Carly Avener

Pitch Perfect: Leo Burnett's CEO On Why Her Business Keeps Winning

As she marks her first year in charge, Carly Avener talks people, culture, and the secret sauce behind the agency's success

By Creative Salon

New(ish) CEO interviews are often threaded with muscular promises about rejuvenations, new directions, ambitious change. Carly Avener has no need for any of that.

As the new(ish) CEO of Leo Burnett, she’s leading the UK’s twice-in-a-row ‘Agency of the Year’. It’s an agency at the top of its game, no need for rejuvenations here.

And anyway, it’s a track record that Avener herself has been fundamental to delivering; she joined Leo Burnett as managing director from BBH back in 2019 and has helped the agency grow by more than 50 per cent since then. As big new jobs go, Avener couldn’t be more prepared for this one.

But don’t expect to find Avener feet-up, examining her manicure while her business sails elegantly, effortlessly onward. Leo Burnett might not need a reset, but Avener is clear that there’s plenty that needs doing to keep the agency on top form. Growth as impressive as Burnett’s – with big brands like Morrisons, Vodafone and the National Lottery operator Allwyn joining the agency’s roster of clients - comes with its own challenges. And though the agency’s former CEO Charlie Rudd hasn’t gone far (he’s now the Group CEO of Leo Burnett, Publicis London and Fallon), the Burnett buck now stops with Avener.

It's not just Avener who’s getting stuck into a new leadership role either. Last autumn Chaka Sobhani resigned as UK (and global) chief creative officer of Leo Burnett to join DDB, and Mark Elwood stepped up to the creative helm in London. So Avener and Elwood – alongside chief strategy officer Josh Bullmore - are making the agency their own now. The baton is in safe hands.  

As Avener comes up to her first anniversary as CEO we talked to her about the ingredients that have made the agency successful, how she’s managing such dizzying growth, and how Carly’s Leo Burnett is different to Charlie’s.

Creative Salon: Taking on the CEO role seemed such a natural progression for you. How much has your job really changed over this past year?

Carly Avener: Charlie [Rudd, the former CEO] has always been such a generous leader and has always just given me the space to do whatever I want to do. But now I’ve given myself permission to take on leadership in a way that I hadn't done before. It’s a sort of psychological shift when you realise there's no barriers to what is within your remit.

But because me and Charlie have worked together for a long time now, there are very open lines of communication and we can call, text or email each other at any time. There's just a very easy, natural kind of support there.

The biggest change, really though, came when I appointed my own MD, Sam Houlston – having someone brilliant in that role makes all the difference. And we’ve also got a fantastic director of opps Jack Waters. So I guess I'm shifting away from the internal running of the agency, back to the heartland of being an account person - which means loads of time for clients and loads of time around the work, finding out where I can help make the work as good as it possibly can be. So strangely being CEO means kind of going back to classic account management, which I love.

What do you think is the magic formula behind your recent run of success?

I think we've just done it brick by brick. We’ve been really forensic around our people: What's our talent strategy? Who are stars? How are we looking after them? And we’ve been really forensic around our numbers: I got really spreadsheet-y and like 'What are our clients paying for and what are we giving them?' And 'Why have they got two of those when they’re only paying for one?' So getting that really fine balance between revenue and resource happens on an almost daily basis, not that anyone here would necessarily feel it, but it’s going on behind the scenes, we’re very responsible about how we're managing that. And then thirdly we’ve been really focussed on building the proposition, because it's a highly competitive cluttered market. And clients don't spend more than three seconds really thinking about advertising agencies, so how can we be really consistent and clear about our brand? Why would a client trust you with their brand when you haven't got a brand of your own? So, that's been super important for us. And I think we've only scratched the surface of bringing Populist Creativity to life and stretching it into all the different places that it can go. And we've got really good at pitching.

The success we’ve had is amazing. It's been such a joy. And beyond my wildest dreams to be honest, I don't think any of us expected it. But I'm enjoying it.

What is that secret sauce when you get in the pitch room then?

I think it's our team and our chemistry. You know, all agencies are clever and come up with good ideas, and if that's just the baseline, then I think our team - and obviously Chaka [Sobhani] was a big part of that - has made all the difference, we're so close. Now we’ve got that with Mark, we've got a chemistry and a love for each other and respect for each other that I think is very, very enticing. And clients go, 'Well, I believe that this team knows what they're doing. I sort of want to be on that team and be part of it. And I would like my team to be a bit like them as well'. And we haven’t had to work really hard at that, the planets have aligned. And when I look at the next layer of leaders coming up through the business, I tell them you’ve got to get past that professional layer; you don’t have to share your whole life with each other but you do have to get bit of personal feeling going.

We also have a mantra within the agency of ‘just make it better’, on every level, right down to ‘make that contact report that you're writing better than the one before’. Because if every person, whatever their job is, can just make it a little bit better then the whole agency will get better. We started out saying to ourselves ‘we need to be amazing’ but it was so interesting because we've got some very high performing people and they found that mantra paralysing; they’d think ‘that isn't the best thing that I could ever do, so therefore it must be awful’. That was holding them back. So now we say, 'just make it better'. That's been super helpful.

You’ve had such a tremendous run of new business growth. Are you pulling down the shutters for a bit to bed everything in?

Yes, and no. You grow in different ways, don't you? With social campaigns, we’ve got clients asking us to extend our remit to help them with that. Then there's organic growth, or clients that might want to use us more internationally. So you can't just say ‘sorry we’re closed’ to existing clients and you would never want to. But we have turned down some open competitive pitches, just while we bed in new clients and get all the people in place, and make sure that everyone we're bringing in feels supported by the agency and included. It’s really important to me that our new hires are really knitted into the fabric of the agency.

When I think about all the things I’ve learnt from Charlie, his focus on people and talent is probably the main thing. An agency is just people, that's all it is. And to be the best agency, you've got to have the best people. So look after those people - financially, in terms of their career progression, have they got a plan, asking whether they’re happy, or thinking what might be going on for them that they need support with, really getting under the skin of all of that. Our churn rate is super low, because we really, really focus and think about our people. Because the last thing you want to be doing is constantly replacing people. It has such a corrosive effect on morale for the agency, on your client relationships, stability and consistency, just the vibe and the mood. And so that's why we've got a big focus on our culture, investing in wellness and diversity and inclusion and just bringing a bit of richness to their lives here; people don't come here to just sit at desks, it's part of life. So let's make that as good as it can be.

So how is that culture and this agency different now that it’s Carly’s Leo Burnett?

I think the agency is really different now to how it was a year ago, two years ago, five years ago. And a lot of that is not because I'm now CEO, it's been a sort of progression from what we've been building over the five years. We're much bigger now - we're pretty much double the size. And we've got way more clients. So it's not just McDonald's and a few others and more. It's McDonald's and Morrisons and Vodafone and Premier Inn and so on. And so I think that makes it feel different, because there's more balance, there's more opportunity, there's more creative spikes along the way.

In terms of the change of leadership, I don't think most people would go ‘it feels really different now’. But I do think people would feel that perhaps I bring some of my own personality and background and experience to the role, which is just different to Charlie’s. I'm a working mum, I'm a single parent, they all know that about me, I'm really open about that. So perhaps I bring a bit more of the understanding of working parents and the juggle and the flexibility that you need around that and the way we work. Plus the social specialism we have now, and the new people that are coming in - that's all part of my chapter, I suppose. But then lots of things are enduring – like Populist Creativity, which has so much more application across all these new clients, into different places, into social and so on.

What have been your key new initiatives as CEO?

The acceleration of social within the agency is definitely something that has been mine, in terms of growing that capability: figuring out what our clients need and what our particular proposition should be when you're coming from an agency like Leo's - which has got such a strong legacy in above-the-line channels, what people do we need to hire, what processes do we need to change? That's definitely been something that I feel I can claim as mine. And that's really beginning to take off now. We won the Skoda social pitch last year, Morrisons has hired us to do all their social, we're in conversation with lots of clients. I think the market’s moved in a way whereby clients are seeing that they get their best thinking and ideas from their lead agency, and that we can bring in all the capability they need to deliver social. So I feel that I definitely paved the way for that.

From my own experience, I want to do more to help working parents. We have so many working parents in our agency now, compared to when I first started working, and leaders are much more open about being parents now. It’s a bit of a cliché but it used to seem like all the leaders were men and they had wives at home looking after their children so being a parent didn’t really impact their working life. Now all our senior people are working parents and their partners work as well. So they're all juggling silently, I think, and not realising that they're not the only one who’s come to work having done three rounds with their seven year old, which I did this morning. So I really want us to be a workplace that understands that and can support that. So that's what I'm working through at the moment: What is that support? For example we need to signal to new parents that it's OK to slow down because you have to prioritise other stuff for a bit. It doesn’t mean that you don’t work hard and you don’t care, but the pressure that you put on yourself is probably unhelpful at this point. I just don't think there's enough conversation around these issues. So women come back from maternity leave, and then put so much pressure on themselves plus they are exhausted and they feel that it's a binary choice. And I just don't think it has to be like that.

And it’s hard for dads too, their parenthood is often less visible and people around them forget they've got two tiny children at home that they’re also coping with. And if we don't help the men, then we can't help the women. So I'm really interested in that and what we can do as an agency to help in a tiny way. I'm not saying we're going to solve it, but I want us to release a tiny bit of pressure. So whether it's parenting courses, or mentoring or buddy systems, or let's have a working dads' lunch, or bring inspirational speakers in, I think that just signals that we get that you're working parents and we want to support you so that you thrive and enjoy your time at work.

You’ve been quite open about your impostor syndrome. Tell us more about how that shapes you as a leader.

I wrote about it in Campaign and I got so much feedback. I think it connects into that people-focus I was talking about before, and just helping people release the pressure they put on themselves, which is such a big part of what’s holding them back. I've been there. And I think talking about it is so helpful. And the other thing that was so interesting is that so many men got in touch with me about imposter syndrome. My unconscious bias was that this is a female issue, more so than male. But that's obviously not true. So that's something I'm interested in. And I really, really believe in the transformational power of mentoring and coaching.

When I stood up in front of the agency when I was made CEO the thing that I really wanted people to understand is that when I was starting out I never thought I’d be a CEO, partly because that would have been incredibly arrogant and presumptive, partly because women just weren't really CEOs back then. And I just didn’t grow up with that kind of aspiration. I really wanted everyone in the agency to think ‘if Carly can do it, I can do it’. Plus I'm a single mum, I was the first person in my family to go to university, so on paper I don't obviously have what you might have thought was the pedigree of a CEO. I think to some people I probably come across as very polished and nice and a bit posher than I actually am. But don't be fooled by what you see - this is me 20 years on, but once upon a time I was just a very young, totally inexperienced, not very well connected person that was just thinking this is a mad industry.

I had chronic impostor syndrome at one point and I couldn't even function properly. And then I got a coach and it really, really helped to unlock my confidence. And that is such a liberating thing once you've got your confidence. And as long as you're not a complete psychopath, then I think you can really go on and do whatever you want to do. But for so long, people walk around holding themselves back without realising. I wanted people to know that I have been that person too, I wanted them to know that I wasn't born full of confidence, no way. And I just really wanted everyone to know that, particularly as we're trying to be more inclusive and hire more diverse talent from backgrounds where they wouldn't have known anyone in a professional role. I want those people to feel like they've got a chance.

Talking of Populist Creativity, your work for McDonalds is consistently so popular. How do you deal with the weight of expectation that all the ads will be of such a high standard?

Without wanting to sound completely arrogant, I don't think we do feel the weight of expectation. Because we are feeling confident as an agency at the moment, and we've got momentum, we just go ‘OK, the bar’s really bloody high now, but we know that we've got another gear, we know that wasn't the pinnacle - that was definitely like a notch up, but that's just galvanised everyone, and that was cool, let's do it again’. I think McDonald's is such a rich brand, and the fandom around is so rich, and it's so embedded in culture, that actually it's unlocked the realisation that you can find insights from so many of these places - like the eyebrow raise - but there's loads more. It’s really given us more confidence, given the client even more confidence in us, and it spurs you on to look at all of our other clients too, because we want to be doing that sort of impactful work for them.

You’re half way through another incredibly busy year. Tell us how it’s going.

Oh, where to start? Well on Vodafone there is just so much potential there. And I think our launch campaign is brilliant. But that is just the beginning of who knows where that could take us. Our clients are lovely, and have so much ambition, and have really bought into the idea and how we're bringing that to life. So that is super exciting. I think Morrisons is going from strength to strength, we're really finding our stride for Morrisons, and our results for them are stunning in terms of ROI on brand spend, especially for Christmas. Again, that's giving them confidence to be braver and braver. TUI, all the indicators are that our Christmas ad for them made a massive impact on their business so I think that will unlock more of that type of creative work for TUI. For Premier Inn we’re building on the Rest Easy platform and purshing the creative up another notch. For Kellogg's, we've got two incredible campaigns - a massive departure from where they've ever been before. So yeah, there’s lots to be excited about.

Do you accept that your successful run will have to slow down. Or do you think you can keep this momentum up?

It's just been such a joy, this wave of success, and it's not been easy, but it's not been horrible. You can work really hard and when you enjoy it, it just doesn't feel like a grind. And we’re bringing more people in, who are amazing, who’ve got loads of energy too. So there’s more people to help us keep this up. I say bring it on. Bring it on.


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