Interviews

‘We’ve never done this before.’

James Morris, CEO EMEA and UK at Dentsu Creative on the power of radical optimism and inclusive leadership.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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“If we can’t create a sense of belonging then how can we expect people to really thrive?”

In the midst of the flurry of hypermasculine hyperbole surrounding the ‘war for talent’ and the ‘great resignation’ James Morris, CEO EMEA and UK at Dentsu Creative is refreshingly focused on what matters: how those people really feel. While it's tempting to lean on generic, sweeping statements as agencies struggle to attract and retain top talent, the truth is that in the wake of the pandemic a fundamental reassessment of the role of work in our lives is underway. 

“We’ve never done this before,” says Morris honestly, pointing to the fact that the past two years have been the most ‘aggressive’ of learning curves. He continues: “Covid grounded us all, it stopped all travel and lots of people reframed their whole lifestyle; we were all deprived of friends and family.” 

Yet he believes that the constant narrative of ‘talent wars’ is not helpful. Pointing to the quick return to growth, Morris is a firm believer that culture is the lifeblood of the industry. It is clear to Morris that far from being just a buzzword; culture is a doing word. 

Beyond the war for talent

There is no question that the past months have seen a lot of doing at Dentsu. From the empathy-driven Coca-Cola Christmas spot to the consistently brilliant hires; Ete Davies, Alex Hesz, Sue Higgs; Dentsu has become a destination for the UK. Yet, there is no sign that Morris is struggling under the weight of great expectations. 

At Dentsu, Morris has responsibility for leading Dentsu Creative across EMEA and UK, as well as identifying new ares of growth and acquistions in this space for the group and its clients.  

If we can’t create a sense of belonging then how can we expect people to really thrive?

James Morris, CEO EMEA and UK at Dentsu Creative

At Cannes Lions this week Dentsu International’s Global CEO Wendy Clark and Global CCO Fred Levron announced the launch of Dentsu Creative, which serves as the sole create network for Dentsu International across the globe. A move which is designed to accelerate the group’s goal of becoming the most integrated network in the world. A transition which was born of the question: “If you had the chance to build a brand new global creative network designed for the modern world, what would it look like?”

It is a question that the group is committed to answering not just in powerpoint presentations and panel discussions but in the experiences of its people. From partnering with authentic changemakers such as Cephas Williams, the founder of the Black British Network, to launching an industry-leading carers policy it is clear that people sit at the heart of this strategy. 

Making space for talent to thrive is a competitive advantage. In a candidate-driven market, Morris is evangelical on the importance of employee networks. “The key was to make these not separate work streams but embedded in the very centre of our business,” he says. 

Morris is eloquent when it comes to making the space for each individual to understand the lens through which they view the world. It’s clear he takes nothing for granted; sharing that his mum was a dinner lady and his dad a tool maker; the expectation was for him to become a carpenter. Yet, while he is a maker of a different kind, the expectations on him from the industry are clear.

In order to be successful, you can’t just manage the status quo. We want Dentsu Creative to be the place where you make the best work of your career

James Morris, CEO EMEA and UK at Dentsu Creative

People above propositions 

Crucially meeting these expectations and making this work, creating the space and building the confidence for it to happen is all about people. “There won’t have been anyone who hasn’t worked at a place where a difficult person has changed their experience. We want people to be good to each other.”

For Morris, the biggest learning coming out of Covid has been the importance of clear, transparent, communication. “A lot of stuff used to be done in the pub and we need to be cognisant of everyone’s situation,” he notes. 

Sharing the journey that the agency is on, unsurprisingly people are at the very top of his agenda. He shares: “We are making progress; investing in talent, breaking down the silos and hopefully making it a more inspiring place to work. We have to communicate that vision constantly and that vision needs to connect personally as everyone has a role to play.”

Creating the space to thrive

“What is important to me is really opening up access to people and making space,” he explains. “The fundamental truth is our product is our people,” he states simply, pointing to the fact that when it comes to talent there is a greater demand than there is a supply.

Notably, he references the most human of KPIs, yet the one that all-too rarely makes it into convoluted agency positioning documents; happiness. “Happy people that feel respected and have a sense of belonging will produce their best work.”

Pointing to the warmth of reaction that accompanied the hire of Ete Davis, he notes that generally people are inspired by other people. “In order to be successful, you can’t just manage the status quo. We want Denstu Creative to be the place where you make the best work of your career.”

A commitment to creativity

So how as a leader is he ensuring that he is grasping with both hands this once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape the workplace for the better? “In terms of having that vision and narrative, the key for us is that people tap into that belief that this is really a place where they can belong,” he says.

Sharing how this translates to employee experience, the key for Morris is ensuring that people have the ability both to make an impact and take accountability. “If people go deep about one area they are passionate about they can make a difference,” he explains. 

It's a clarity of thinking that is vital in a complex ecosystem where simplicity is key to the agency’s approach. He explains: “What we are trying to offer to clients is simplicity,” he explains. 

He points to the work the agency has done with DAZN - where the central campaign idea ‘game changed’ became a platform for senior leaders in the business. An example of the depth of partnership which can provide a lightning rod for an entire business. “An idea has the power to transform who they are and that can give a brand new agency,” says Morris. A new agency, which as Morris demonstrates so powerfully, starts and ends with its people.