leadership

Why Peter Biggs wants his staff to love being at work

Myriam Robin /

Peter Biggs has turned around the fortunes of Clemenger BBDO Melbourne.

The chief executive of the iconic business took over the reins at a time when others daren’t.

The famed advertising agency was in dire straits. The business was groaning under the pressure of adapting to changes unfolding in media. Earnings had taken a nosedive.

His brief from management was simple: make the Melbourne operation great again.

He’s certainly done that, according to the raw data. Since arriving from New Zealand to take on the role in 2006, revenue has grown 244%, staff numbers at the Melbourne office have grown 73%, and profit has risen a phenomenal 473%. Clemenger Melbourne holds the advertising accounts for blue-chip brands including Carlton United Brewers, Mars, and insurance brand BUPA.

In fact, the broader Clemenger Group achieved $33.77 million net profit after tax in calendar year 2011, up 18% year-on-year. The media group has returned as a force to be reckoned with.

The Melbourne agency’s was responsible for National Australia Bank (NAB) ‘Break-Up’ campaign. The campaign struck a chord, depicted the bank’s competition on fees and interest rates with other leading Australian banks as if it was ending an emotional relationship. It won an award at Cannes,

Biggs has faced challenges before: he spent time studying to be a priest before finding his way into advertising. Getting and keeping the best talent has been the key strategy Biggs used to turn around the performance of his business.

He is unapologetic about his ability to poach both the best advertising accounts and staff for himself. The agency has a reputation for paying top price to secure top talent, with competing agency heads privately admitting they can’t compete with the salaries offered at Clemenger. Biggs has recruited nearly 70 new employees in the last 12 months alone. He won’t divulge the staff numbers in the office.

Ad agencies are renowned for being a breeding ground for inflated egos; Biggs says it’s his role to stamp out negativity.

He literally knocked down walls to create an open space with one long table that’s shared by the creative directors. Biggs also sits among his staff on one of the three floors filled with some of the city’s best creative talent.

“I have no power – my people have all the power,” the avid reader of leadership books says.

“I believe a leaders’ role is to shape a generous and rigorous culture among his or her people. Every day I walk around the agency and talk to people, picking up under-currents in the culture and then I find a way to fix any issues.”

And while he’s obviously involved in client negotiations and how the business is faring financially, he’s also not above fetching lunch for his staff, cleaning rooms in preparation for meetings or making coffee.

Above all else, Biggs wants staff to love being at work. The agency’s in-office chef is one example of how far he’s prepared to take this.

He’s also allows some staff to work from home.

“Leadership isn’t a process or technique that you can learn; it’s a way of behaving. I get the best out of people by finding ways to make them feel like they’re not at work. I also support them unconditionally,” Biggs says.

His ability to retain top staff is made somewhat easier by Clemenger’s ownership structure. The agency has been inviting staff to apply for shares since 1973, with 427 shareholders owning a total 26.33% of Clemenger shares as, of 31 December, 2011.

The remaining 74% is owned by holding company BBDO/Omnicom, which assumed ownership of the Clemenger Group as of February 2011.

And while competing ad agency heads admit to being curious about what Biggs is like, he doesn’t particularly like mingling at industry events. He’s got an unusual background for an ad man, holding a first class honours degree in English literature and Latin from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

The job is relentless. So much so that he admits he’s given up trying to achieve a work/life balance. He no longer believes it’s possible.

“But I love what I do, so it doesn’t feel like work. We pitched for a new piece of business yesterday so I took the night off and went to the theatre. But I’ve got a whole lot of new challenges facing me when I walked in the door today.”

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Myriam Robin

Myriam Robin is a reporter for SmartCompany and its sister site LeadingCompany. She has degrees in economics, international studies and journalism. She likes writing about businesses taking risks and doing new things.

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