As a proud Ogilvy alumni, it was a rare treat to interview the Chairman and CEO of OgilvyOne Brian Fetherstonhaugh for this series on Culture and Digital Transformation. As one of the most storied communication agency networks globally, Ogilvy is truly an iconic organization. Founder David Ogilvy’s poignant and timeless missives on organizational imperatives (“We sell or else”) and culture (“Hire people bigger than yourself and we become a company of giants”) are legendary and still appear daily in LinkedIn feeds.

Brian has worked on the global stage with Ogilvy for over 20 years and now leads a global team of over 5,000 in 40 countries. Through his work with an enviable roster of Fortune 100 clients that includes IBM, American Express, Nestle and Unilever, Brian has a unique purview on how all organizations – and global  agencies – are attempting to digitally transform and manage their cultures.

On the day we spoke, Brian was sponsoring a storytelling training course for a team of Ogilvy data analysts.

HB: Brian, appreciate you taking time from the training you’re sponsoring. Storytelling and data analysts? That’s an unusual mix isn’t it?

BF: No, not really. Training has always been such a core part of the Ogilvy culture across the board. And, data is so foundational to modern marketing that if our analysts can find – and tell – the stories in the data, the more likely we’ll be able to create compelling work for our clients.

HB: You’ve spent much of your career at Ogilvy. Can you tell me a bit about that journey and what is your current mandate within the company?

BF: I started at P&G in Canada before moving over to Ogilvy&Mather and becoming the CEO for Canada. Shortly after we won the IBM business, I moved to New York to lead that account globally as they were going through their “e-business” transformation. Subsequently I’ve led Ogilvy’s Brand Council which is the group responsible for our top 20 clients globally. In 2005 I was appointed to run OgilvyOne the fast-growing digital and data division within our firm.. I’m an advisor to a number of start-ups here in the US and in Canada and am actively involved lecturing at universities across the country. My passion for talent, people and career growth lead me to publish “The Long View” in 2016 which, I’m proud to say, was well-received. So, yes, I have been at Ogilvy for much of my career but the organization has provided me numerous diverse and challenging opportunities along the way. From running a country, to running a massive piece of business to leading a global division. It has been amazing.


HB: You have a unique purview. Leading a transformation of your own organization but also having a line of sight into the transformations happening within your clients. What insights has that given you into Digital Transformation?

BF: Digital Transformation simply means putting digital at the center of the organization’s business model and it cascades from there. How the organization operates, how it connects to customers, partners and employees and how it looks for growth all comes from putting digital thinking in the center.

When I joined OgilvyOne it was still largely focused on direct mail. Digital was less than 10%. In a decade digital is now 100% of how we think, operate and grow. That journey has impacted all facets of our organizations. From our business ambition to the clients we seek and the relationships we build, to the investments in people and capabilities we make. I’m proud to say we grew organically every year, not through acquisitions, and also within the parameters of a disciplined network structure like WPP. Overall our own transformation has been quite remarkable. Recently Gartner put Ogilvy in their Leader Quadrant of digital agencies globally. That was a huge validation of our journey.

But it certainly wasn’t easy and we definitely learned a lot along the way.

Early on we brought in all sorts of new people with great new ideas but many of them didn’t bond with our Ogilvy culture so we had huge attrition.

Transformation cannot mean flushing your existing culture and we learned that important lesson very early on.

You have to find people who have the new thinking but critically who also embrace your culture. That’s paramount.

Not surprisingly we place a tremendous amount of emphasis on both the emotional and the functional onboarding for people into our organization. The functional stuff like who pays my expenses and who is the lead on this business but the emotional components – the Ogilvy ethos – is even more important. Bonding the employee experience to the culture is critical. If you don’t get that part right, it can be enormously disruptive, even destructive.

HB: Ogilvy has always had a strongly codified culture and set of values. Can you talk about some of those and how they’ve changed through this transformation?

BF: (laughs) Well we’ve the unique benefit of having a Founder culture where the founder was an incredible copywriter. Many of David Ogilvy’s original ideas for this agency are as applicable for a digital first world as they were when the agency started. So the values may not have changed but we’ve certainly spent time evolving the associated behaviours.

HB: Can you give me some examples?

BF: Some guide the way our people conduct themselves but, as we’re in the professional services business, it has to impact the clients we consult to as well.

“Ladies and Gentlemen with Brains” and “1st Class Business in a 1st Class Way” are definitely attitudinal. The classic Ogilvy mantra “We Sell or Else” explicitly states the impact we have to have for our clients and ourselves. These are all about a civility within our culture but certainly an emphasis on discipline, professionalism and accountability.

One of the other lessons we learned in our transformation is that we’d become a little too theoretical and academic in how we conducted ourselves. That lead us to reimagine the behaviours we wanted from the marketers we have here. Those include attributes like “Trusted advisor” – do clients trust that you have their best interests at heart in the decisions you make and advice you give? – “Talent magnet” – do talented people want to work with and for you? – “Modern marketer” – do you approach a client problem with no preconceived ideas about the solution and do you have a bias for speed and are outcome-focused? Others like “Do you have Innovation and Growth genes” are quintessentially digital behaviours. This is all about moving from a “Me to We” and collaborative set of behaviours.

In addition to the culture components, we’ve also been looking at our operating model too.

We’ve collapsed our Ogilvy infrastructure into a single P&L from the 1100 we had previously and instituted a single unified operating process for everything from strategic planning to briefing. We’ve also begun a systematic consolidation of our leadership and how we train our top 200 leaders. All of these initiatives have been a massive investment of resources over the past 18 months but, acting in concert, they are the core of Ogilvy’s transformation.

HB: That’s a significant set of initiatives. Is the Ogilvy transformation complete? What are your signs of success?

BF: Not at all but we certainly believe we are well on our way. We certainly have more work to do in our onboarding and parts of the employee experience but we’ve come a long way since those early days a decade ago.

The Gartner recognition was great but I consider our new North American leadership structure the most visible sign of the transformation – and our unique culture.

When we collapsed our P&L’s we also removed our previous leadership structure by removing office CEO’s and business unit CEO’s. To replace that structure, we created a cadre of eight client team leaders. That meant evaluating over 200 of our top leaders to determine the best eight. After a rigorous process – including rounds of discussion and voting – we emerged with eight new leaders. Here’s the part that really signals our culture. 50% of those leaders were female. Many came from offices outside the traditional ones like New York, Chicago, LA. And these leaders also came from disciplines and specialties beyond the classic advertising domains.

The composition of these eight leaders – and the remarkable talent they possess – is the truest testimony to our transformation.

HB: That’s incredible. Are there Digital Transformation examples from your Ogilvy clients that you consider particularly powerful and compelling?

BF: Nestle has done a nice job transforming a very traditional business for the digital world.  One of the smart moves they made was to create Digital Acceleration Teams  recruiting a set of rising stars from across the entire Nestle organization and from a cross-section of roles and functions. They were brought to Nestle’s HQ in Vevey Switzerland for an intense digital training before going back into rotation within Nestle. Nestle refers to them having a course of “digital vitamins” but its more profound than that. You’re creating a group of exceptional talent – that is culturally bonded to your organization – and you’re creating deep bonds between them that they then propagate throughout Nestle when they return. It’s really smart and a great way to proliferate and infuse the organization with a digital ethos.

HB: Excellent example. And, on its face, a relatively simple exercise. Why then, do you think that so many organizations fail to invest in the Culture part of the Transformation or don’t seem to believe it is important?

BF: I don’t think that any executive doesn’t believe Culture is important but, honestly, it’s a whole lot tougher to tackle that a software or technology implementation.

Culture is a deliberate, relentless, often expensive and painful set of choices you make every single day.

There is no “one and done” because every single day you’re onboarding new folks, course correcting someone, rescuing or recalibrating someone. If my own personal experience is anything to go by, it is also often done in the room face-to-face and nose-to-nose. That’s not for the feint of heart. Ultimately that comes down to relentless repetition and consistency, walking the talk and modeling the behaviour. Its grueling. But you can’t escape it if you want to do it right.

Now consider what happens when you’re trying to transform.

Often you’re having to fire your friends. You’re having to let people go because their skills are either no longer relevant or they haven’t the desire to change or improve their skills. That’s a really hard – and emotional – situation to face as a leader.

From my experience, for every dollar spent on a piece of technology an organization should expect to spend three or more dollars on change management and culture initiatives. Extrapolate across a global organization and you can appreciate the challenge for many executives.

One distinct advantage we have today is that measuring and tracking these elements is now possible. You can keep a finger on the pulse of your people, your clients, and the market. That’s invaluable because it means you can react and respond. At Ogilvy, we have a constant set of tracking in place with clients and employees to gauge our performance. We may not always like what our employees tell us but we definitely place a huge emphasis on tracking and listening to what they’re telling us.

HB: Considering you’ve now been on this transformation and culture journey for more than a decade, what advice do you give fellow executives that are either starting out or immersed in the weeds right now?

BF: I’ve alluded to some of it earlier. Bringing in new people for new ideas and thinking is key but not vetting them for cultural fit can be a disaster and really set you back. Letting your Digital Transformation agenda quickly dissolve into purely a “technology” project is another common mistake. That $1-to-$3 investment I mentioned earlier feels right to me from what I’ve seen and discussed with other leaders. That requires setting Transformation as a “whole organization” agenda versus a “technology” initiative.

The other part – and I don’t have a neatly packaged answer for it – is who owns the Digital Transformation accountability. Yes, the CEO has to visibly endorse and support it but who actually pushes it through. Does it require a Transformation Czar? I certainly believe it requires a small recipe of C-suite executives – from CTO, CHRO, CMO etc – but there definitely has to be a 1st amongst equals mentality to drive it to a successful completion. Who that “1st” is may differ by organization but I do believe that’s often overlooked.

HB: This has been a fascinating chat Brian. Any final thoughts before I let you get back to your storytelling data analysts?

BF: I am a huge believer in transformation, so thank you for including me in the conversation. In some ways I consider myself very fortunate. Each morning I wake up and see two Ogilvy quotes – “We Sell or Else” and “We are a Teaching Hospital”. As a leader that gives me a pretty clear description of the job I have to do.


This post is part of an ongoing series exploring the intersection of Culture and Digital Transformation – and the challenges organizations face when those two forces meet. This challenge will shape the business agenda for the next decade so we all have a lot to learn. 

If you’d like to share your story, please DM me on Twitter @ZimHilton or reach out via LinkedIn.

Want to find out how Starbucks, Coca-Cola, L’Oreal and other organizations are tackling the intersection of Digital Transformation & Culture? 

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