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5 Minutes with… Damian Symons


The CEO of Clear M&C Saatchi on his global outlook, how Clear ‘goes all in’ as a business, and letting go of egos as a team, writes LBB’s Zoe Antonov

5 Minutes with… Damian Symons

Damian Symons is the chief executive officer of Clear M&C Saatchi, the global growth strategy consultancy that’s part of the M&C Saatchi Group, as well as a member of the Group’s executive committee. His role puts him in charge of making sure his teams are focused in the right areas that create value for the Group and its clients. 

Working closely with international offices across the M&C Saatchi network, Damian traces his career success back to his diverse upbringing, which gave him his crucial ‘global outlook’. Not only does his work defy geographical boundaries, but it also spans disciplines. From media to healthcare, he helps clients from these spheres navigate a variety of complexities and changes.

Damian’s experience is in mapping, identifying, and sizing opportunities, but his real passion lies in translating these opportunities into strategies that deliver an experience to delight the customer - and create value for the client. 

To celebrate Clear’s 20th anniversary, LBB’s Zoe Antonov caught up with Damian to discuss the consultancy’s strategy for the future, the changes in its culture, and the best moments of his career so far.

LBB> Tell us a bit about your background – is there anything you learned growing up that you’ve carried into your career?

Damian> One of the biggest things my childhood instilled in me was a global outlook. My father was born in Shanghai, I was born in Hong Kong and we later moved to the UK. In my work life, I’ve lived and worked in the US at two separate points over the years, and I spent a significant amount of time in Singapore helping to set up our office there. Growing up with roots in so many places – especially in both the eastern and western worlds – also cultivated deep respect and empathy for people from different backgrounds and their points of view. In a business where it’s critical to understand your clients’ feelings and worldviews, that sense of empathy has gone a long way. 

Being truly global in footprint and mindset is something that both myself and our team at Clear are super passionate about. To support and develop this further, our leadership team has made some changes in the last year that I’m really proud of, including more secondments between global offices and giving each team member two weeks to work remotely from anywhere in the world.

LBB> What led you to a career in consulting?

Damian> I’d love to say that it was intentional, but the truth is that I graduated in the UK during the ‘90s recession – so I started off doing market research surveys and then landed a role as an analyst working with drinks data. This was my unexpected gateway into consulting: it opened up a new world of advising brands and using data to tell their stories, and I’ve been hooked ever since. 

Honestly, I just love the work. I’ve always enjoyed learning new things and constantly working across clients, sectors and geographies keeps me mentally stimulated. 

LBB> As Clear’s CEO, what do you focus on?

Damian> On top of running the Clear business, I wear two really interesting hats as CEO: making sure that our team has the right resources and access to capabilities and making sure that we have the best people and the infrastructure in place to support them. Creating an environment that enables collaboration and respect between teammates to deliver exceptional client work is something that our leadership board is always conscious of. 

About half of my time is spent on real client work. I love getting under the skin of our clients’ challenges, making sure they’re asking the right questions, and sharpening the strategy for their brand portfolios. It’s really important for me to be entrenched in client work alongside our team. It helps me understand both our people and our clients better, from their needs to their challenges. It’s those day-to-day interactions that build relationships and make the experience of working together truly enjoyable. 

LBB> The Clear business is 20 years old, and you have been part of it for 15 – tell us more about the culture during this time.

Damian> I've seen a lot of change in my time here, but we’ve always maintained three things in my opinion. 

The first is a solid organisational culture, with a clear set of values and a shared purpose: being motivated to solve our clients’ most complex brand, experience and innovation challenges every day.

The second is Clear’s entrepreneurial spirit. If you have a good idea, you’ll be given the space to explore that and see where it can go. That applies to everything from how we organise ourselves internally to how we express our offer externally.

Finally, we’ve built a highly collaborative culture. To bring our offer to life for clients, we need to create synergies between teammates with different skill sets: people that connect thinking from rigour, to strategy, to creativity to bring clients the right decisions and the steps to pursue them. 

LBB> What’s the biggest way in which the culture has evolved for the better? 

Damian> I would have to say really focusing on ‘going all in’ to create professional impact and personal growth. At a team level, this means letting go of our egos, leading with an actively inclusive mindset and working together to support and celebrate each other.

We’ve put a lot of thought into how we support that idea of going all in as a business. This year we introduced ‘Hustle Hacks’: so many of our people pursue passion projects outside of the office and they can now bring those into work and mine the advice and expertise of the entire team in focused sprints. We’ve also given each team member a development budget that they can spend on anything from a professional training course to swimming lessons. 

LBB> Looking back, what’s one project that has stuck with you personally and enriched your career?

Damian> Long before I became CEO, we did some wonderful work with a global bank and its credit card brand. This brand was a well-known player in credit cards even then, but they had a bigger vision for the business at the time, which was owning the world of simple payments. 

We took our client on a journey to innovate in this space, doing exploratory work to plot the colossal marketplace of digital payment solutions and thinking about how a credit card provider could engage. 

At the time, there were no digital solutions for peer-to-peer(P2P) money transfer – so we mapped out how this could work. That resulted in a product: an easy P2P money transfer system that was born out of customer understanding and creative thinking around where the client could play. As Europe’s first mobile payments service, it created a huge amount of value for our client and their customers, as well as taking us one step closer to democratising the larger payments landscape. 

The end-to-end experience taught me a huge amount about customer centricity, innovation and thinking bigger. 

LBB> Project specifics aside, what have you learned that you wish you’d known at the start of your career?

Damian> We actually asked a similar question to a group of our client-side alumni in a series of fireside chats celebrating our 20th anniversary. From my perspective, there are two key things I wish I’d known earlier.

The first is to show a healthy balance of humility when it comes to listening and learning. There’s a brilliant development opportunity to learn from the best brains already in the business: be a sponge and absorb what they have to offer. 

And the second is to have the confidence to bring your unique experiences and ideas to the table – they’re not only valuable, but that diversity of thought is also what keeps a business developing and pushes it forward.  

LBB> Great advice! In today's dynamic landscape, what does lasting transformation mean to you?

Damian> The relentless shifting of market and consumer demands has set a pace of change that’s difficult for any brand to keep up with. This is why Clear focuses so heavily on clarity: it brings brands confidence to make decisions that progress their growth agendas and set them up to stay relevant. 

We’re pragmatic about what transformation means for each client we work with. In my view, big, enduring ideas don’t change, and enduring ideas can be transformative in themselves. If there’s nothing wrong with a brand, we’re not going to talk about transformation – instead, we might work on discrete, incremental innovation to leverage the brand’s potential. 

On the other hand, some brands have truly stalled or slipped into decline, and they need a fundamental shift to get back to growth. Whether ‘lasting transformation’ manifests itself in a bold repositioning or a new service or experience that’s built to endure, I know that clarity is the key to getting there.

LBB> One last question: what does the future look like for Clear?

Damian> You’re asking me this at the perfect time – we’ve done plenty of reflection about this question in our milestone year! 

Our purpose is to solve our clients’ most complex problems, and to do that with clarity. Clarity will always be at the core of our business, but how we move that offer forward is constant iteration. We’re always evolving our thinking, reassessing our capabilities, welcoming new talent to the table and revisiting how to best show up for our clients and our people – it’s what allows us to keep ahead of the change we see in the marketplace. I’m excited about our continued investment in CX and solutions that bring precision consulting and advanced data science together (like the ‘Brand Desire Engine’ we launched this year). 

All of this is geared towards helping our clients unlock the biggest opportunities in the most successful way. It’s the greatest reward for our business and team to grow alongside our clients and see them win, and I’m really looking forward to another 20 years of that.

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Clear M&C Saatchi, Wed, 16 Nov 2022 17:34:33 GMT