Date posted: 1/12/2016 6 min read

Dave Whittle's winning formula for leadership

Simplicity and the creative use of data vital to successful business transformation says digital native Dave Whittle

In brief

  • Vital to organisational transformation is simplicity — crystallising ideas and clarifying purpose
  • Whittle’s success has often entailed harnessing the power of data in creative ways
  • Organisations need to have a culture of delivery — many brilliant ideas fail due to poor execution

Photography by JamPhotographic.com

Dave Whittle is the son of an artist and a scientist, and the relationship between the two disciplines goes a long way to explaining his career and his philosophy. “Art and science are opposing forces, but they can also be complementary,” explains Whittle.

“I think they have shaped what I am passionate about and what I have pursued all of my career.”

Recently appointed a non-executive director at Australia’s largest department store group Myer, Whittle now combines directorships with a passion for start-ups.

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It is the current culmination of a career which began almost at the dawn of the digital marketing age, in 1998, as director of client services at the agency Blue digital.

“I was the first employee hired at the first digital media buying agency in the country [Australia], and I think that is what began my taste for entrepreneurship, technology and transformation,” says Whittle.

“We started one of the first email businesses in the country and we also co-founded a software company specialising in data analytics and ad serving, which was quite ahead of its time.”

Whittle’s career has been nothing if not the product of the digital age. His achievements have often been around harnessing the power of data in creative ways, combining art and science as per his family upbringing.

“When people ask me what my purpose is and what I do I say that I commercialise creativity, and that can be about something new but it can also be about transformation.

“And it can also be about taking something as dry as data and transforming it using creativity to create real value.”

One of Whittle’s other current roles, for example, is executive director at Australian-based Lexer, a software company specialising in “human analytics”.

From an understanding that there are 13 billion people and things connected to the internet and producing data, most of which is ignored, Lexer offers products that large companies use to generate insight and power genuine engagements with consumers.

Brand new

This software awareness complements what has been the other major theme in Whittle’s career, working with brands — both established brands as they transform and start-up brands as they emerge.

At sporting start-up AFL club Greater Western Sydney Giants, for example, he is a board member of the GIANTS Foundation, aiming to drive engagement and help the new club connect with its community.

In a ten year career at M&C Saatchi, Whittle worked on some of Australia’s most recognisable brand advertising campaigns, firstly leading start-up units within the agency dedicated to digital marketing and then becoming managing director of the agency group in Australia in 2010.

“My task at M&C Saatchi was focused on transformation in the digital space, with the aim to become a digitally native organisation which could provide world class digital services to clients,” he says.

“To begin with, it was an entrepreneurial role to establish and grow the digital practice throughout Australia, Asia and the US. I did this for three years, living out of a suitcase.

“And years later when I was leading the broader M&C Saatchi Group in Australia, I was working across all areas of the marketing mix with wonderful clients, such as the Commonwealth Bank.”

In this role, part of the challenge was being “poacher turned gamekeeper” and assisting traditional businesses as they faced the risk of disruption from new competitors.

This, says Whittle, energised many of his clients and created new waves of innovation within established businesses as they “re-invented themselves”.

“Tom McFarlane who led the creative team at M&C Saatchi came up with ‘CAN’ for Commonwealth Bank and within weeks those three letters were successfully implemented by their CMO Andy Lark and his team to align, motivate and focus 50,000 plus employees around a powerful sense of purpose, as well as communicating something very clear, meaningful and motivating for their customers.”

Whittle also points to the Optus “yes” idea as another example of how leadership at large, and legacy, organisations is able to drive change through mobilising stakeholders around one word.

“It’s no accident that in both cases we are talking about a three-letter word — the ultimate in simplicity,” he says.

The sad reality is that there is just a dearth of creativity amongst boards and at the C-suite executive level in Australia, largely because there is so much focus on governance, risk and compliance.

Simplicity and purpose

“The power of simplicity is something that I learnt at M&C Saatchi, where they have a wonderful commitment to the creative philosophy of ‘brutal simplicity of thought’ and working with brands to distil them down to one word.

“These single words, when they are aptly chosen, are such a powerful tool and when they are executed well they can drive rapid transformation in large organisations.”

At the core of this is the recognition that “simplicity does not mean dumbing things down,” it means crystallising ideas to their essence and clarifying the sense of purpose.

“Simplicity as distinct from simple is very, very hard,” says Whittle.

“It goes back to that old quote, ‘I would have written you a shorter letter but I didn’t have time’.”

A great brand, says Whittle, is a “culmination of an organisation’s purpose and is the sum of its actions”.

“It has to be understood throughout an organisation and consistently implemented and so the qualities of a great brand are around how it manifests that organisation.”

“Advertising is just one of many ways a brand manifests itself, how it looks and how it behaves.”

Re-branding established businesses, he says, is about finding qualities which articulate and pinpoint where that business is at in its changing development.

“Older brands have legacy in terms of perception, in terms of retooling and re-educating people and that is pretty expensive in a large organisation,” says Whittle.

“But the value is generally greater when it is well done.”

Branding start-up businesses from scratch is different, in that there is no legacy brand to be understood and dealt with.

“There is the luxury of not having any of those legacy issues to deal with, but then you have the issue that there is no momentum.

“So you go from the unknown, but that is more a business issue than a brand issue. It’s much easier to go from scratch in terms of the actual creation of the brand.”

Data and creativity

Looking back over his career, Whittle summarises the learnings from his work experience in five areas in this order: leadership, data, creativity, execution and winning.

“Good leaders are many things and there are many styles of leadership but at the baseline there is the science and art of leadership,” he says.

“And really good leaders to varying degrees leverage those two disciplines, or crafts, and when you put these things in concert it can be incredibly powerful.

“And I think you can see this when you have a leader who might not be sufficiently embracing of creativity, because these organisations will lack innovation and won’t do things differently and will be resistant to change.

“But at the same time, leaders who are solely creative tend to have downfalls because they are not focused enough on the metrics and the numbers and the rational side of decision making, and this ranges across everything from engaging with shareholders to hiring good people.”

Whittle’s summary of his learnings has data at number two, ahead of creativity at number three, a decision made because “the creativity happens upon the data, so the data comes first and then creativity is applied to the science”.

“The frustrating thing is that there is just so much data and I draw from the recycling movement of the 1970s when I think about it,” he says.

“We have reduced our wastage as a society through recycling, and organisations now have a wonderful opportunity to reduce their wastage of data, and in doing so drive improvement in everything they do.

“So I’m on a mission about this and I’m very passionate about it, because data without creativity is just one dimensional.”

“I think there is a growing recognition of this and we are now seeing a focus on this at board and executive level, and that is something that will drive increased differentiation and competitive advantage.

“If you are a bank or a telco you have a decreasing amount to differentiate with, through product offerings and so forth, so this is why creativity is so important in identifying points of differentiation.”

Culture of delivery

The next point of learning is around execution, a factor which is “all about accountability”.

“A lot of creative people are good with ideas but not with execution,” says Whittle.

“That is why having these things working in concert is so important, the linkage through leadership to winning and success.

“Successful organisations need to have a culture of delivery, because I have seen — as I’m sure we all have — a lot of amazing ideas by brilliant people with wonderful strategies which have failed due to poor execution.”

This goes back, he says, to how strong brands are created. A key component in their creation is around aligning the team which makes the brand.

“You can have wonderful individuals but a team that is aligned, complementary and motivated will always win,” says Whittle, in a point which introduces the final component in his philosophy of success.

“The final learning from my experience has been around winning, and my main point is that nobody has ever been successful alone, or very very rarely if they have.”

“And this comes back to the idea of diversity. We talk about having, at an operational level, a group with a complementary skill set, but that is crucial at board and executive level as well.”

The importance of diversity in organisations, he says, is now considered “pretty much non-negotiable,” although it is taking time to percolate up to board level.

Which is where Dave Whittle is aiming to make a difference in his new role at Myer.

This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.