“Work is about what you do, not where you do it.”

Fiona Gordon, CEO of Ogilvy, on borderless creativity, putting your hand up and the power of doing things differently

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director



“Everyone went through peaks and troughs at different times, and you really need to be self aware and check in with clients and colleagues along the way.”

Fiona Gordon, CEO of Ogilvy is articulating the multifaceted and unpredictable waves of the Coronavirus pandemic; and how they impacted the agency’s most important asset: its people. While some leaders remain fixated on where their employees sit; for Gordon regardless of whether employees are at home, or in the agency’s London HQ at Sea Containers, she is firmly focused on identifying new opportunities for growth. From fresh opportunities across category sectors to the once in a generation chance to forge ahead with new ways of working, Gordon’s self-declared ‘optimistic and practical response’ is paying dividends at a time when ‘the great resignation’ continues to top industry headlines. 

In the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, a once in a generation challenge, she believes that the key for leaders is to be able to hold true to their vision; while also having the ability to pivot quickly. For Ogilvy that meant that its vision of ‘borderless creativity’ truly came into its own as the pandemic progressed. 

It’s a unique, yet confusing truth of the pandemic that it made the world both smaller and broader at the same time. Employees were confined to their homes; yet the wholesale adoption of technology meant global clients were always just a Teams call away; alone together borders dissolved. Even Gordon’s 81-year-old father successfully navigated Zoom to join his rotary club meetings.

We need to be focused on what we are meeting in person for. To have a real purpose to be in the office

Fiona Gordon, CEO of Ogilvy

Yet, while it is clear there will be ‘no return to normal’, the truth for business leaders is that there remains some uncertainty as to the lasting legacy of the pandemic. “It is still hard to know what the long term shifts are,” says Gordon, yet she is clear that technology has ushered in sustainable change when it comes to business travel. She asks: “Why would you fly somewhere for a two-hour meeting when you can use technology.”

Far from simply retreating into the existing infrastructure and emotional muscle memory of ‘what we did before’ Gordon is instead doubling down on purpose and progress. To hold onto what we have gained amidst a time of so much loss. 

As she explains: “We need to be focused on what we are meeting in person for. To have a real purpose to be in the office.” According to Gordon, the office comes into its own for moments of coming together, to really make the most of that intersection of people. “Online you talk about the pitch in hand, but you don’t always talk about other things,” she explains. A way of working which some in the industry have raised concerns is leading to a more ‘transactional’ approach to creative work.

Being at home gave people space to think and find a different balance - we made some of the best creative work because we gave people the space to make their best work...Work is about what you do, not where you do it

Fiona Gordon, CEO of Ogilvy

Leading with purpose

Designing a future of work that enables people to produce their best work is top of the agenda for Gordon and she credits the agency’s Chief People Officer Helen Matthews as key to this focus. 

Notably, while the agency has rolled out a 3:2 model the team is clear they don’t have all the answers yet. “Ideally when teams come in together they are not sat on Teams all day,” she explains. 

Designing for a flexible future of work has also extended to office design. A clear space for construction, the benefit of Ogilvy’s Sea Containers HQ being empty, has led to the creation of a more flexible space.  “We’ve made an interactive working space; built around modular furniture with lots of screens and speakers,” she explains. A space that has already been put into action with pitch rehearsals with their Chicago office. Making borderless creativity more than an empty positioning statement.

As Gordon explains: “Being at home gave people space to think and find a different balance - we made some of the best creative work, because we gave people the space to make their best work.” Adding: “Work is about what you do, not where you do it.”

Choosing change

Yet while the agency has directed its energy to responding to the pandemic; Gordon is clear that more change is coming; particularly when it comes to brands and agencies alike responding to the climate crisis. She notes that “sustainability across the whole supply chain is vital.”

Then there is the breakneck speed of the shift to ecommerce. A shift that brings with it a challenge for bricks and mortar stores, just like offices, to double down on what their unique purpose actually is. According to Gordon the key question for brands is to answer is; What is the physical experience for retail actually for? Whether it’s advice, consultation or the range and stimulation of a physical supermarket, brands need to double down on what they are for.

Pointing to the power of Christmas as a moment of togetherness, she believes that clarity of thinking is what is key for leaders; for while technology is a great enabler it is not the answer in its own right. “Retailers need to know what their brands are at their heart - what their purpose really is and who their market is,” she explains. 

She points to the expectations of safety and convenience amongst consumers; a trend she believes will lead to less touch packaging. “The interesting thing right now is that new norms are being established; whether that's refillable packaging or online shopping.”

That desire for change also extends to talent and Gordon is clear-eyed about the impact of the talent crunch on the agency. She explains: “After everything we have been through that desire for a dramatic change is a natural reaction so you have to expect some churn.”

Yet she also notes that above all things leaders need to recognise that people join people. “Be a place where creativity solves problems, where you can shape society,” she says. The output is also vital as she believes that work also attracts and retains the best talent. 

Leadership in the age of uncertainty 

Over the past 18 months on both a professional and personal level people are dealing with the mental load of unprecedented uncertainty. So how do we better carry that load? For Gordon, the opportunity is to ‘think critically about what you can do differently.’ To ask at every point: “Is there a better way to do this?”

Alongside a calm outlook, perspective and a sense of humour has been the red thread that runs through Gordon’s experiences of leading through the pandemic.

For the agency, this search for a better way has underpinned both its creative work and the success of its flagship behavioural science conference, Nudgestock, which attracted over 20,000 attendees once it went virtual. While the agency’s internal leadership academy and focus on internal development has countered the prevailing belief that the pandemic has placed career progression indefinitely on hold. 

Leading from the living room in the midst of a global pandemic was never going to be without its challenges; yet it has also swept away the often entirely imagined barriers surrounding how, where and when we work. She explains: “We should be proud when we look back over the past 18 months, we have looked after our people, created culturally relevant work for our clients,” says Gordon.

Often senior people often just get brought problems to solve, so it is great to just be asked for advice. Don’t be afraid to ask for a mentor, most people will have time for a coffee or a virtual coffee

Fiona Gordon, CEO of Ogilvy

Putting your hand up 

While we might wish it to be different, the truth is that we are not post-pandemic yet and Gordon is clear that leading through Covid-19 requires a different approach. One which 

recognises the opportunity and responsibility of this unique moment in time. 

She explains: “There is a greater awareness that people have a life outside of work. Parents and carers have had a tough time and we need to keep the positive gains.”

While for those joining an organisation, or at the early stages of their career her advice is clear: “Put your hand up, let people know what you want to do.” She advises against getting ‘too specialist too soon’ and instead encourages a focus on getting a broad experience of the industry. 

If the past 18 months have taught us anything it is that some form of failure is a certainty and so people shouldn’t be afraid to ask for advice. She explains: “Often senior people often just get brought problems to solve, so it is great to just be asked for advice. Don’t be afraid to ask for a mentor, most people will have time for a coffee or a virtual coffee.”

She continues: “It's always great to see different leadership styles, to learn from how different people respond to challenges or present the work.” It is this commitment to continually evolving, learning and not being afraid to do things differently which ensures that despite being one of the world’s most established agency brands, Ogilvy is not satisfied with simply maintaining the status quo.

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Creativity Post-Pandemic