative accolade going, with its Womb Stories work for Essity in particular. But it’s no longer the UK’s biggest agency (a status it had held for three decades) after a string of high-profile, painful losses such as BT, Walkers and Asda. Something’s broken at AMV and Hawkey’s mission is to fix it. Don't bet against him!
So Sam, what do you bring to AMV that it’s been lacking?
The main thing is an entrepreneurial spirit. I think it's always been the lifeblood of agencies, but never more than now. I want people at AMV to go and start some fires, spend a bit cash on trying things out, I want to give some licence to the entrepreneurial spirit.
I grew up with Magnus [Djaba, chief client officer at Publicis Groupe] and Katrine De Bauw [global president of TBWA\Media Arts Lab] and I always got taught that spirit of if you’ve got a great idea, just go and fucking do it. And in AMV there’s tonnes of that spirit, but some one or some thing or the culture of the way that it’s been, has been holding it back.
That's the thing that I think people have liked about me coming in here: I want progression, to move us on and evolve us.
Why has there been this real disconnect between the calibre of what you're putting out and your ability to attract and retain business? What’s gone wrong?
I think that's about client relationships. I think AMV wasn't reactive enough to the changes after Brexit, the pandemic and so on. We’d had some of these client relationships for 15 or 20 years. And the thing that I learnt from Magnus is that if it's going well, then now's the time to mix it up, mix it up, mix it up. He was brilliant at that. And I don't think they did enough of that at AMV.
Were they staring at clients enough? Were they really partnering with them and going ‘we understand what you need’ and ‘we have the things that you need’? And I think it went way too far the other way, which is just purely about the creative work and what is it feeding.
This is the most creatively awarded agency in the world, and the top five most effective. But I think it's about relationship and partnership and really understanding what clients need versus only being brilliant at one part of it, because it's super complicated now, and there's so many bits to it.
People think AMV is just a big, traditional agency. That is bollocks. And it makes me bubbling angry. We won a D&AD yellow pencil for data for addresspoluttion.org. If there was a data agency that had that case study, they would have been walking around with it for 10 years, right.
And then you've got things like for the 4am Stories for Sheba, which Mark Ritson wrote about as one of the best brand pieces of work and which won a load of YouTube awards. That's a phenomenal piece of work. We also grew a coral reef for Sheba and in a unique integration with Google Street View you can see it under water. So we do these never-been-done-before types of digital work and activation. But we need to be louder and prouder.
You’re obviously introducing lots of innovations at AMV. But what have you actually had to fix?
I think on a granular level, the three things are: senior client relationships; how commercial is viewed in the business; and looking after our people.
When it comes to looking after our people, we've just signed a deal with Culture Amp, who are a performance management and engagement platform, which I'm super excited by. It's an amazing piece of tech, and will completely transform the way that we do performance reviews, the way that we get feedback from our people, and how we engage them every month so that everyone knows exactly where they are in their careers, what feedback they need, what training they need.
And that is linked to a thing called AMV Life Stages, which is changing all of our policy to look at what life stage you’re in versus what age are you, and what job title you have. As an example, we've got two women in the agency, same age, same title, same department but one is single and flying around Europe visiting offices and the other is just about to have her second baby. They're at completely different life stages, so they can't be treated the same.
We’re looking at our benefits and our policies; if we want to be the nicest agency to work at, well what's the proof of that? And there’s a training programme that comes off all of this, we're doubling down on that at a granular level.
On the senior client relationships, I see pretty much all of the CMOs once a month without fail for a top-to-top. It puts a unique pressure on us, and me specifically, to see our senior clients all of the time and know what's going on with them.
Also, we're a new leadership team, so it’s important that they’re seeing us in action. There’s obviously been quite a lot of change in the leadership team since my arrival six months ago. This comes from a need, but also what I learned in building a real sense of team and needing to feel ownership when running an agency.
This has also had some luck to it, in being able to put Nick [Hulley] and Nadja [Lossgott]- who are once in a lifetime creative talents - front and centre. But also taking someone like Carmen [Vasile], who previously hasn’t run an agency, into the MD role to be our fire and our cultural compass everyday.
So everyone is learning it as we go, but I’ve always used my naivety as a superpower - asking why things have always been done a certain way, what we should keep and what we break up for parts and ship on. In this group I have that tons of that and that’s why we have momentum.
We’ve also set up a client board of the top marketing clients that we have, and they all come together for two hours when we talk to them about the agency, the news, the work we do. We want them to help shape the agency they want to work with. We always talk about us being partners in their business. But they should be partners in AMV’s business too.
We’re changing how the commercial aspect of our business is seen internally too. Our creativity is worth, in my view, a lot of money. And therefore we need to be paid for the work that we do. But we don't like asking, you know, we're not good at putting a proper price on what we do. But we need to be looking for opportunities to help clients do more, so we therefore grow our business and we can be completely transparent about that.
Getting to that needs some internal change. So we have Hunter meetings every Thursday, and they are about what opportunities are there to help clients? Where are we on our commercials? How are we looking? And are we looking for opportunity rather than just, you know, just doing the work that we're given? We have to change the attitude around that.
Now, new business - that's a journey that we're going on at the moment, how do we get marketers to really understand what they will get at AMV and get them fired up about it? New business is not in the DNA of AMV because before the pandemic, and before the account losses, the agency was ginormous and was locked out of pretty much every category. All of a sudden we aren’t. So one of the more interesting tasks is coming up with new credits, creating a new story, showcasing a new team.
"People think AMV is just a big, traditional agency. That is bollocks. And it makes me bubbling angry."
The DNA of AMV was always about real decency, and about high quality craft skills beautifully done. Do you have to ease up a bit on this in order to be a bit scrappier and entrepreneurial?
I always describe AMV as the professionals of the profession: we do it properly. That’s how we work with our clients. And the one thing I said was ‘I will not be the person that comes in and makes AMV less good around the work’. And they are perfectionist around the work, around getting the best possible creative work out and to make it as effective as possible. And I think people miss that point a lot of the time, about why you have craft and creativity: it's because it matters, it makes the work more effective. So the perfectionism in the work, I don't think will ever change.
But I think when you're being entrepreneurial about the things we want to do in the agency, you have to have a bit of that ‘let's try and don't worry if it's not perfect’.
And niceness can be warm bath; we still need to be making our people feel uncomfortable. If I talk to the account people about what we should be doing and our capability and changing, they're uncomfortable – but that's the decent thing to do for their careers, because they need to move on and they need to keep going. I'm super competitive, really hungry, really challenging, but I'd like to think that I'm a decent guy. And that matters.
So what’s your strategy for turning the agency around?
The strategy has three pieces.
We believe in radical empathy. We work in an open API way. And we strive to be the nicest place to work with and at.
Radical empathy is about the work that we do. Our belief is, if you want to make highly effective work, you've got to drive an emotion in someone. There’s a great Harvard Business Review article where it says there are 26 different emotions you can use to drive effective work. If you take the last 18 months of AMV work, we've used 14 or 15 of those emotions across our work. Using all of those emotions, it's the best ingredient for creative work. And it's also the best ingredient for effective work.
If you're going to drive emotive work, you have to be radically empathetic in the way that you see the world and you see people. And what you'll find here at AMV, and the thing I've been most impressed with, is the ability of these people to walk in other people's shoes and understand them and get really insightful work. It’s our superpower. We often talk about data with a soul and that’s what AMV does better than anyone.
We haven't talked about this at all yet, the OpenAPI way of working. I learned a lot at Publicis about why opening up and inviting others in helps you to defend what you have and it helps you to grow and do more for clients and be more helpful to them.
But for it to really work you have to be offering the best in the world. So our Open API way of working is not just about taking the best of what [AMV’s parent company] Omnicom has to offer, we're also going to look externally to the best companies that we can partner with. And then we start to build capabilities out of those.
So for example, on dynamic content, we're working with a company called Adylic, who are in the group, and we're also talking to a company called Wooshii, who are an outside production company that we think can serve that model really well. Then I can genuinely go to clients and say ‘these are the best possible partners to deliver you a dynamic content solution. And by the way, it's fuelled by the strategic and creative firepower you love from AMV’. That's called AMV Dynamic.
These types of partnerships will be locked in as JVs. So for example, we’ve just launched AMV Open, which is a partnership between AMV and a company called Open which works in inclusive innovation and has access to 250,000 people of different body shapes and disabilities and they look at product innovation and insight. We look at that from a brand lens and what solutions we can find for clients.
And we're doing that across sustainability, gaming Web3, dynamic, DTC, and I can build those capabilities really quickly. So clients get AMV, they get the best possible partners, they get full transparency on how the commercial works, and we deal with all the nonsense that comes with complexity.
And thirdly, like I said, we're working hard to re-enforce this as a nice place to work with and at. They are really decent, kind people here and I think we need to weaponize niceness, because it does mean something to be nice. I think it’s important. Niceness is the core of our culture.
So how let's fast forward three years, how will we know that your vision for AMV has been successful?
We’ll be the most awarded creative agency in the world, the most effective agency of the year and top of the new business league. All those accolades say that you're going in the right direction, but I think the biggest one is growth. The biggest disappointment has been that we're the most creative agency in the world, and yet we lost business. If we get those accolades, we should be growing at a rate of knots. I also think we would have incredibly happy employees and low churn.
I've really found that clients - and the industry - really want us to do well.