In conversation… Terry Savage talks about his time at the Lions

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After a 33-year association with Cannes Lions, chairman Terry Savage is moving on. He spoke to Julian Newby ahead of his final Festival.


Q: What was the career path that led you into the creative world?
A: I started at Val Morgan as a sales representative at 19, so I’m not sure my vision to end up as executive chairman was that clear then. What was clear from the outset was I had a sales skill that I was unaware of and which led me to two very important realisations: first, that the power to communicate was key; and second, that people buy ideas not space. And so creativity in sales was, and is, as important as it is in every walk of life.

Q: You were also president of SAWA, so you have an in-depth understanding of screen advertising. How important is screen advertising – particularly in the cinema – in today’s industry?
A: Cinema is the ultimate expression of creativity, be it films or advertising. By its limits of reach cinema was, and is, a small medium in the overall scheme of things, but it punches well above its weight in terms of power. It is still the ultimate expression for creative excellence where screens are concerned.

Q: How did you become Lions Australia rep?
A: Val Morgan was a founding member of SAWA who were then the founders and owners of Cannes Lions. On being appointed as the Cannes representative due to that relationship, I immediately understood the power of Cannes to drive creativity in Australia and worked endlessly to bring that message home to my country.

Q: What happened to Australia’s presence in Cannes, and to its advertising industry, during your time as Lions rep for Australia?
A: While I can claim no credit, Australia has developed over the years as a Global Creative powerhouse – it ranks consistently at Cannes as one of the top countries, something of which I am very proud.

Q: What is your earliest Lions memory?
A: People today say we are very big, very busy, cater for all sectors of the industry – they say it is a life-changing experience – all of which is true. We change and cater for all because creativity constantly changes and creativity is no longer just the domain of creative agencies. They are certainly part of it, but creativity is everywhere and that trend will continue. Compare that with my first visit in 1986 where there were no seminars, limited categories, one award ceremony and frankly, it was quite boring and unfulfilling. It was certainly not the world-class and dynamic event it is today – so I walked away from that first year thinking what an opportunity it presented to support our industry, in a real and meaningful way and I am happy to say that, some years later, I had the opportunity to make many of those changes that makes the event what it is today.

Q:  You took the Lions through its biggest change – from a family business to its initial sale. Did you think when you joined the Festival essentially to oversee the sale, that you would still be there in 2018?
A: No, in fact I expected to be gone once the sale was complete. Fate, however, intervened and both personally and professionally it was an immensely rewarding experience.

Q: What was your initial goal when you took over as CEO? Did you achieve it – and did you go further?
A: I think it went further than I ever expected. You know in life, in a business capacity, you rarely work with someone where everything clicks. You sometimes do, but it’s rare. The appointment of Phil Thomas to CEO – and who will replace me as Chairman – was such a case. We were a team, pretty seamless in our execution, and because we were both working with a clear vision I think we made it happen faster and more efficiently. I like to see myself as the visionary – the gatekeeper of brand purity and a clear thinker in terms of what Cannes was, is, and should be. And as it happened I think Phil and I were on the same page. What was our biggest skill? I think we were both great listeners, knew what our brand values were and did not over-react.

Q: Digital/online started to kick-in pretty much as soon as you joined as CEO in 2003, if not before. Did you predict the effect it would have on the industry and the Festival? Has what has happened - and is happening - surprised you?
A: I think we saw very early the power of digital and in fact introduced the category very early – to be fair I don’t think anyone in 2003 really understood the power and disruptive force that it would be and I doubt anyone realises how much that will continue, in virtually all sectors of industry. It's just a timeline – the trick is in understanding that timeline.

Q: Apart from the digital seismic shift, what other major changes in the industry have you observed that have forced key changes?
A: Most of the key changes, of course, have digital at the heart. I think the biggest step for our industry going forward is talent and the disconnect between digital natives and management. Today our youth are so very smart in terms of their skill base but still have to learn the wisdom of leadership and management and bridging that gap is key. Being smart does not equate to success and that’s got to be a role of the industry leaders going forward – train and develop all of those skills that are so important, from listening skills to presentation skills, from true leadership to problem solving. Take the smart, mix it with the wisdom, add-in the skill base and you are unstoppable.

Q: You have always stressed the importance of creativity in advertising, marketing and business generally. What drew you to the conclusion that creativity is such an important part of what business does and how it sells itself?
A: Creativity is about solving problems in a way that they have not been solved before. How can that not be important, be it communication in our industry, the UN SDGs or flying to the moon? Creativity sets humans apart. It's what makes us different – we just have to keep learning and allow creativity to flourish and every one will benefit.

Q: Some of the visiting speakers in Cannes have been outstanding. Are there any that have stood out for you over the years?
A: Bill Clinton and Al Gore for their incredible ability to speak fluently and interestingly for an hour with no notes and no ‘errrmmmms’; Bono and Bob Geldof for their total passion when speaking about what is close to their heart; and probably Dave Droga, because he speaks no-bullshit-Australian and is probably the best salesperson I know besides my wife Cheryl, who is incredible. Being a good salesperson, in my eyes, is the biggest complement I can give you.

Q: What about other Lions moments, away from the Cannes stages?
A: A friend of mine once said, "Terry, people behave in strange ways in Cannes. They turn into different people during the week, but don’t worry they will be back to normal next week.” Most of the things that stand out relate to breaking the Golden rule of Cannes: Don’t make decisions that will be reactive during the Cannes week. Sit back and reflect for a couple of weeks after, based on the first point.

Q: What do you feel you have contributed most to the Lions? What are you happy to leave behind, knowing that it was down to you?
A: There is a massive team at Cannes whose members have contributed huge amounts. If I have a legacy I would like it to be: ‘He was authentic, cared and truly believed in creativity, and he was clear in his decision making and vision.’ But that’s what I would like – it will be others who make that judgement.

Q: Do you have a mentor, someone who inspired you within the context of your role in the marketing/advertising industries over the years?
A: Mentors too many to mention, because I listen and take advice, because I don’t want to make mistakes that others have made. Inspiration – again its simple, it's all about the work. That’s what inspires me, great work that leaves you refreshed and in awe. That’s what Cannes is about.

Q: You are entering a new phase of your career and your life. What is happening next for you?
A: Well I am becoming Global Chairman of The Marketing Academy, an amazing not-for-profit entity that develops leadership skills to the industry. They are currently in UK and Australia and about to open in the US. The plan is to be in other parts of the world because of all the reasons I have mentioned; this really is an incredible organisation. I will also start a consultancy Terrys@savagesunlimited (shameless plug!) to advise people about all of the things I have mentioned in this conversation. I believe in creativity, I believe in leadership, I believe in education. They are the things I stand for, which is probably why Cannes Lions was such a perfect fit.

 

 
Harriet Palmer