A Reflection of Leadership Experiences

Gavin Heron, having graduated from Rhodes University with a Masters degree in Anthropology, spent many years in leadership positions in advertising.

The link between anthropology and the business world may seem strange to some people, but Gavin explained that anthropology enabled him to understand the “why” and the “what” of situations and people. He has found this incredibly helpful in his working life.

After completing his national service with the then South African Defence Force, he accepted a position in advertising in Johannesburg. Following this, he went on to become a strategist in London, spent time in Hong Kong and eventually became the CEO of the TBWA Hunt Lascaris agency in Shanghai, China.

The agency was in trouble and his first challenge was to fire half the staff. His rationale was that people “get stuck in living with what you’re given. Firing people is the hardest thing you can ever do, but if I hadn”t done it, nothing would have changed.” He explained that he believed that if the staff and agency were going to be great, they would already have been great. He quoted Steve Jobs who said that “great people want to work with great people”. As a leader you have to decide who you want to work with.

One strategic decision that he made was to change the office culture and project the view of what it means to be a winner. He achieved this by moving the premises away from the hierarchical office structure to new, open-plan premises which reflected the deeper culture of openness and creativity. This move illustrates his belief that leadership is about providing an environment for people to create and achieve. He stressed that you have to believe that people are great to enable them to achieve greatness.

By his own admission, Gavin stated he wasn”t always the best manager of people, preferring instead to channel his creative energy into setting the vision and growing the business. He therefore appointed a strong HR manager who understood the strategic vision and was better placed to deal with the people issues. “Not all leaders are effective managers – it is necessary to know your own strengths and capabilities”.

When asked about working with a online pokies very different culture in China, Gavin spoke about how regulated things are in China – more so than in South Africa. Chinese nationalism is huge and there was a definite need to be sensitive to culture. He quoted the example of the Cadbury slogan, “Tastes like heaven”, which would simply not be acceptable in China. China works on the concept of “guanxi”, which is a form of reciprocity. It could be seen as a symbolic bucket which is available to everyone to draw from when needed.

Whilst in China, the agency also won their first Cannes Gold Lion. He rated the Burger King campaign as the most fun venture. It illustrated that sometimes small, simple ideas are the most effective. Fifteen giant size hamburgers were made from fiberglass – a simple message about big burgers.

Gavin returned to South Africa in 2009 and was appointed Group Managing Director of TBWA Hunt Lascaris. He is most proud of TBWA”s “The Zimbabwean” (exile newspaper in South Africa) campaign – the Trillion Dollar campaign. This resulted in billboards being erected covered with Zimbabwe Dollars and TBWA being awarded numerous awards.

In summing up, Gavin stressed the need to have a sense of humour and believes that sincerity, integrity and honesty are absolutely vital for effective leadership.

Gavin and his wife are now back in Johannesburg working on a waste management venture known as Earth Probiotic. Micro-organisms are used to recycle food waste and turn it into compost. We’re sure that Gavin’s energy and drive will ensure the success of this new adventure.

Article written by MBA2011 Class students: Jacqueline Brown, Juliet Carlisle, Jennifer Fietze and Rochelle Ganesh following a “Conversations in Leadership” address by Gavin Heron to the MBA Class on 2 February 2012.

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  1. Interesting indeed. My opinion is that every person in the advertising industry should have some form of background in anthropology, as it is important to understand your market before you embark on any advertising campaign. South Africa has a history of very insulting advertising campaigns aimed at the so called ” black market”, a phenomenon that could have been avoided had the advertisers taken the time to understand their markets, and what better way to do that than study anthropology or even conduct proper market research on your target market. i’m sure studying anthropology has somehow sensitized Gavin to the needs of some of the markets that TBWA had interactions with.

    Comment by Tebogo — 15 June 2012 @ 2:46 pm

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