My Media Life – Daryl Lee

June 17, 2022

Daryl Lee, Global CEO of IPG Mediabrands and president of this year’s Cannes Media Lions

Welcome to My Media Life where business leaders chat to us about what the media industry means to them – from insights into their own career path and tips for those starting out today, to which media they personally connect with and why.

With the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity about to begin for the first time in three years, we’re thrilled to be joined by Daryl Lee, Global CEO of IPG Mediabrands and president of this year’s Cannes Media Lions.

Below are extracts from our longer conversation; you can watch the full interview above, or listen to the podcast here.

What does the media industry mean to you?

Change. I love change. I found my way into the media business from consulting and a creative agency, and they were both really focused on clients and brands and business. I love the business of our clients and building brands.

What media does is take all of that and smack it in the middle of wherever change is happening. I used to think that was accidental, but now I realise that’s the nature of media because it tracks culture – it tracks good and bad culture – it tracks entertainment, it tracks human beings’ changing views of what they’re interested in. That’s what media is; that’s how you attract audiences. So, the fact that you combine all these brands and businesses and all the things I love about the world in general, and then the pace of media, which is: Change, get ready for it, immerse yourself in it, be the first into it.

What’s the one piece of advice that has helped in your career?

I’m going to give you two. I’ve become a CEO, but I’m a strategist at heart and strategists love their lunchtimes because no-one schedules a meeting, and you can do some work, so the best advice somebody gave me is never lunch alone.

Make sure that every time there’s a lunch in your day – you’re going to talk to somebody new; you’re finding out something new. Somebody walked past my office once and said, “This is the third day in a row I’ve seen you hunched over your laptop over lunch. Get out, meet people.”

There’s always somebody who wants to have lunch with you, as a media agency leader. I get to meet people, but I also get to think new things – there’s going to be some new supply chain optimisation person, for example, who I only meet for lunch because I need to eat. And then you learn something new about the tech ecosystem. Or you meet somebody who’s looking at a new audience. Or you just meet somebody who’s got something interesting going on in their lives. Keeping your mind open to that is important.

The other thing I was told was to speak up. That’s my advice to people when they walk in here: Speak up; we can’t answer a question you don’t ask.

What’s your favourite thing about your current job?

I love being a coach. I use this metaphor a lot. I’m not a big sports fan. IPG Mediabrands has 13,000 people around the world. We have these two big brands, UM and Initiative, and then we have specialty brands that support them. So, we have a blue team (Initiative) and red a team (UM) that play different fields, play different games at different times.

This is not something as a strategist I expected to love because I love the analytics of business, I love the analytics of media, I love the idea of optimising your investments against business objectives. All that I love, but actually, people can’t be optimised in that way. People can only be inspired and led.

I love the opportunity I’ve been given, which is to think about what I need to do to be a leader, as opposed to a boss. And my model is coaches, because what coaches do – they bring out the best in people; they put them in the right position. They move them out of position into a new position. And there’s always a clear bias towards the team versus the star. Occasionally you get distracted by having the star on a team, but I think you always learn that the team is stronger than the stars.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in a media or marketing career today?

Well, I don’t need to give them advice to speak up because with this generation there’s no quietness! I think it’s ‘really be creative because the opportunity now, like never before in media and I think in business, is to find new connections, find new combinations.

I like to say creativity is everybody’s business, which wasn’t always the case. There’s no longer ‘there’s the science guy’, ‘there’s the art guy’, or ‘there are the people who do the hard analysis’ or ‘here’s the people who think conceptually and creatively’. I think we all have to be creative. The pace of change requires it, but the openness in business makes it possible. So, no matter where you are, no matter where you’re starting, if you see something that can be created, speak up, let’s do it.

What would you say your own personal secret talent is?

Optimism. I’m a very idealistic person. I grew up in South Africa, which was disaster into miracle. Somebody told me the other day I’m a strong optimist. People come and say: house on fire …client’s leaving…we didn’t win this…we didn’t run a campaign in the middle of December that was about holidays. And I’m like: “First of all, let’s acknowledged the pain, and secondly, we’ll find a way to make it a positive. We’ll find a way to make it up.” So, I’m very optimistic.

I was very easily bored [as a child] and so I did a lot of theatre – we called it ‘candlelight theatre’. We would go around to retirement homes and do a lot of Monty Python, which in South Africa was super weird, but I have a deep sense of performance. I don’t use it [everyday], but when I need to, it’s very helpful.

With media agencies, because we do so much pitching, we speak to CEOs and CFOs way more than creative agencies do now. There’s that sense of when there’s a performance, show up with a performance and make it a performance. People have come to see a show not a conversation. Because it can’t just be the work we do. They’re looking to an agency for something – it’s got to be an emotional experience otherwise they could just get it from looking at a report.

Where do you get your own daily news from?

I have my four, the big four, which is Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times and the Financial Times. Not in that order, actually in reverse order – I end with the Wall Street Journal. I sometimes start with the New York Times if something big is happening in the world, but usually the Financial Times… although, I don’t want to read any more about Boris Johnson. Can I say that I’m just done? It’s just enough!  And then Politico. I am a news junkie.

In terms of lifestyle, which media brands are most important to you?

I do a lot of streaming. I’m a big Prime video guy. I think HBO Max and Prime have managed to carve out a position of more interesting, more thoughtful content. Netflix does the great content spectrum. I do watch CNN. I have secret vices, like Below Deck – it’s a Bravo reality TV show about people who work on luxury yachts and they’re the team below deck, and it is just bad for you and unstoppably addictive. And a lot of sport – we saw the most amazing tennis in the last two weeks and I’m looking forward to some new tennis coming. It is interesting how you don’t say NBC / ABC anymore – you say HBO Max, Prime Video. Peacock is a great brand and Vudu, is a brand in my life.

How do you switch off from being always on?

Gardening! I have a garden, I go biking. We have a house that’s two hours north of New York City – it has a huge yard that I try to keep up, poorly, so I love that. I love being out. I’m not sure I’m ‘tree bathing’ or forest bathing but something like that happens to me when I’m out in nature.

The other day I was like, “My roses are not performing as I would like.” I remember thinking my grandfather spends an awful lot of time talking about roses. What is his problem? But this is what’s happened – I’ve now become someone who really cares about my roses.

Finally, who or what inspires you?

Nelson Mandela. To come from one of the first black lawyers in the country, then banned, then imprisoned 27 years, worked in a quarry in this awful jail cell and then came out and was a unifier and built a rainbow nation with warts and all, but still just this grace. To come out and have such grace. So, he inspires me, always. You read his writings and he was obviously raised in a particular way, which built a character. And he worked on his character.

It’s such an interesting thing. We had a meeting in Majorca the other day to get the global leadership team together and Tony Nadal was there, Rapha Nadal’s uncle and coach. He came to speak to us, and I asked him, what makes the difference from a good tennis to a great tennis player? And he said, “Someone who works on their character.” Not someone who has great character, but someone who works on their character to become better. And I think that’s what Mandela did that.

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