The newly-appointed global VP of growth and brand partnerships shares her accumulated wisdom on managing teams, aligning vision and understanding clients’ businesses
The newly launched collective of creative studios across advertising and entertainment, Technicolor Creative Studios, recently announced the hire of Anna Watkins as global VP of growth and brand partnerships.
Anna joins the brand experience and advertising division, headed by David Patton. The hire comes as the advertising division looks to expand its remit and creative offering to brands across the globe.
Anna was previously MD at Verizon Media UK, overseeing growth at Yahoo, AOL, and HuffPost. Prior to this she was Global CEO Mofilm (You and Mr Jones) and has also served as managing director of Initiative and Guardian Labs as well as CEO of Grand Union. She started her career in advertising at M&C Saatchi and TBWA.
LBB – What was your first experience of leadership?
Anna – It was when I was hired by Grand Union, the digital agency, to launch their branded content and social media arm, Hubbub, as MD back in 2005. It was an incredible opportunity and I stayed with the company for over seven years, becoming CEO of Grand Union and building up the agency for sale to FullSix (Havas).
LBB – How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?
Anna – I’ve always been driven by the opportunity for change and transformation which is what has led my career choices from joining M&C Saatchi soon after it opened its doors, to launching the Guardian’s in-house agency, Guardian Labs, through to joining Technicolor and its drive for growth direct to brands through innovation and creative technology. So, I would say that I am an entrepreneurial leader, one that embraces new opportunities and fundamentally believes that taking calculated risks delivers future rewards.
LBB – What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?
Anna – I wouldn’t say there is one moment that has given me my biggest lesson in leadership, however, I think it is the diversity of my experience that has helped form me as a well-rounded leader. Although a linear career path works so well for many people, I believe that having worked in advertising, digital and media agencies as well as publishing and tech companies, from start-ups through to global corporations, that I have a wealth of experience in leading and bringing together very diverse and multi-talented teams.
LBB – Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?
Anna – I think like many people I wasn’t focused on becoming a leader at the beginning but was head down, just doing the very best I could in my role at the time. It was only when I was given the opportunity to become CEO of Grand Union that I realised that the founders had faith in me and that the team would follow me and that was what set me up and gave me the confidence to take on future leadership roles.
LBB – When it comes to ‘leadership’ as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?
Anna – Although there is definitely an ambition and confidence that lies within many leaders, I have been fortunate enough to learn from incredibly talented people along the way right from the very start of my career, when I joined M&C Saatchi as my first job out of university with Moray MacLennan, then MD and now Worldwide CEO of M&C Saatchi Group, as my first boss.
LBB – What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?
Anna – I think that with any leadership role one of the key challenges lies in how to unite a team around a shared vision and then engaging with the team to adapt to new ways of working and to co-create a new plan of action given many people are understandably fearful of change. Change management can only be successful with the buy-in of and input from the people that you work with and therefore it is with the team around you that you need to spend your critical time.
LBB – Have you ever felt like you’ve failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?
Anna – Of course! Without naming names, I have definitely been guilty of moving too fast and failing to ensure that I have built the right alliances and secured the buy-in of all key stakeholders before rolling out a new plan. My learning is to over-communicate and never assume that people understand your vision until they become the champions of it as well.
LBB – In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?
Anna – I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, you can be an open and authentic leader whilst also ensuring what’s confidential or in development remains so until a fully-fledged plan is ready to be communicated. Clarity is critical to land a message effectively so there’s little benefit in sharing a half-baked plan.
LBB – As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?
Anna – I have been fortunate enough to have worked with inspiring mentors as well as professional coaches along the way. And I now also mentor both young people just starting out in their careers as well as managers looking to develop their leadership skills. What I’ve learnt from being a mentee as well as a mentor, is that often the most successful relationships start with a clear structure to each mentoring session with a stated goal as to what you want to achieve so that you can work together to overcome the challenges, to develop a actionable plan and to make the most of the opportunities ahead.
LBB – It’s been a really challenging year – and that’s an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?
Anna – I think the hardest thing for everyone has been adapting to a remote way of working – easier in some ways for Technicolor Creative Studios given we are a global technology driven company used to working across continents and time zones. However, the reality is that collaboration and creativity is far harder to deliver when working in isolation and as a leader the challenge has been in how to unite teams virtually. We have really focused on how we can make a new flexible model work, one that meets each and every individual’s need, and critically how we can foster a sense of teamwork remotely when we haven’t been able to connect in person.
LBB – This year has seen the industry confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?
Anna – We always respect, embrace and encourage the uniqueness of individuals and their talents because we fundamentally believe our creativity needs diversity. That said, we still have a lot to learn and there is still much more that we can do throughout our employee life cycle from our recruitment approach, our policies, our rewards, our culture as well as how we manage, develop and promote talent.
In order to drive change, we have created a DE&I committee made up of four members of our exec team as well as representatives from all areas of the business, who explore, evaluate and champion new initiatives to promote diversity.
And we’ve had frank and open discussions around demystifying disability, mental health awareness, respecting gender pronouns, representation in media, standing with our BIPOC and AAPI community and more with external moderators and speakers who can help present insights and facilitate new ways of thinking around these all-important areas of DE&I.
LBB – How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely in 2020/2021?
Anna – Positive company culture is vital to our staff and the success of our business. We actively try and develop a culture of creativity, inspiration and support amongst our staff and wider creative community, by bringing people together with virtual events and mentorship initiatives that hope to bridge the gaps we might be experiencing in isolation.
We launched a monthly newsletter to inspire staff and our wider creative community during Covid, in an effort to highlight the creative work and people who drive it throughout our business. A huge part of our company culture is celebrating the makers behind the projects – you can often see our talent profiled across our channels through both our Makers and Heart and Where Art Plays with Science initiatives.
LBB – What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?
Anna – I remember a lesson I was taught early on which was to understand your client’s business as if it were your own. This means not just reading trade publications but also industry specific publications and content so that you can have a much broader and in-depth perspective on how to connect with their consumers effectively through your work that you produce.
As for leadership learnings, I can’t recommend Elizabeth Day’s ‘How to Fail’ podcast enough – inspiring stuff!
First published on LBB Online.