Greg “Sparrow” Graham: Agency Land Needs To Be “Smashed Up & Reshaped” (& “Why I’m Not Retiring”)

Greg “Sparrow” Graham: Agency Land Needs To Be “Smashed Up & Reshaped” (& “Why I’m Not Retiring”)

Industry icon, marketing wizard and general raconteur Greg “Sparrow” Graham shocked just about everyone when he moved on from his role at WPP in early October after a three decade stint. Here, B&T catches up for a chat, where he’s very quick to dismiss rumours of his death (see: retirement)…

So, news of your death was mostly untrue?

Yes, I’m still alive and kicking and definitely NOT retiring; but maybe I should change my nickname from “Sparrow” to “Phoenix”.

What are you up to now?

Exploring new adventures and open to all opportunities in the new year.

Why not retire to a life of lawn bowls and club-priced schooners?

Firstly, I’m crap at lawn bowls, although the club-priced schooners sounds good value. I still love what I do and definitely not ready to join the bowling club just yet.

You’ve had a particularly distinguished media career. What’s the next move?

Exploring options in three areas. One: as a pitch doctor working with both local agencies and in APAC. I think there is a big opportunity in this area, and with my US and Aussie experience, I have good credentials.

Two: marketing/PR/event projects very similar to what I have been doing recently, plus my event experience at GroupM with mLab. Also my four-month secondment to the AANA working on the RESET conference was a highlight.

And three: training, development and coaching. I always loved this part of the business and I’m passionate about nurturing and developing talent.

What’s the part of the industry that most excites you at the moment?

Ahhh, that’s an interesting question, as I’m not sure the industry does excite me at the moment. It’s really tough and challenging with a short-term focus, and its all about reducing costs and freezing all investment. Nothing exciting about that and it’s a very tough, hard slog.

Equally, what’s a part of the industry that you think is in a bit of strife at the moment?

All traditional legacy agencies including both creative and media. It has to be smashed up and reshaped for clients future business needs.

It’s an ever-changing and ever-disrupted industry. What skill sets do you think are vital for the modern-day adlander?

The most important skill set will be resilience. The ability to bounce back and thrive with the  constant change and disruption. Plus, the vital skill of listening… listening to our clients and talent to effectively lead and inspire them every day under enormous pressure.

This is a very honest question: do you think there’s a problem with ageism in the industry? If so, how can that be addressed?

Definitely, yes. I think there is a major problem with the focus on cost-reduction and low margins we have lost valuable experience and vital industry knowledge.

It has to be addressed and I think we are at a tipping point where agencies need to take action now. Recently, several CMOs specifically mentioned the lack of senior leadership on their business and the need for a senior leader with management and life experience acting as a real trusted adviser.

There appears to be a lot of senior people moving on and out of the industry at the moment? Heaven forbid, is there a brain drain?

Yes, again! We have undervalued experience and the gravitas of senior people and the importance that can bring to a client’s business. 

Equally, do you think the industry is doing enough to snare the new, bright young things?

Of course we need talented young people, however it’s all about balance and I think the industry has definitely improved its recruitment programmes. The industry associations are doing a good job, but we can always do more. 

Everyone’s talking data, data and more data. Is the hype to be believed?

Some of it is frog shit! We are overloaded with data and not enough data scientists or qualified people who can analyse the data to gain the insights.

Biggest industry issue at the moment that’s NOT being addressed?

We have a lot of talk about diversity, however most of it is just that talk. We need real action on diversity so its not just tokenism or makes a good press release.

I mean real diversity not just male/female balance but an inclusive workplace that truly reflects our community, culture and values. We don’t always practice what we preach.

Biggest change to the industry that you’ve seen in your career?

Obviously its technology. As an example when I first started and moved out of dispatch (the mail room) department to media I was doing TV post analysis manually. The thing that hasn’t changed is the need for the best talent to deliver big ideas and inspirational thinking that drives a client’s business.

Favourite ad of all time?

That’s tough! Probably some of the great ads and jingles that Mojo created for Meadow Lea, Tooheys or World Series Cricket.

Most memorable moment (and by “memorable” we mean funniest) moment of your career?

Wow, that’s an even tougher question. Over 30-plus years so many funny memories. Maybe trying to explain my nickname “Sparrow” to the Americans when I worked in New York for Mindshare; especially as I embellished the yarn as I didn’t want the facts to get in the way of a good story.

Proudest moment in your career?

Launching Mindshare in Australia and  then working for them in the USA and helping win over $1 billion dollars in new business in one year and being awarded AdWeek Agency of the Year.

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    Latest comments
  • Anne Miles 2 years ago

    OMG! Greg Graham, you’ve just reinforced every little thing that I think is broken in our industry and EXACTLY why I’m doing what I’m doing to actually make change too – I couldn’t stand everyone being all TALK. Good for you. There’s a very welcoming world out there beyond the old model too. Congratulations.

    For those that were so ageist to think that you were retiring can go jump. A start up or a new venture can happen at any age. You’ve never lacked energy and age is not going to stop you either. Shame on those that assumed. Wishing you the very best with whatever is next. Industry – please take note of Greg if you wont listen to me – and do something about our embarrassing problems. Sadly as a white man in business, Greg has more chance of being heard than some others…just saying. Thank you Greg for making a stand. Awesome. Can’t wait to see what’s next.

greg graham sparrow WWP AUNZ

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