CHE Proximity’s Chris Howatson talks to Jessica Kennedy about his plans to inject the power of data into the agency’s old retail principles to bring it up to speed.
It has been said that Australia is a nation suffering from tall poppy syndrome. If that is the case then Chris Howatson would be a likely victim.
At 28 years of age, Howatson has already had a career that could ignite the green eyed monster in those a decade older.
In 10 years, he has worked his way from a role at Clemenger Brisbane, which he described as “making coffee for the person that makes coffee”, to the boss of Melbourne’s Clemenger Harvie Edge (CHE) Proximity. When Howatson took over as managing partner from his predecessor Mark Coad in August last year, he was just 27.
Howatson, who holds a BA in commerce and another in behavioral science, is certainly an overachiever – among all his adland successes he has also found time to get married and have his first child.
On paper, he is a guy Australia would love to hate.
But Howatson, known as Howie to his friends, boasts a warm affability that makes that a hard task.
The promotion, from his joint role as general manger of Clemenger Proximity Melbourne and managing partner of Clemenger BBDO Melbourne – where he oversaw digital, social and data for the two agencies, came as a “massive shock”.
So how does the former ‘suit’ explain his rapid progression?
“Someone once described me as a sponge. It’s probably not the nicest thing to say but she meant it positively and said what I do is enthusiastically extract from people what they know, apply it, hang onto it and keep applying it.”
Running an agency may seem a daunting task but Howatson says he finds it “thrilling” at the top.
“Because you can decide on a path, make a decision and make it happen. You get that freedom – but then you also have to live with the consequences,” he says.
One thing on Howatson’s mind is how to reinvigorate the agency’s reputation. “The industry didn’t know what it was,” Howatson, B&T’s Young Achiever of the Year 2012, says of CHE. “It had a definition around retail, but it was built on retail foundations that were relevant a decade ago.
“What’s great about the agency is its history. It’s been around since 1974 and done some really good, strong work, but it hasn’t done it consistently.”
To move the agency forward, Howatson has developed a comprehensive three-year map. But when it comes to business, he believes patience is not a virtue but an impediment to progression.
“I don’t like saying, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do for the next 12 months, we’ll let it slowly play out’.”
Instead, that three-year plan has been broken down into yearly deadlines with 100-day goals. “I believe, particularly in agency cultures, that if you don’t push change rapidly it doesn’t happen.”
Howatson’s vision for CHE is a data-driven creative agency focused on the relationship between consumer and brand. “The reason we exist is to help brands solve business problems,” he says. “Lots of agencies talk about that but our difference is that we start with the value of customers. For every problem, we go back to ‘where’s the data point that can help drive that outcome?’.”
The focus on data is coupled with an awareness of Near Field Communication’s (NFC) potential.
“Social is a bit of a blip. Lots of people invested lots of money in social and have not necessarily got the return on investment they wanted."
"But I think NFC will be the most disruptive impact on marketing and how we communicate to people since TV.
"NFC will enable everything we do to be aggregated through our phones. If we take that data and provide solutions to people’s needs at the moment they need them, that is fundamentally different.”
To get the ball rolling, Howatson’s first 100 days as head focused on the planning department, where he scrapped the traditional executive planning director role in favour of four individuals.
Now, there are heads of interactive strategy, brand strategy, data insights and customer experience. The structural change is one development Howatson is “really proud of”. “Diversity creates breakthrough, and that’s something we’ve taken on as a mantra in the agency.”
Next stop is getting out in market and winning over clients.
“We’re after anyone that wants to solve problems by being intimate with their customers.”
As CHE dusts the cobwebs off its “decade-old” retail principals, a passion for Howatson is bringing bricks-and-mortars up to speed with the digital world – so he is keen to secure a fashion retail account. And grocery also piques Howatson’s interest. He believes Coles and Woolies are “progressively killing brands”.
He is well aware that “talk, as the saying goes, is cheap” and that the first 12 months of the new regime are critical to CHE’s ability to walk-the-walk.
“The measure of success for me this year is a healthy agency with 12 months-worth of work you can count on two sets of hands – not just two fingers.”
If Howatson’s attitude is anything to go by, the market’s impression of CHE is set to change: “If change doesn’t happen quickly, opportunity is lost. I certainly believe opportunity happens at speed.”
To lop this tall poppy down to size, you’d have to catch him first.