Oliver Wheeler of THRSXTY talks to us about crisis management, the changing comms industry, and what it takes to lead a successful business
Following the success of our Global Power Book #PRProSeries, we continue the series exploring the careers of the most powerful communications pros around the world today. We sat down with Oliver Wheeler, CEO of THRSXTY, to find out how he made it in the industry.
Why did you get into communications?
Twenty-five years ago, when I got into communications, it was an opportunity to work with some crazy, like-minded people on global marketing campaigns. You could travel the world and work in a highly energised environment. It was a dream job. Looking back, it was quite an uninhibited lifestyle. I’m not sure if it is as crazy now unless everyone is hiding it better. Certainly, it was a very creative and anarchic environment to be in at that time.
What personal attribute has most helped you in your career?
I’m very determined. People have said that if they work with me, the job gets done.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in the course of your career?
Crisis management was what I did for many years. Every day, there was a new, unexpected surprise. Jumping on a plane to go and manage a media situation in some foreign city became the norm for me and I’d often be sharing that plane with a news crew. Those were big challenges because there’s very little room for error in crisis management. I think any issue concerning public health for my food and drink clients were the most challenging. This was because they could turn into product recalls across multiple countries where the consequences of my recommendations had multi-million dollar implications.
Have there been any crucial moments that changed the course of your career?
Yes, I think the most important thing that happened to me was working on the team that changed Pepsi’s cans to blue back in in the early 90s. It was a huge campaign – we painted Concorde and a newspaper blue and we had some of the world’s biggest celebrities working with us on the campaign. It was possibly the biggest re-branding exercise of that era. The reason that it was a crucial moment for me was because a week after the campaign launch there was a media backlash when the competitor released data showing that sales were down, so everyone went into meltdown. If you spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a re-brand, and it doesn’t look like it’s going well, it implies your marketing campaign hasn’t worked. I spent a year at Pepsi trying to fix the problem and publicly present the many reasons why it had been successful. That year, I learned everything that I now know about how to build and retain a reputation.
Who is the most inspiring person that you have worked with?
It has to be Matthew Freud, there’s no question about it. I spent eighteen years down the corridor from Matthew and a great deal of my personal and professional life with him. He always had an answer to questions and gave me different perspectives that I hadn’t considered. He was consistently capable of giving me a different approach to either something I was trying to promote or something I was trying to protect. He is a true genius in communications and I still miss having him down the corridor, though actually we still see each other and he’s always at the end of a phone.
What’s the best piece of career advice that you’ve ever received?
I was working in some really terrible jobs before I got into communications. During that period, in my despair, I spoke to a rather successful uncle about my predicament. He said that I should try and learn something in each of these roles, because what I’d learn would be helpful to me in later life. This was something that was hard to take at the time, but it was true. For example, the year I spent cold-calling and selling coach travel holidays did actually teach me a huge amount about selling a product.
What do you think it takes to be a successful leader in 2016?
I wasn’t a CEO in 2015 so I can’t compare it to any other year, but what you need to do to be successful as a business seems really clear to me. First of all, you need to get the business economics right. Secondly, you need to hire the best people and put them in the right jobs. Thirdly, you have to create a culture of great ambition at work because if you are excited about the campaigns that you’re proposing you’ll be excited about delivering them, and ultimately the success of an agency is based on whether you have delivered or failed.
In ten years’ time, what do you think will be the biggest changes in the global communications industry?
I think the biggest change will be who is telling the story. In the old days, it was primarily an advertising approach where you bought a space and you placed your messages telling people about your product. Those days are gone. In the past twenty years, there has been a bigger overlap between that and public relations with an increased value placed upon independent editorial written by journalists. However, we’re now moving into the age of consumer-generated content, so we have new opportunities that five years ago would have been unheard of. Now we have authentic, independent individuals who are endorsing a product. They are much more believable too. So I’d say the future of comms is about how we make that transition towards encouraging people to create things that don’t look like commercials.
What are the three words that best describe you as a communicator?
To the point.
What keeps you motivated to keep on working in this industry?
I love working with people who like making changes, taking decisions and proposing ideas. It’s not to say that you can’t be a realist too, but if you have a passion for those three things then you’ll be jumping out of bed in the morning to come into the agency. This is the culture I try to encourage. Everyone in my agency is motivated to come up with something interesting. Keeping motivated isn’t an issue for me, my problem is actually switching off, rather than switching on.
Tell us a bit more about THRSXTY?
We are a communications agency of about 20 people and we specialise in PR, events, and social influencing. It started around six years ago and I came in this year to inject some experience and share some of what I’ve learned. Already, we’ve done some great stuff. On the PR side, two recent things spring to mind. We have helped put Japanese whisky on the map with Suntory, and I thought our Evian campaign at Wimbledon was excellent. Our international event work with Patrón is also very impressive. We are a dynamic, mid-size agency that will grow by around 70% this year and I’m proud to be a part of it.
What is your dream role in communications?
Had you asked me that while I was in any of my previous roles I would have had an answer, but in this case, I feel like I’ve been waiting for this job all my life. I love being free to make my own decisions and take the business exactly where I want it to go.
If you weren’t working in communications, what would you be doing?
It’s hard to say as I’m blessed with many hobbies… I’d probably be racing cars, but to my eternal disappointment, I'm rather better at comms.
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