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Michael McEwan on Leadership as an Act of Service


The CEO of M&C Saatchi AUNZ tells Esther Faith Lew why it is important to help people find solutions so that they can live up to their fullest potential

Michael McEwan on Leadership as an Act of Service

Michael McEwan joined M&C Saatchi three years ago as its Melbourne-based managing director and saw the agency through a strong growth spurt in its client portfolio. He was promoted in March 2021 to national managing director and CEO AUNZ in January 2023.

He has over 26 years of experience in partnering creatively with some of the world’s most progressive brands, both locally and internationally. Michael gained valuable experience at Y&R followed by nine years with Clemenger BBDO and BBDO internationally, and nine years at Ogilvy prior to joining M&C Saatchi.

Michael has a particular interest in public policy and the power of business and brands to have a positive impact. A consistent theme of his career has been the focus on spotting talent and building teams of all shapes and sizes and skill sets.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Michael> Leadership is often talked about in terms of position or title. It never begins that way. 

I think from an early age, I had a desire to get involved in whatever was going on around me. I liked having a role to play in whatever team I was a part of. I have always loved being a part of a team that had ambition.

I was probably that kid with a point of view who found myself representing and sharing the group point of view in class, or taking a leadership role in a sports team. It was less about a desire to lead and probably more about wanting our team to be the best it could be. It’s always been team first. That was drilled into me from a very early age.

Sport was a big part of my youth. I can clearly remember being asked to captain a team when I was 12 years old. Kids from all over the area, different backgrounds, all brought together for a four-day tournament in a regional town. Most of us didn’t know each other well, but there was a common goal. 

The soccer coach told me, “No one is more important than the team. Your job is to keep them focussed on their role in the team and remind them to have fun.” Simple stuff.

It was a team of kids all wanting the same thing. All lifting each other to make the team better. 

From that perspective, nothing has changed since I was a kid.

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?

Michael> All experiences are valuable, whether it’s school, sport, part-time jobs or early career, mistakes shape how you want to show up. I had the great fortune to be around some incredibly talented people at a young age, be it in sport, part-time restaurant jobs or my early advertising career. You take the good and the bad from every experience.

The consistent theme from all the leaders I’ve admired throughout my career is their ability to stay calm under pressure and bring perspective to the situation quickly. There’s an authenticity to how they approach challenges and provide clarity. The solution often lies in the team coming together.

In its most simple terms, I believe leadership is about serving the team. Removing impediments and providing clarity so they can get on with being good at what they do. This is especially true in a creative business.

I’ve always struggled with people in leadership positions who make it all about themselves, yell and scream when the pressure is on, or if things don’t go their way.

It’s inevitable that things go wrong, and of course discipline and accountability is important. I believe that good people with talent and ambition have those ingredients.

Personally, I’ve always responded better to the carrot versus the stick when it comes to motivation.

It feels natural to me to try and lift people by being positive. No one wants to be scared into doing a good job.

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

Michael> There have been many and I’m sure there are many more to come. Three lessons I think are really valuable:

  1. Respect for all skills in the team
    In a creative industry, there are many people who need to work together to deliver an outcome. A diversity of people and skills is vital. Having respect for people whose skills you don’t possess, don’t really understand or haven’t developed is a valuable mindset. It’s also good manners.
  2. Be aware of your energy
    This was good advice I received from a senior client. Whether you like it or not, the team can sense your moods, and your energy and will take their cues from it. Don’t bring a bad weather pattern to a sunny place. The opposite is also true. Positivity is infectious.
  3. How you succeed matters
    The work we create is paramount. It’s what we are paid to do and why we exist. However, how we get there is also incredibly important to our culture, the relationships we have with each other and our clients. I believe we can be successful, challenge each other and still feel good about it. Joy is a vital ingredient to creativity.
    People want to feel good about where they work and feel valued for what they do. 

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?

Michael> I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have ambition to learn or improve. It’s OK and important to let people know what you want to achieve and that you’re prepared to work at it. I really do believe people are in charge of their own careers. 

For me, being part of a pitch team early in my career changed everything. Being on winning and losing pitch teams gave me belief and fast-tracked my experience and resilience to deal with failure, and to go again. Pitching is a part of our industry. I have found it to be the most valuable thing you can do as someone looking for their next step into a leadership role.

Pitches provide a golden opportunity for growth.

  • Working with the most senior people in the agency. 
  • Leaders are at their most vulnerable and authentic during a pitch
  • Using a different part of your brain to your day-to-day job
  • Problem solving
  • Working at pace
  • Working with new people
  • Energy
  • Momentum
  • Learning a new category

And most of all. Fun.

Throughout my career, I‘ve chased opportunities that I perhaps wasn’t quite ready for at that specific moment. I think that’s true for many people in leadership positions. Challenging yourself is where you can build a sense of belief.

Being open minded to areas of development and knowing the skills you don’t possess is as important as what you bring to the team.

LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, and how much can be taught and learned?

Michael> The leaders I admire are ‘life-learners’. Business never stops being competitive and evolving with new challenges to solve. 

I definitely think technical skills or gaps in knowledge can be learned. But so too those skills that relate to courage, discipline, patience, temperament can be developed with practice.

Leadership comes in all shapes, sizes and styles. You can be the most engaging, the smartest in the room or the toughest negotiator, but I think you’ll always struggle in the long run without authenticity, clarity and consistency.

Those ingredients work with any style of leadership.


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

Michael> A few things come to mind.

  • Prioritising time for people not just problems.

Prioritising is always a challenge regardless of career stage. There is always more to do. Always an urgent issue to deal with or a distraction. If you believe in the power of the team and that with team success comes personal growth, the number one priority has to be building and nurturing the team.

  • Freedom to Fail.

For people to grow, they need freedom to fail and learn from it. Failing is hard, but necessary. 

Business is hard and you cannot always win. You can’t be successful if you’re not in the game. Winning and Failure are two sides of the same coin.

We have a sign on the agency entrance door that reads “Hello Fearless”.

Our values are all based around the team, supporting each other to embrace what’s uncommon, to push our thinking and creativity.

Our values drive our behaviours:

  • Roll as one
  • Run towards the fire*
  • Walk in other worlds
  • Make uncommon sense
  • Be excellent to each other

(*except in the case of an actual fire, please run away)

As an agency, we are working hard to build an inclusive culture that accepts failure as a part of winning and growth. A place where our people feel they can challenge themselves without fear.

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?

Michael> I’m sure I’ve made many mistakes. Probably my biggest lesson relates to structure: ‘Work around’ solutions when it comes to talent don’t work. Compromises on talent are a compromise on the team. I didn’t move quickly enough to address an ongoing issue that was undermining the team. I took too long and expended a lot of energy dancing around the issue. As a result, we lost a super talented, hardworking leader on our team. 

Hire slow. Hire on talent and team values. We are in the talent business. We organise original thinkers in uncommon ways to realise big ambitions.

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?

Michael> Authenticity every time. People are people. Everyone is different.

In many instances, the only difference between myself and someone else in the team, may be experience and opportunities I have taken. Everyone has challenges in their life. Being authentic doesn’t mean opening your life to everyone or running a daily commentary.

I do believe when people understand your personal motivation and can feel the consistency in what you bring to the team, they are more likely to trust and buy into what we are trying to achieve as a team.

Some people are more private than others. Whatever your style, I would suggest authenticity and consistency.

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?

Michael> I’m in regular contact with people I have worked with before whom I respect. People whom I know will give an honest opinion or just listen. I’m also fortunate to have a great support network at M&C Saatchi.

The truth is, I genuinely take cues from many parts of my life: clients, colleagues, people and kids I coach and sport with, my partner, school teachers, my kids, family, friends with their own businesses, strangers.

All of those interactions are diverse in their nature, provide a different perspective and teach you something about yourself. It is a good mindset to be open to walk in ‘other worlds’.

I find people fascinating. I have a number of people whom I chat with regularly as they need it. Nothing overly formal. More of a sounding board to listen or to provide advice. I get as much out of it as they do.

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?

Michael> I never feel alone with that responsibility. That’s the power of a team. Perspective is everything. Business can be difficult, but “it’s only business”.

To keep my perspective, I try to maintain the things that I know keep me happy, such as exercise, time with my family, coaching kids and sport. It’s not always easy and that’s OK.

People have a tendency when they get stressed or busy at work to shed the things that make them happy. I used to see it with graduates all the time. They would get their break off the back of working part-time while studying full-time, playing sport, performing in a musical, volunteering, a busy social life, engaged with their families, etc. Once they’ve landed a real job, they’d shed all those things that made them happy and interesting in the first place.

Instead, protect what makes you happy. Make it known to your team what’s important to you. Let them help you get to that art class, dinner with your grandparents, etc. That’s how you can best serve the team.

LBB> The past 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?

Michael> At M&C Saatchi we measure who we are. We are proudly progressive and aware we have a long way to go. The establishment of Diverse Employee Led Networks (ELN) under Group CEO, Justin Grahams’ leadership has put the power and decision-making in the hands of our people.

We have active ELNs:

  • Ethnicity
  • Femm&C (Women)
  • Climate Action
  • Parents
  • M&C (Wellbeing)

It's essentially a way for M&C Saatchi Group to give employees a stronger voice and an opportunity to contribute to business strategy and policy.

We have also established M&C Saatchi Open House. A programme that is open to anyone to apply for an internship at M&C Saatchi.

M&C Saatchi Group’s Open House is a free, eight-week webinar series designed to smash the boundaries of our industry. It is a crash course into all aspects of advertising, open to anyone, from all walks of life. 

Key speakers will share their specialist knowledge and experience, providing real insights and practical takeaways to set anyone up for a future in our industry. And at the end of the programme, interested participants have the chance to apply for a paid, part-time, two-month internship with M&C Saatchi Group.

We’re not just opening our house. We’re opening our eyes, our hearts and our minds to people who have never considered a career in marketing and advertising... and we’re asking people to do the same.

Building a team of leaders who all have a say in how we show up and who we are.

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?

Michael> No doubt it has had its challenges. We found an agency full of leaders all willing to step up and take responsibility to care for their fellow mates. We had been in a temporary space in Sydney for the past two years throughout the pandemic while the office was being renovated.

In Melbourne, we essentially built a business remotely during the pandemic prior to moving into a new location in January 2023. A great deal was achieved and as a business, we grew through that period.

Like many businesses we had to be resourceful and creative and find ways to connect the teams. For instance, offsites with live crosses to multiple locations. 

We were fortunate to help a number of clients show up throughout the pandemic. It’s work we are all very proud of. The nature of that work galvanised our teams. It gave them a real purpose and brought them closer together. Some of those bonds are now lifelong. It’s a great starting point for us to now physically come back together in a new world-class space and enjoy being in each other’s company again.

We have made a conscious decision to join our campuses under a national model. New people, new opportunities, new spaces to create.

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

Michael> It’s a real mix of formal and informal that includes coaching provided through M&C Saatchi and a company director’s course. Also, from a completely different perspective, volunteering on a board at my son’s school along with helping to coach sport has been a wonderful place to test and trial new thoughts.

The best advice I have received is to ‘be a life learner’. Be open to learning from anyone in any situation.

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M&C Saatchi Melbourne, Wed, 08 Feb 2023 03:18:31 GMT