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News Plus 28 Jun 2021 - 3 min read

Leo Burnett aims to beat talent crisis with diversity and blow away indies with bigger ideas

By Brendan Coyne - Editor
Leo Burnett National CEO Emma Montgomery

Emma Montgomery: Start hiring outside the box to solve ideas and talent crunch.

Leo Burnett’s new national CEO Emma Montgomery is aiming to land more local business and beat Australia’s thriving independent agencies with creative and strategic scale. She thinks only diversity can save Australia from anaemic growth and reverse marketing's attritional skills crunch.

What you need to know:

  • Emma Montgomery returned to Australia as Leo Burnett Sydney CEO in March, becoming National CEO in June.
  • She's aiming to woo local brand clients with sharper strategy and creative depth than indie agencies and more "human thinking" than consultants.
  • Montgomery thinks diversity of thought and people will solve the sector-wide talent crunch while unlocking top line growth.

The pipes are important, but there is little point in [digital transformation] if you have no top line growth coming in, no new markets being created. You risk just optimising yourself to the end… and often just capturing value that would have happened anyway.

Emma Montgomery, CEO, Leo Burnett

The big idea

After five years in the US, Montgomery said the strength of Australia’s indie scene was immediately striking upon her return.

“It’s a very different dynamic. There are some really good indie operators – and that makes it really, really competitive.”

In the main, Leo Burnett has traditionally serviced global accounts. Montgomery hints that may change as indies simultaneously bid for global accounts either on their own or as part of alliances.

She thinks the Publicis-owned network can beat them with strategic depth and resource.

“We must be super clear about our differentiator. We are good at brand building and market creation. That is a very different proposition to what an indie or less connected agency might be focused on,” she suggested.

“Our heritage is big brand idea building over comms delivery and execution. Campaigns are great, but the work we want to get into is ‘what can a brand be’, and how can that [vision] direct the business.” In essence: “What is the human value in anything a business will do and how to turn that into commercial value.”

Brains versus bots

Strategy has a key role to play, a discipline Montgomery thinks has been conflated with planning, as does creativity, which she thinks has been sidelined in the pursuit of digital infrastructure.

“The pipes are important, but there is little point in [digital transformation] if you have no top line growth coming in, no new markets being created,” said Montgomery. “You risk just optimising yourself to the end… and often just capturing value that would have happened anyway.”

Strategic thinking and creativity are one and the same, she added, and where agencies will succeed or fail with brands.

“Brands are very focused on what they need to do – improve the bottom line.  Our job is to determine the human need … where demand could come from, where a brand could go and think around corners.”

Montgomery thinks that is where smart creative agencies can outpoint management consultants.

“Businesses are buying the thinking engines, but [consultancies] are lacking the humanity required. They have it theoretically right, but not real world right. That is what we do, the messy human part,” she said.

“You may have found a gap in the market, but what if nobody cares? You have to create that demand, make people care, tell the story, create the experience in a way that people have not seen before that has value to them.”

Diversity or bust

Australia’s lack of diversity is one thing that has not changed in Montgomery’s five years overseas. She’s aiming to kill two birds with one stone.

“The whole talent shortage – everybody is trying to steal everyone else’s people – which means we are being very insular. We are stuck in the same pool of homogeneity when there are so many other people with great skills and minds that we should be attracting to the industry,” said Montgomery.

“We need to broaden the creative pool. It is always hard to find strategists [because strategy is hard to define] but there are tonnes of amazing thinkers out there.

“So diversity of talent, thought, people. Everything here looks pretty similar. The US was having something of a reckoning around diversity, and some really uncomfortable conversations, but they drove change,” she added.

“Australia has not seen real movement, with the exception of gender, and there is some way to go there. But that is only one lens. We need to shake it up and show people there is a path for all types of thinkers and leaders.

“We can solve the talent crunch and diversity in one, if we open our aperture a little wider.”

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