A chat with Jon Steel re TIE, Al Gore & Ban Ki-Moon

A few years ago I found myself eating cheese and drinking wine at the Château de Touffou, the castle purchased by the advertising man David Ogilvy in 1966, and still to this day owned by the Ogilvy family after David’s death in 1999.

I was asked by Jon Steel, Group Planning Director for WPP Group as well as the WPP Marketing Fellowship Director at the time, to give a presentation about TIE to a group of WPP Fellows.

Over 10 years I worked with WPP and their Fellows, and today I chat with Jon about our experience working together.

Here I ask him why he worked with TIE for 10 years, paid good money to lose a valued employee for several weeks, and why the risk paid off.

You’ll love this conversation.

Jon is one of the most influential Strategic Planners of our time. Not only will he inspire you, get you thinking in a different way, and leave you wanting more.

But he’ll also reveal the secret to the success of his star employees.

Enjoy!

And if you do want to continue feeling inspired by Jon, I can’t recommend enough his books ‘Truth Lies and Advertising’ and ‘Perfect Pitch’. I often find myself using examples from them in conversations.

00:00:07:18 – 00:00:29:12
Philippa White
So the questions are these How can we really activate the best of the private sector to meet the challenges of the real world? Is there a way to accelerate my career that doesn’t involve boring online or classroom courses? And can I really impact people in the developing world with the skills that I have? Can I finally feel proud of what I know?

00:00:30:04 – 00:01:03:21
Philippa White
Those are the questions. And this podcast will give you the answers. My name is Philippa White and this is TIE Unearthed. Keep listening and you can follow us on our journey as we show you how we’re connecting the private sector with the social sector. To me, change. Welcome to Episode three of TIE’s Podcast. Today I am interviewing the advertising legend Jon Steel.

00:01:04:24 – 00:01:13:04
Philippa White
I am just so honored to be speaking with you right now, Jon, and thrilled that you agreed to speak with me. So thank you very much.

00:01:13:17 – 00:01:15:21
Jon Steel
Pleasure to be here. Lovely to talk. Good.

00:01:15:24 – 00:01:36:11
Philippa White
So I wanted to ask you why you worked with TIE for ten years and paid good money to lose a valued employee for several weeks? And why the risk paid off for you? But before I get into that, I just wanted to first tell our listeners a little bit more about you. For those of you that don’t know.

00:01:36:18 – 00:02:06:00
Philippa White
So Jon is a writer and strategist who has solved problems for some of the biggest commercial brands on this planet, such as Nike, Coca-Cola, Porsche, Unilever and Vodafone, to Major League Baseball, to the National Basketball Association and even Fulham Football Club. You guys. Do you guys remember the Got Milk campaign? Because I do. I can still see the billboards when I was growing up.

00:02:06:01 – 00:02:37:09
Philippa White
Well, yes, Jon was the strategic architect behind that. And between 2012 and 2014, he worked with the former US vice president Al Gore, and the United Nations secretary Ban Ki moon on a global climate change campaign in advance of the 2014 UN climate change summit. So you also may be familiar with his two bestselling books, Truth Lies in Advertising and Perfect Pitch.

00:02:37:16 – 00:03:01:01
Philippa White
And if you aren’t, I highly recommend getting them because I often find myself using examples from them in conversations the fantastic and the late in our in the in the episode information so you guys can check them out. I was introduced to Jon via the incredible Jeremy Bullimore, who was an ad adviser to Sir Martin Sorrell at the time, as Sir Martin Sorrell was the CEO of WPP.

00:03:01:12 – 00:03:30:11
Philippa White
And when I met Jon, he was the group planning director for WPP Group and was also the WPP Marketing Fellowship director. So I feel like that explains Jon Steele, what you what you did and what you’re all about. So I thought I’d just hand over to you. I just want to say thank you so much. To this day, I am so grateful to you for your beliefs and time for getting involved with our program and for offering these experiences to your store employees.

00:03:30:11 – 00:03:33:00
Philippa White
So it’s just great to have you here with us today.

00:03:34:00 – 00:03:34:20
Jon Steel
Thank you very much.

00:03:35:10 – 00:03:38:16
Philippa White
So tell me, I’d love to know, why did you sign up for TIE?

00:03:39:01 – 00:04:27:02
Jon Steel
Well, interesting, Philippa, you talked in your introduction about a company losing a value for a period of time. I never really saw it that way. I saw it as a process of gaining a more valuable employee, and that’s why I signed up for TIE. Initially, there were two reasons why I was attracted to it. The first time we met and you talked about TIE, it resonated very strongly with my own personal experience and back in the 1990s when I worked at Good B, Silverstein and Partners, I had a period of my employment with them where I was a little burnt out and also questioning whether I wanted to spend my life in working with commercial

00:04:27:03 – 00:04:56:16
Jon Steel
clients, some of whom were not a lot of fun to work with. And I quit and I quit my job. But the agency says, don’t, don’t quit. We’ll we’ll keep your resignation letter, but you go away for a, you know, three or four weeks and just recharge the batteries and think about things. And I did I went to Africa and I went to Rwanda and Tanzania and Burundi and and saw mountain gorillas and Jane Goodall’s chimps.

00:04:56:16 – 00:05:29:19
Jon Steel
And at one point, I was driving across the Serengeti in a truck, an eight hour journey, and I figured that perhaps I could do more for the kind of organizations that interested me if I stayed in the agency world instead of leaving it, and I would be able to develop my professional skills further and then apply them to stuff that I cared about beyond the commercial world, while also still having access to the resources and professional expertize of a lot of other people around me in the agencies.

00:05:30:08 – 00:06:04:16
Jon Steel
So when when you talked about time and what that represented, it felt very familiar to me. And I’ve experienced something of a conversion to the philosophy at the time myself. Now, the other reason was an entirely professional one that at the time we met I was running WPP Fellowship Program. Now this was a leadership program that Sir Martin had started back in 1995, and it was designed to create future leaders for WPP and its operating companies.

00:06:04:16 – 00:06:29:07
Jon Steel
And it was based on the principle that to be an effective leader in the future of this industry, people had to be multi-disciplinary. It was no longer any good to just be a PR person or just an advertising person or just a branding person. You had to be able to speak the language and understand the methodologies of all, but you also had to be culturally flexible.

00:06:29:19 – 00:06:57:02
Jon Steel
Increasingly, WPP business was international, and we needed people to be able to move seamlessly between different business cultures. So the program worked by fellows spending three years, each of those years in a different company representing a different discipline and usually a different geography. And at the end of the three years they’d got a huge amount of experience. But they also didn’t know how much they’d learned.

00:06:57:11 – 00:07:26:07
Jon Steel
And for me, TIE represented an intensive, immersive experience for them in exactly how much they had learned. It’s almost like a finishing school for fellows. Wow. So, so. So what you were offering fitted perfectly with my needs to. To tie up the fellowship experience and. And have people understand just how much they’d gotten out of that three years and how much they’ve got to offer going forward.

00:07:26:08 – 00:08:05:10
Philippa White
Wow. So nice to hear that. I mean, we worked with the WPP Fellowship Program over ten years. Can you believe it, Jon? So ten years. And we spent a total of 23 former fellows through the immersive type program that we that we were running at the time of. See, now, it’s a bit tricky due to the current situation of of corona virus and borders being shut but the program let’s see that we worked together with was where future you know the fellows with the future leaders or the fellows would be physically leaving their work in secret 30 days they would immerse themselves completely in another country and culture.

00:08:07:07 – 00:08:34:13
Philippa White
And over the years, actually, we placed them with I mean, I’m just looking at my list here. So we sent people to places. So we worked with children’s literacy in Africa, street children in Brazil, saving the lives of elephants in Kenya, which I know we’ll talk about in a bit, because I know that that is very close to your heart organization, Girl Empowerment in Rwanda, education in Ethiopia and Conservation of the Brazilian rainforest.

00:08:34:13 – 00:09:01:20
Philippa White
So loads of places and causes that people supported. And, you know, communication campaigns and business strategies were created that were hugely impactful for the host organizations and their communities. But I’d love to understand from you, you know, what were the benefits in your mind of getting involved with ties? What was what you know, why is what we do important in your view?

00:09:01:20 – 00:09:02:22
Philippa White
What did you get out of that?

00:09:03:07 – 00:09:34:23
Jon Steel
Well, it’s it’s important because it’s the right thing to do. People in our business should be applying their skills to problems that go beyond the commercial, the philosophy of applying our communication skills so that skills for the benefit of humanity, for the benefit of our world, it makes us better people. It puts the work we do for our commercial clients in context, but it also makes us better professionals because it adds variety to what we do.

00:09:34:23 – 00:10:03:17
Jon Steel
It allows us to understand that the the skills we apply on behalf of a commercial client in one category are transferable to commercial clients in other categories and commercial and transferable beyond commercial clients altogether. So I think for me, there are four benefits to it. One is the one that you’ve already mentioned where there is a clear benefit to the organization, the Children’s Literacy Group, the Amazon Rainforest Group.

00:10:04:12 – 00:10:39:15
Jon Steel
You know, all all of the people, all of the groups who have fellows and other people working with them have got a lot out of it. There’s an enormous benefit to the individual because in almost every case they really like, they learn things about themselves that they didn’t know existed before they went out of their comfort zone into a into a country that they’ve never been to before, working in a language that they’ve never spoken before on problems that they would have assumed in the past for too big for them to handle.

00:10:39:18 – 00:10:59:24
Jon Steel
And they cope. And in all in all of those 23 fellowship experiences over the ten years that we spoke about, there was never a disaster that nobody ended up in jail. Nobody ended up in hospital. No, no, no, no. Nobody ever no, nobody ever called up halfway through and said, I can’t do this. I’ve got to come home.

00:11:00:12 – 00:11:35:22
Jon Steel
They all saw it through and they all completed the project. So there’s a benefit to the organization, benefits the individual. There’s an enormous benefit to the sponsoring company in that the professional they get back is different and better than the one who left. And there’s a benefit to the industry as isn’t an industry that has enjoys a great reputation for its social conscience and it’s nice to have opportunities within the industry to it to explore social issues without having to leave the industry.

00:11:35:22 – 00:11:44:17
Jon Steel
You don’t have to make a choice between commerce and charity. The two, they can walk hand-in-hand and there’s a symbiotic relationship between them. Yeah, I.

00:11:44:17 – 00:12:07:13
Philippa White
Love. Love that you just said that because I couldn’t agree more. I when I’m talking about time, I think about how I felt actually when I set up a TIE and I remember thinking, you know, it feels like when you come out of university, you have two choices. Either you do good and work in sort of helping people industries or you do well and work in the private sector.

00:12:07:23 – 00:12:23:01
Philippa White
And it it sort of feels still a little bit like it’s an either or. And I sort of feel like, well, no, why does it have to be either or? It doesn’t. You know, why can you not work in the private sector using the skills that you have and you can actually make a difference? And, you know, I couldn’t agree.

00:12:23:13 – 00:12:53:00
Jon Steel
And and I, I had a lot of conversations with with fellows early in their careers who wanted to work solely in the in the doing good area. And that if they did want to work solely in that, a company like WPP wasn’t the right place for them. And but I always counseled them that that if they could spend a few years learning the right professional skills, they could be much more useful in the NGO area later on.

00:12:54:08 – 00:13:24:08
Jon Steel
And the more experience you get, the more senior you become, the more time you are allowed to allocate to those sort of things. Anyway, in my last few years at WPP, I still worked with very big commercial clients, but I spent an equal amount of time working with clients in the NGO world, but applying the skills of my fellows to their work and my own skills in a way that that broadened all of our experience and was beneficial.

00:13:24:10 – 00:13:36:23
Philippa White
Do you just I mean, I was going to ask afterwards, but why don’t you bring to light do you want to just talk about your what you worked a couple of the causes that are very important to you and that you hold very, very close to your heart.

00:13:37:11 – 00:14:14:20
Jon Steel
Well, you’ve already mentioned the work that a group of us did with with Al Gore in the UN. And that was that was over a couple of years. And, you know, very impactful. I had a lot of fellows, former fellows involved in that. Generally, whenever I was candidate project and it was very often Sir Martin would send me an email on a weekend and I’d just say I was talking to a person actually yesterday and they’ve got this problem and I said we’d sort it out for them, you know, which was, which was a little intimidating when you see an email chain and it’s Martin Al Gore or Martin Al Gore.

00:14:15:24 – 00:14:41:22
Jon Steel
And, you know, don’t worry, it’s only a small problem. We just want you to save the world from the impact of climate change. But I would always gather the people who I worked best with and who had the right sort of experiences as part of their fellowship experience. And they what I mean and also those teams were big people who knew each other really well, who liked working with each other.

00:14:41:22 – 00:15:14:14
Jon Steel
And you’re halfway there once you’ve got that right team assembled. So we did that with Al Gore. We worked with David Miliband, the International Rescue Committee, with the Eden Project. I did stuff independently with the Gorilla Foundation and the Jane Goodall Institute and the Dian Fossey Fund. But the two areas where where my personal passions and TIE intersected were to, you mentioned earlier the schools and roads in Ethiopia where Claire Carmichael went out to do a placement.

00:15:15:02 – 00:15:40:04
Jon Steel
But we got a lot of fellows involved and there’s a group of fellows still sponsor a a scholar at the School of Arts, which is which is which is a very interesting it’s a very interesting educational experiment to try to bring the highest quality education to the most deprived kids in in Addis Ababa. It is fantastic. And we sponsor a couple of kids themselves.

00:15:40:04 – 00:16:08:13
Jon Steel
And then the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, where Callum Cheadle went out on a placement. But we we developed a relationship actually initially through you. You made the initial introduction between the Sheldrick and myself, and I subsequently worked a lot with them. I guess I’ve worked with them for three or four years now. I’m still do. And I went out to Kenya a couple of years ago to to present a new logo.

00:16:08:15 – 00:16:34:15
Jon Steel
And I didn’t know. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So. So the old tricks have a new logo though. Now the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, not the David Shore Wildlife Trust, which was our recommendation, but I’ve got to visit all of their field operations. And for people who don’t know the Sheldrick rescue, orphaned elephants in Kenya and look after them for several years until they can and rehabilitate them and until they can be reintroduced to the wild.

00:16:34:15 – 00:16:58:04
Jon Steel
So they spend time in the nursery in Nairobi, but then go out to re-integration centers where slowly in the South National Park area, they they go out into the wild meet wild elephants and eventually become part of those wild herds. But it’s a fantastic randomization that’s been is and it’s been a joy to work with. And I’m very grateful to you for making the introduction.

00:16:58:04 – 00:17:00:00
Philippa White
And you also how you’ve adopted an elephant.

00:17:01:04 – 00:17:14:11
Jon Steel
Oh, I’ve got a couple of elephants. Yes, I’ve got I’ve got a mate, a lumbago, an ambo, young elephants who are both now in the reintegration centers and starting their journey back into the wild sector.

00:17:14:16 – 00:17:27:11
Philippa White
So good. So, I mean, I’m going to wrap this up, but I do want to just know, are there any stories that have stood out in your mind from from the ten years that we work together?

00:17:27:11 – 00:17:55:00
Jon Steel
Oh, it’s really it’s really hard to think of individual stories because my my overwhelming impression is of of it being having a life changing effect for for so many of the people who once their perspective has been widened, their sense of confidence has been increased and as I always said, it was a it was like a finishing school for fellows, but it just created this belief in them that that anything was possible.

00:17:55:07 – 00:18:13:17
Jon Steel
And I know you I know you have chief executives when you speak to them about this, how skeptical are you? Why would I give you somebody for 30 days? And and to me, it’s a no brainer. And it’s they won’t do it because it’s the right thing to do. They won’t do it because it would help build a career.

00:18:14:17 – 00:18:30:08
Jon Steel
They should do it because as a chief executive, it’s in their interest in their company’s interest to do so. So, you know, they can be selfish and they can be self-serving. And even if they don’t care about the other benefits, they end up with a better a better employee as a result of that.

00:18:30:16 – 00:19:15:24
Philippa White
Yeah. Oh, my gosh. Well, I have to say, having set this up, how many years ago? Sort of 13, I guess. We’ve been going through ten years for ten years to be sitting here and talking to you and having had the chance to work with you for ten years. It’s a huge honor. A huge honor and a yeah, I’m very grateful to you and Sir Martin and Jeremy for just supporting us for all that time and just giving me all of the incredible opportunities of working with your incredible fellows and going to the to the Ogilvy Chateau and, and the the fellowship anniversary at the Tower of London.

00:19:15:24 – 00:19:21:21
Philippa White
I mean, just so many incredible opportunities that we got to share together. So, yeah, amazing memories. Jon Amazing.

00:19:21:21 – 00:19:45:21
Jon Steel
Memorable and and we’re very grateful to you. You became a part of the Fellowship family. And if you look at the career trajectories of all of those fellows who went on tie, the curves got steeper as a result of what they did. So as an organization, I know that WPP was very grateful for that. And I’m certain that as individuals, they feel exactly the same way.

00:19:46:09 – 00:20:04:20
Philippa White
Well, thank you. Listen, you’re you’re you’re now starting your day and I’m ending mine. So you you’ve got your Monday to look forward to. So I hope you’ve got a good day ahead. And yes, and to our listeners, I will put in your book references. So if people want to check them out, because I highly recommend them and yeah.

00:20:05:02 – 00:20:07:05
Philippa White
Just yeah. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

00:20:07:18 – 00:20:08:16
Jon Steel
Thanks, Philippa. And take care. Bye.

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