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Bossing It: Why Leadership Is a Never Ending Learning Experience with James Kirkham


CEO and founder of ICONIC on autonomy, self-starting, and the desire to get on and make it happen

Bossing It: Why Leadership Is a Never Ending Learning Experience with James Kirkham

James Kirkham is CEO and founder of ICONIC. Widely acknowledged as one of the world’s foremost industry speakers, James comes from a wide ranging career in social, digital, advertising, sports and music marketing. He was previously on the board at Defected Records as its chief business officer. Before that, he was CBO at football media business COPA90, working with brands that included Uber, Budweiser, Nike and Pepsi. James had founded his own digital marketing agency Holler, when he was just 23. Holler was acquired by Publicis Group in 2010, after which he was appointed Global Head of Social and Mobile at Leo Burnett. ICONIC is a full service agency, and entertainment company which aims to give brands a unique insight into how they can harness the power of popular culture. In a new era of marketing, ICONIC underpins all processes with a network of creative cultural talent, and AI.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

James> I started my first agency, Holler, very young - just 23 years old, so leadership arrived the moment we hired someone in that first year. Soon we were 25 to 30 people and on our way to being a digital agency of the year, so leadership had to be rapidly learned and assimilated. Lessons came daily through every interaction, conversation, directive and piece of feedback. We built a business driven by pure gang mentality, though. We were all young people who worked hard but played hard too. The lines of hierarchy were difficult for the casual observer to spot. It felt like friends, under one roof, with a quest for excellence and a restlessness in our efforts to do great work for nice people.

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?

James> I didn’t consider myself a leader; I was too young to think in those terms and too green when it came to business acumen . I just trusted in myself and in personality and wanted to act in a way with my staff which befitted who I was. I never wanted to switch or become some sort of alter-ego that I’d read out of a business-school book. For me, it was always an ultra-personable approach but with a decision-making streak. Without the latter, I don’t think it is possible to operate successfully. You’d end up in endless circular discussions and become more of an art collective. You need ruthlessness and vision but not at the expense of anybody’s welfare. 

But I realise this is a very different approach to those that believe leadership means becoming a mega-lo-maniacal dictator. . I’ve seen both sides throughout my career. The latter strategy still manages to make great businesses where ‘profit is king’, but I dare say there are many casualties too. One of the things I am most proud of is that so many wonderful relationships flourished from the agency I founded. Marriages, children, countless friendships - I think that’s more special than anything. 

LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?

James> It felt like leadership came with a daily lesson, it was a never ending learning experience and still is. In no sense do I think it is finished, and that I know it all. You never stop learning. The biggest lessons were often around moments of work trauma. Star people leaving the businesses for incredible opportunities for example. Or major clients walking away. Or losing pitches. I never considered being a leader initially, instead I was just building the agency I thought was right, and the manner in which I led people should be demonstrably right and honest and open. So I wanted to lead as someone who genuinely cared, but who could direct en masse to. Who could manage an individual but demonstrate clarity of ambition and thinking to the many. There are arguably many paradoxes and compromises with leadership all of which feel like lessons. 

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?

James> On the contrary, I didn’t realise I was entrepreneurial or, indeed, was built for leadership. But I have since learned it was in my family, albeit from an entirely different direction. My dad was an antique dealer and always worked for himself. Same as my uncle.

My grandparents ran pubs in London’s east end and down in Kent. My other grandparents ran a hotel. My great-uncle had a stall at Billingsgate fish market. My great-grandfather was one of London’s first taxi drivers. 

No brand, marketing or advertising royalty here. Quite the opposite. But it is all about autonomy, self-starting, and the desire to get on and make it happen. Leadership, perhaps, was the next element to come out of that.

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?

James> I think so much leadership comes from personality, who you are and how you are with others. If you’re a natural empath, that’s a brilliant start. If you can see and feel people. If you love developing young people, allowing them to flourish and bringing their ideas and thinking to life. I think these are all vital components of what makes a modern leader - inspiring, yes, but knowing your limitations and encouraging those around you to be as brilliant as they can possibly be.

LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?

James> I get impossibly jealous still of other work output from places, companies, agencies and beyond that I would like to have created. . I still want to be a part of anything good. It has always been a good driver and a great motivator, but I think it is also a weakness. I have an insatiable appetite for the next thing, and I find it challenging to ever ‘stop a while and smell the roses’, as my granddad once told me. 

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?

James> I always used to feel I failed if someone left my agency. Of course, I’ve since learned that this is progression, growth and natural movement. When my business partner left the agency that I had started very much in my own image, it felt terribly personal. It was like a relationship ending. 

There are two sides to this.. No leader should be so egotistical to believe that someone leaving has nothing to do with them. If it was 100% perfect then why would they want to move on? But life is not like that, and business is even less so. 

LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be as transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?

James> Transparency is vital across every single part of the business, from income to revenues to share structures to profits to losses.. I really believe in involving as many people around you as much as possible. It helps create worth throughout the business, involvement and a team spirit which is not just a top-down philosophy but truly integrated throughout teams. 

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?

James> I sought out the silver-haired assistance from day one. I knew how young I was at 23 and that I needed to take on board and absorb knowledge continually. A couple came later, towards the end of my twenties and in my thirties. Nick Horsewell founded media agency PHD, and I have always gone to him for advice and thoughtful business conversation, which has never been anything other than valuable. Latterly, Jon Wilkins (founder of Naked and Karmarama), who ironically worked under Horsewell, is also a brilliant brain for a great levelling conversation when things are less certain. He’s ten years older than me, and I believe that is a decent gap for mentorship now. 

Often the boot is now on the other foot, and I count as friends a handful of fantastic individuals who work at amazing places or have started incredible businesses who might use my mind in the way I’ve used Nick and Jon. Mentorship should be blurred, I think. More a lovely rich conversation interspersed with little knowledge bombs you don’t even realise you have accumulated through age, and wisdom follows.

LBB> In continually changing market circumstances, how do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through difficult waters?

James> The changing market is almost vital to the existence of all that I’ve ever done and do. I built and grew businesses at the vanguard of digital, social and innovation. So the changing times were almost an essential ingredient to the success, be it at holler or working at places like Defected Records. With ICONIC77, it is no different. We’re looking to advise and help in the most chaotic of times. We want to assist, guide and lead in navigating this exciting chaotic moment. I, therefore, make sure I spend time with the youngest people, the newest, the teens and the grads. T. They appreciate my time, but honestly, I always believe that I benefit the most through interrogating them. My business partner Ellie is in her late twenties, and her network is similar. It wouldn’t be right for my business partner to be my age; we’d be too one-sided in our vision, or our network would not have the right level of interest. Instead, the combination works, and,frankly, having an indelible link to this young network is vital. 

At ICONIC77, we have an ICONIC NETWORK, which underpins all that we do. It is a hand-built organically grown platform of incredible artists, athletes, DJs, musicians, writers, fashion execs and more. Their average age again means I’m continually pushed, challenged and tested just as I should be. 

LBB> As a leader, what are some of the ways in which you’ve prioritised diversity and inclusion within your workforce?

James> I have been blessed that I have worked in businesses where our output in music (Defected Records), for example, was beautifully diverse with barely a thought. But it has only been in recent times that I have realised it is not enough to allow it to just ‘be’, but it is something we need to push more and more. I definitely learned through intime working environments, such as Glitterbox, about the brilliant opportunity we would prioritise for the LGBTQ+ community. With the Black Live Matters movement, it is impossible for a business such as Defected to be anything other than utterly engaged in pushing more relentlessly. It is something we have adopted naturally at ICONIC77. 

LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?

James> I honestly think it is so important to find inspiration all around. To borrow and get stimulated, inspired, excited and driven through different industries, personalities and verticals. 

People, books and audio that inspires me include:

James Brown’s Animal House. To many a story of ‘90s excess, but what came through for me was an effortless company culture that he curated - the most fun gang mentality and team spirit imaginable. 

Chris Evans’ biographies, but also his  absurd ascent when he first got into ‘90s TV and radio, his lessons about the power of selling formats, licensing ideas, and having your own production company. 

Felix Dennis – How To Get Rich. It sounds crass, but there are such simple lessons in here from the now late publishing mogul. 

The Alistair Campbell Diaries - from the New Labour era of the late nineties.His bullet pointed strategy of handling crisis communications is still unrivalled. 

XL recording owner Richard Russell’s book – Liberation Through Hearing. So evocative because it was born in an era I adored, but the creativity and brilliance of jumping on the mistakes and turning them into something special is inspiring. 

Any audio with Scott Galloway. Prof G, on Pivot podcast and his own show is almost faultless in his daily excellence and what he delivers in terms of concise smart new thinking. 

Lunch with the Wild Frontiers by Phill Savidge. Again this is PR heavy and PR in a dream world where Brit Pop is emerging and absolutely unstoppable and the wildly exciting time which can be had harnessing the infectious enthusiasm of the world around you.

Guy Richie on the Joe Rogan show podcast – there is a calmness to his authority, a lesson to every middle-aged man. 

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ICONIC, Wed, 07 Jun 2023 15:59:00 GMT