Profile: Nick Keenan walks into chaos

By Jenni Gilbert | 19 June 2020

This artricle first appeared in the AdNews May/June magazine. Subscribe here to make sure you get your copy.

Starcom Australia – part of the Publicis Groupe – is ramping up its service levels to withstand the current COVID-19 crisis and ensure it hits the ground running when all of it is over.

People “need a rational, calm voice in a difficult time and to know that there is always a solution”.

Nick Keenan became CEO of Starcom Australia on Monday, March 16, the week the COVID-19 crisis started to bite.

Working from home became standard across the industry. At the same time clients either put campaigns on hold or ordered an urgent remake of those in play.

Within another week, state-by-state lockdowns began on businesses, institutions and personal movements to enforce greater governance of self-isolation and social distancing.

In this landscape, Keenan forged a leadership style that focuses on the “human element, first and foremost”.

This is not the first time Keenan has found himself in a seemingly no-win position.

In 2018, as newly appointed CEO of quick-service restaurant chain Red Rooster, he was “thrown into” a parliamentary inquiry into franchising

“To be clear – nothing compares to this current crisis,” says Keenan says. “It is a global one and people’s lives are in danger.

“In no way do I want to draw parallels with this event versus another as it is absolutely unique and far reaching into every aspect of society.

“However, I have had experience in managing a crisis situation and leading staff through a very tough period. At Starcom, I have been drawing on my learnings from the experience at Red Rooster.

“In 2018, we had more than 40 media/news outlets publishing and broadcasting Red Rooster’s ‘demise’ into bankruptcy due to a couple of rogue franchisees who put in a submission that was incredibly damaging.

“It was very public, with significant damage to our brand and to our daily and weekly sales in the short term.

“I thought that was a tough time as a new leader to motivate and to get more than 224 franchisees and 7000 front staff to see that this was an event we would all get through – that we would come out stronger and the work we did in between would make us stronger, which it did.

“So as the newly appointed leader of Starcom, I am drawing on that for this unparalleled crisis.”

Keenan says it is critical as a leader, especially in times of chaos and uncertainty, to communicate with a high level of frequency. Further, to be a voice of reason, confidence and – as far as reasonably possible – optimism.

“Ensure the information you provide is transparent,” he says. “Do not leave gaps where fear and imagination can start filling in.

“People also need a rational, calm voice in a difficult time and to know there is always a solution. It may not be the one they/we are going to like, but it is a solution to rally behind.”

But above all, Keenan says, a leader must “put the human element first and foremost, and communicate the commercial aspects second – always in that order.

“People know the commercials are critical and dictate a lot of decisions, but never start with these.

“Focus on what support people will get during times of crisis. Then communicate the plan to them and stick to it – they need certainty and minimal change.

“There is always a pull to immediately act on new information before the impact of a reaction is thought through. But you must only change the plan out of pure necessity.”

Keenan has worked both client and agency side, with a diverse background in business development, corporate strategy, deal advisory, operations, digital, marketing and finance.

He has broad experience in leadership, business planning, entrepreneurship, brand building, fundraising/acquisitions, building strategic partnerships, project management and executing global business strategies.

Keenan’s category expertise includes real-money gaming, sports entertainment, POS systems, loyalty programs/CRM, social, mobile, skill-based games, business development, brand marketing, social and internet marketing, company leadership, operations, P&L ownership, advertising, subscription and transactional business models, retail sales and marketing.

Prior to his two years at Red Rooster, he was commercial director of CrownBet (2015-17), and following that, he was CEO of the gaming company’s online lotto betting service CrownLotto (2017-18).

In 2013-15, Keenan was managing director in Australia of Maxus (part of GroupM), the world’s largest media investment management group.

During his tenure in the leadership team, the agency achieved a fourth place ranking in BRW’s Top 100 Best Places to Work in 2014.

“This is one of the proudest moments of my career and I was privileged to be in a position to lead such an engaged team and a genuine bunch of talented people,” says Keenan.

For more than four years (2009-13), he was head of IP&I at MediaCom, based in Melbourne, and part of the leadership team that grew the business from third and fourth position in the media buying category of the market to number one, winning AdNews Agency of the Year in 2011.

Before that, Keenan was group sales manager at then-News Limited (2005-08), working within the key account division of Newsnet and specialising in retail, banking and travel.

When announcing Keenan’s appointment to Starcom earlier this year, Publicis Media ANZ CEO Toby Barbour (who had been acting in the Starcom CEO role) lauded “Nick’s passion for talent and the customer, his experience in new business development, brand marketing, business strategy and execution to drive growth”. 

“We’re very fortunate to have someone of Nick’s calibre and diverse background leading the agency,” said Barbour.

Michael Rebelo, CEO of Publicis Groupe ANZ: “Nick is a proven leader with a strong track record of working in dynamic and fast-changing business environments.

“His adaptive and collaborative nature is a perfect fit for the culture of Publicis Groupe [owner of the Starcom brand]. I know the blend of his experience will be a great asset to Starcom clients.”

In his tenure so far at Starcom Australia – whose key clients include Lion, Visa, Subaru, Snooze and Metcash – Keenan says he has already learnt much.

“I think I am learning to communicate more effectively,” he says. “Video calls, particularly one-to-one, force an amazing level of active listening on both parties.

“So I am becoming a much better listener as a result. It’s a good trait of any leader and one we can always work on. Thanks to technology and isolation, it has enabled a better behavioural change.”

Keenan says the “new normal” day-to-day at Starcom for him and his team involves four core areas.

“The first is staying connected to all key staff as much as possible. That effectively means over-communication and constant accessibility. You cannot go dark on comms.

“So the day is filled with more calls and updates, but also, pleasingly, a lot of fun stuff – quarantine trivia, isolation playlists, virtual yoga – which is enabling all of us to get to know each other quite intimately.

“This would not have happened as readily in a more traditional working environment.”

The second core pillar is group updates. With information coming so thick and fast, “much of the day is spent just keeping up with, and on top of, the impact to the business,” says Keenan. “So our group comms are not just daily but incredibly frequent.

“We must work through deeper, more strategic issues beyond day-to-day operations, such as working on our craft, product and service plan for post-pandemic. We are leveraging the Publicis Groupe Product suite and are focused on getting `match fit’ for the recovery.

“Any gaps we had leading into COVID-19 we are now working to close so we either catch up with or leapfrog our competitors when we come out of it.”

Keeping one another other positive, is number three (but not necessarily third in importance).

“It sounds obvious but this is the key challenge right now,” he says. “There is so much information, news, headlines – and just overwhelming changes – as we are all forced into isolation.

“It can freak people out, and that is natural. Therefore we must keep people connected, not just for work talk and output control but to do the personal and fun things referenced in point one.”

While so much remains uncertain on a global scale about the length and levels of lockdowns, and how far into the future a vaccine may be available, the immediate focus for Starcom is short-to-medium term goals so the company is in a strong and agile position to meet long-term challenges and goals.

“Protecting our staff and their jobs is of the utmost importance,” says Keenan. “To this end, Starcom – being the trusted advisor for clients on a daily basis – is ramping up our service levels to an even greater degree and making sure there is business continuity in a time of crisis. That is a top priority. We are drawing on the Groupe to provide increased service to our clients.

“We have to step up during these times and be a true partner to work through the challenges our clients face; the partner that can be relied upon as their worlds change radically around them.

“Focusing on that day to day helps teams focus and get through the challenges, as well as striving to stay positive at every level.”

Keenan explains that Starcom’s medium-term goals are to establish its key point of differentiation in the market – “which we will launch when appropriate” – and implement our growth strategies.

“We will connect more of our product and service into the Groupe, integrating where it provides meaningful solutions for our clients, and reclaim our rightly position in the market.

“Starcom has great people, does great work for its clients, is part of a formidable global network and has amazing resources. We need to tell this story better.”

Ensure information is transparent. Do not leave gaps where fear and imagination can start filling in.

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