Profile - M&C Saatchi's Justin Graham on innovation from adversity

Chris Pash
By Chris Pash | 11 August 2020
Justin Graham

A confession. “I can’t stop listening to Neil Young. Not sure how my Apple music algorithm threw me into this world, but fair to say it’s a world I have gone deep into.” 

Justin Graham, the new Group CEO of M&C Saatchi, sends an email to staff every week, called The Talk. He started it around two years ago because he felt the businesses weren’t talking enough.

He often shares anecdotes from his personal life.

“It’s intentionally disarming coming from management,” he says. “The focus of the email is commentary on what’s happening in the world that relates to us as well as a celebration of the work that’s coming out of our business in all its forms,” he tells AdNews soon after his appointment, replacing Jaimes Leggett.

“We’re a broad communications business, so it allows me to stay in touch with the entire group, to be able to hear what people are working on, and are proud of, and share it with everyone.

We’re in a creative business and the idea of finishing up on a Friday with a personal note from the CEO is a real connector for everyone. It also allows me to publicly celebrate our people, so everyone can be proud of the exceptional team they work with, as well as the outputs.”

Graham’s Friday note continues on the Neil Young theme:

“He (Neil Young) openly talks about a work ethic and philosophy of reinvention ‘the need to keep planting new seeds, you just can’t eat everything you have already grown.”

“It’s a brilliant message for us as a business. To run at putting down new roots, innovate always, experiment with new ideas, new ways of working, and go again. Last year the Fin Review named M&C Saatchi the Most Innovative Media and Marketing business in Australia. We need to always be pushing…”

“This thought of planting, not just eating, is a theme that I observed across parts of the business this week and one we will need to continue pushing on and be open too.”

The Talk is just one channel which helped general communication during the move to working from home during the coronavirus crisis.

Graham notes a monotony to lockdown. “It is challenging but everyone’s in that space.”

However, his relative newness in the job, coupled with the social restrictions of the pandemic, has also helped form closer relationships with clients

“Isolation has proven to be a circuit breaker from a more corporate way of engaging with clients,” he says. “Less ceremonial and more outcome-based is certainly an approach that I prefer and the feedback has been positive.

“I would say that that’s been the experience right through the teams. There’s a rawer engagement.

“When you see your clients with their kids walking past them in the background, and not in their suited and booted armour for the day in the fancy offices, then naturally there is going to be more of a connection. And I think that’s a great thing.”

“This connection and a more constant, fluid way of engaging has created even deeper levels of trust in our teams. And indeed, in the brands we work with. Some of our largest clients, Woolworths, Optus, CommBank and TAB, have had to pivot their businesses to reflect the changing needs of their customers, and we’ve had to too.”

One of the biggest shifts, short term, was moving to a seven-day roster to service some clients. It enabled M&C Saatchi to deliver on the immediate and more functional needs of some brands, “Hey, we’ve got hand sanitiser in store, and we’re open these hours and. yes, we can deliver in that timeframe.”


Graham is seeing fast-paced innovation among clients.

“Projects that would normally be on an 18-month plan have gone to market in three to six weeks,” he says. “And that’s because everyone is acting more iteratively, becoming more comfortable going live with a minimum viable product.

Ahead, Graham sees a soft market. “And that will be challenging because, as the government benefits dry up and as the mortgages have to start being repaid, there’s going to be some real financial strain on many Australians,” he says.

But Graham thinks a renaissance of creativity and innovation is coming as Australia moves into 2021.

“The challenge for the ad industry in Australia is to be a bigger part of that, to be leading,” he says. “That’s certainly something that we will be focused on. Clients are giving us the opportunity to partner like never before and drive the creative agenda.”

Graham describes himself as an optimistic person, seeing opportunity ahead, new ways to deliver brand experiences.

“But I am under no illusion that it’s going to be a difficult time ahead,” he says. “The economy will take a while to rebound, for many its the unknown, our first recession since 1991”

Like everyone in the industry, pitches for new business have continued in lockdown, albeit switching from the face-to-face to virtual.

“We’ve been on a number of pitches during this time including the important COVID response comms for the Victorian Government,” says Graham.

“We’re partnering with their internal communications team under the platform -- Staying apart will keep us together.

“They’ve been fantastic as a government unit, and our team in Melbourne, with support from people all over the country, have been brilliant.

“Like many things, pitches are on an accelerated time frame with a pre-recorded pitch in a video sent through, and people respond with innovation and creativity. It was brilliant to watch.”

He says it’s still early days on whether or not the nature of the pitch will change long term because of the experience of the coronavirus.

“Some are on an incredibly fast turn around because of the need,” he says. “Others are on normal timeframes.

“In terms of how we’ve responded to them, I think there’s more openness. Across the group we have a collaborative culture, so it’s been brilliant to watch people building things in online environments in real-time. That collaboration has only accelerated.

“We’ve been able to step back and recognise where our skills are across the entire M&C Saatchi Group, and line up people as needed for pitches.”

In the deep end

Graham thinks he might have to rewrite the classic book, The First 90 Days (Harvard Business Review Press), which everyone gets when appointed CEO.

Despite being dropped in during the world’s greatest crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, he sees the role of CEO as a privilege. Leggett, his predecessor, described Graham -- who was then chief strategy officer -- as one of the best strategic thinkers in the market.

“We (M&C Saatchi) turned 25 this year globally, and in Australia, and I’m only the fifth person to have held that title in Australia,” Graham says.

“We’ve got long term clients and strong succession planning internally. I’ve been in the business for the best part of six years so a lot of the clients that we’re working with now, I’ve either helped set up their partnership or led them strategically.”

He suspects others believe he, with his strategy background, may have a weakness in operational capabilities.

“One of the gifts, for want of a better expression, through this period has been a fast-tracked MBA around operations in an organisation, and I’ve had the support of a brilliant operational team in making the calls on how we’re going to reset ourselves coming out of this.” he says.

Working remotely during the pandemic, Graham asked his leadership team to move to twice-weekly meetings

“My weekly email is probably more focused now because people are very keen on the updates,” he says.

“We’ve also had almost weekly Zoom calls with 400-500 participants providing updates around, leadership changes, new work coming out, what our plan is around reentering into our geographical footprint.

“I don’t want to be the person that just talks about silver linings the whole time, because I also know that it’s been very difficult for many people and there’s some very real challenges around loneliness and capacity to work.”

Graham, with three children under ten years old, and his wife had homeschooling duties during lockdown.

He also went into the Sydney office once or twice a week to stay on top of all the changes.

Being a CEO

Graham has always enjoyed leadership.

“I’ve done that from a school age all the way through university and into the work environment,” he says.

“I certainly didn’t think I’d end up in advertising. I didn’t really know that the path to this could happen through starting as a curious strategist in my mid-twenties in advertising.

“I do look back and I realise I’ve always been fascinated by the commercial and the magic, and that intersection of creativity and business is something that has been a part of me for my whole career.”

Graham enjoyed school, naturally gravitating towards visual arts as well as business.

He did a Bachelor of Business at UTS here in Sydney, majoring in Marketing and Finance.

But he only ended up there because he unexpectedly landed an academic scholarship. His first choice was the College of Fine Arts in Sydney.

“I don’t know where I would have ended up with that... I dare say a very frustrated artist,” he says.

“But that was certainly my passion coming out of school and it somehow flipped, and I ended up with a finance degree.”

His first job was as a management consultant. He says he was fortunate to have some brilliant mentors in the now defunct firm called Arthur Andersen.

When he tells the story of the former leading professional services firm, few of the younger staff members know anything about it.

“What Arthur Andersen? What happened with that?”

He replies: “Well, have you seen a movie about Enron called ‘The Smartest Man in the Room’?”

And they say: “I thought that was fictional.”

Graham: “No, that’s actually what happened.”

The collapse was extraordinary and, for Graham, difficult to go through in his first career.

“You’ve been in the job for four years and the whole business collapses around the world based on some fraudulent activity that happened in the US, but you go through shocks that set you up for later in your career,” he says.

“And I certainly feel now is a challenge like that and needing to adapt and understand exactly what you do and why you do it has helped me now.

“But I loved management consulting. I love the art of influence and understanding really the core of corporate strategy and how consultants can advise and offer a fresh perspective.

“I increasingly grew frustrated with the lack of creativity in that environment, and really went on a search to try and understand how I could marry the skills I had, the rigor around understanding business environments and growth opportunities, with getting to that answer in a very different way.

“And through a series of events, I took almost a year off backpacking, and then ended up at the advertising agency Leo Burnett Sydney in 2003.”

He was brought in by Todd Sampson, the former CEO and chair of Leo Burnett Australia, and now a documentary-maker and television presenter.

“When he was the head of strategy as opposed to a global media powerhouse, he hired me and he wanted to turn me into a planner,” says Graham.

“We just got on well. Todd really pushed me to understand the power of creativity.

“And I probably, in those early years, almost swung too much the other way, spending lots of time in the creative department, great minds doing brilliant things.

“But I was so fascinated and inspired by this new world of problem solving and these new people that were being entrusted to do it. They were really formative experiences for me and take me through to where I am today.”

At the moment his creative outlet is his children.

“I find creativity around three young dreamers who draw and dance and act all day long, it’s a wonderful space for me at the moment,” he says.

“In the past I’ve very much been interested in photography and playing a lot of sports. Now I find the best place to clear my mind is simply spending some time alone outdoors, so I’ve re-embraced surfing and running.

“But at the moment I’m finding I’m channeling it more through just understanding the world through the eyes of young people. And that’s quite a cool thing.”

The future

How will culture change now?

“I can see creative businesses, and certainly how M&C Saatchi will be run, will be increasingly focused on empathy and accountability,” he says.

“It’s empathy for customers, for clients and the different skill sets within our business, and people that haven’t always received the credit they deserve. What I mean by that is operational leaders.

“The only reason we’ve been able to go and engage in the way we have is the brilliant work from our technology legends, our HR leaders, the way they’ve approached a flexible working environment for our people and their engagement with our clients.

“So, empathy for what everyone brings to the table and I think accountability; holding each other to account is what we all need to do as an industry, and it starts internally.

“The work we do with our clients through this downturn, we’re going to be held to account for what we collectively spend and the associated return, and that’s something that I’m saying to my senior leaders at the moment.

“But what won’t change is what my passion is, which is the power of creativity to unlock new customer value in business.

“I see opportunity everywhere, we work hard at it, and we’re fortunate enough to work with many influential blue-chip brands.”

These include Woolworths Group, CommBank, Optus, TAB, Tourism Australia and Lexus. 

“Fantastic brands that are rich in customer experience,” says Graham. 

But as the industry comes out of the pandemic, what does customer experience look like and what does digital acceleration look like? 

“l agree with the sentiment around the opportunity to accelerate change,” he says.  

“We have been challenged in many areas and will continue to be. Every leader will be. 

“I’ve always felt that M&C Saatchi is an incredibly integrated business. We work off of one P&L, we report that into the UK. But that has absolutely accelerated over this time. 

“We are bringing our data, our technology, our media capabilities closer to our creative capabilities. 

“We’re breaking everything down. That was always the intent, but now there’s a burning platform to go and do that because of the opportunities in the market. And we are running at it fast. And that’s exciting.” 

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