Profile: Sacha Adair talks digital transformation, blokey industries, and growing through challenge

Sacha Adair, head of brand transformation at Digital Infusions, has steered huge corporations through the treacherous waters of turnarounds. She’s not only lived to tell the tale, but every bump and scrape has made her a better marketer.

 

A global, publicly-listed business turns around with the grace of an ocean liner. And once a turnaround begins, there’s only one chance to get it right. Sacha Adair is the pilot that’s called upon to do the manoeuvring.

After spending several years in London working in high-end venue marketing, Adair found herself in new territory, plotting turnaround courses for the likes of Transfield Services and Coffey International. Both had new CEOs and that meant new strategies.

Working in those turnaround environments, Adair tells us, is really tough. In this interview, she sheds some light on the challenging environments she’s faced, and continues to face as head of brand transformation for consultancy Digital Infusions. Adair explains the need for willing leadership and business appetite, and combating change-resistant culture and low budgets. (And why she wouldn’t have it any other way.)

 

Marketing: For a listed company where you’ve got public reporting every quarter, is that where a need for quick results is required?

Sacha Adair: Yes. With turnarounds the key challenge is the perceptions of the stakeholders which are, in most parts, not that positive, so they’ve only got the one chance to make it right because you’re already signifying change within the business.

And, we’re usually dealing with a really resistant culture, and not very big pockets, so you really need to focus within the business, look at the appetite of the business, and there’s a lot of change, there are a lot of starts and stops.

M: What is a typical timeline of a project you would work on?

SA: A good range is probably about a year and a half, to be honest. A year and a half to two years, because in the two major ones that I’ve done, we didn’t have a hard date where we said, ‘OK, so by 1 April everything needs to be transitioned.’ You just can’t do that if the appetite isn’t there within the business.

You kind of say, ‘We’ve worked six months on developing our strategy, another six months in regards to developing our identity and our launch strategy and then over the next nine or 12 months we’ll complete the full transition globally.’

M: So is that someone within every department? Is it always the heads of the department?

SA: It’s always the leadership team, always, you need them on board first. You won’t get far without them in that kind of environment, but also the marketing managers, you’ve got office managers, you’ve got graphic designers, coordinators, and that’s in each assignment and each region.

M: How did you get into the business of transformation?

SA: I got into marketing. It would have been only about 1994 I started working for One.Tel, and I saw One.Tel build its brand, which I thought was really exciting because I’ve always been quite creative, but quite strategic as well. I really love the engagement in leading and managing projects, so I got a taste of it there.

I went to a private college over a year and got my technical skills up and, from there, did marketing at Sydney University, and then went off to London and worked in the arts and an agency for a couple of years.

It was a venue agency, called Rooms Eleven, but it’s actually not operating anymore.

M: How was that international experience?

SA: I loved it. [There’s] a completely different culture over there. I worked at the Serpentine Gallery, the premier public gallery in London. Amazing people, a completely different culture, and then going on to the small venue/agency and I was launching that and then went on to the high-end events market in London.

M: So that was a bit of a turnaround in itself, was it?

SA: Yes, definitely. And even just working high-end in London, I met some amazing artists and designers and businesspeople. I was introduced to a whole new crowd.

M: What did it contribute to your career development?

Relationships are key. After I got Serpentine Gallery on my CV, the small, luxury venues that I worked at, as soon as they saw that they kind of knew the calibre of people that I had worked with, and [that] set me up.

M: And it was back to Australia after that?

SA: Yes, it was, and I worked for an ad agency. It was called Tour Hosts (it’s Arinex now), and I headed up the sponsorship department there.

Then I went on board at Transfield for a three- month contract. They’d been around for about 50 years and survived on reputation alone. They had no marketing framework, so the work that I started off doing there was to build the marketing framework for the resources and energy business.

M: From scratch?

SA: Yes, and help increase brand awareness and client experience with regards to the resources and energy business.

Then they got a new CEO on board with strategy. They didn’t have a corporate marketing team and they knew they had to reposition because our services became commoditised. So, due to our success in setting up the framework for the business unit, they asked me to step up and do that at a corporate level.

That’s where I got into brand transformation at a global level.

The project for Transfield, we had ‘red light, green light’ all the time because we would go to launch and then something would happen in the market and we would have to hold back, so you become really resilient.

M: Was that a useful environment to be exposed to for other times in your career?

SA: It completely changed from the day I started until the day I left Transfield, which is predominantly a male industry as well. So from working in the arts in London, you can imagine working for an engineering firm in Australia would be very different.

I can honestly say that the toughest environment of work can also be the most rewarding as well, because I can see how I’ve changed, and how I’ve become more resilient and have grown through challenge and opportunity.

M: What did you find the biggest challenge? Was it the gender issue or something else?

SA: Yes, probably, and that was a really tough culture as well because they were about to go into turnaround.

I think it was more on my own perception of working in an environment that was mainly male dominated and me growing as a person to be able to speak up and lead change within that environment.

Being a key player in a turnaround for a business of that size is hard enough anyway, but being a woman makes it a little bit harder. But you learn through all of that, so I really enjoy it now.

M: Is there any advice you would give yourself at the start of your career, if you could?

SA: If I could tell myself anything? Well, I think I’ve always said to people, when I was young enough if I had realised the opportunity that working for a multinational company would give me, I probably would have started off in a multinational.

M: How do you mean ‘opportunity’?

SA: Well, just being able to go and work in other parts of the world, or move up through the business.

For me, I haven’t always chased the dollar; I’ve looked for opportunities that will align with what I’m passionate about and that will help my growth from a personal and professional perspective.

I kind of stepped up through my career without being financially rewarded, but I saw the end game, which is what I’ve got now. If I was to say – I mentor a few Gen Ys as well – just to look for the opportunities and grab them.

M: Even if it’s not a pay rise?

SA: Yes, the minute you can see the end game, that those opportunities will create, for me personally, it hasn’t always been about the dollar. I mean, it would have been great if [there were] financial rewards, but I [looked] where these opportunities would lead, so I took them, and now I’m being rewarded from many different angles.

I think, as well, these days you really need to be genuine and always have the best intent for the greater good and for the company, not for yourself.

I don’t know, there are some suppliers that we do business with now and they’ve got that kind of ’90s hardball sales approach, which puts boundaries up. I think these days, if you’re really genuine and you feel the collaboration and engagement and whatever you’re doing within the brand will make it relevant to the audience, whether it’s internal or external, you’re going to be successful.

M: If we talk about career highs and lows, are there ones that stand out for you?

SA: Definitely. The two global rebrands that I’ve done, and they weren’t for sexy brands.

I was in a workshop the other day and there was someone on stage saying they worked for a really well-known brand and so he was headhunted. This guy was interviewing this person who was sitting back and was quite cocky because of the brand he worked for – it was one of the world’s leading ones – and the guy interviewing him was saying, “Well, what makes you so good? You work for a brand that everybody wants.”

I haven’t worked for those really sexy brands that are really easy to sell. I’ve worked for globally listed companies that are in turnaround, and are really, really tough. You’ve got one chance to get it right, you’ve got a really resistant culture, not much money, and you’ve got to spend a lot of time getting it right internally before you can start communicating it externally. So, for me, being a key player and turning those two global businesses around were two of the most challenging things I’ve done, but also the most rewarding.

M: Is that part of your personality, to take on the big challenges?

SA: Yes, I’ve got this little motto: ‘If it doesn’t challenge you it won’t grow you.’

I’ve been thinking about that for years, and I even still think of it today.

And then obviously this opportunity with Digital Infusions – a lot of companies or agencies that work in the digital space predominantly focus on building the digital brand, and digital marketing capabilities, but we’re across the whole business, so I think that’s something that really makes us stand out from the crowd.

M: And low points in your career? Any things you learned the hard way that you wish you had known beforehand?

SA: Not that I wished that I had known beforehand, but stepping into different industries, like from working in the arts to going into blue collar engineering, male-dominated, that was challenging, but that was just because I had been used to working in different industries.

Chopping up industries through my career has been challenging because you have to deal with different mindsets, different cultures, whether it be male dominated or divas working in the arts, but because I’ve had the good, the bad and the ugly, it allows a real awareness of adjusting to working with different people. The most challenging things have ended up the most rewarding, because I could also see the growth in myself.

M: Coming into Transfield, how long did it take before you were comfortable or felt at home?

SA: Probably a good year or two, but I think what I was really fortunate about is that I’ve worked with the leadership teams from the day that I started, so I kind of started at that top level and I began to realise that it wasn’t that hard, people are people.

When I used to go into meetings, as soon as they started talking technical about engineering I felt like I couldn’t contribute, but then when I spoke to someone about it they said, ‘It’s like cats and dogs, you’re not employed to be an engineer; you’re employed to get their brand to market,’ and it finally clicked. It was on that that I felt comfortable in my role, but as soon as I started developing those relationships, at that leadership level as well, and knowing I had that support.

There are still times where you get very, very strong personalities, but you learn how to deal with them and mostly they just want to be listened to, so you’ve just got to give them time to vent.

M: What keeps you going when things aren’t going well?

SA: Just the end game. You need to keep your eye on the end game, which is always when the company reaches its vision or strategy. More often than not things change and the plan that you created doesn’t always go in the direction that you want, but you just take a step back and iterate and evolve your processes.

One thing I keep hearing in the digital space is about ‘failing fast’, but getting up just as quickly. The really good thing about the space as well is that everybody is learning together, so everyone is really open to having conversations and being transparent, and that allows you to dig in deeper and develop solutions that are more meaningful and more relevant for your clients.

M: Failing fast: is it possible to sell that to, say, the leadership of a global listed company?

SA: You would need to reword it. It really is like, ‘we iterate and evolve’.

We’re just doing up a digital adoption journey framework to be presented to a board, and I’ve included ‘iterate and evolve’ rather than ‘fail fast and get back up’.

M: I can imagine ‘fail’ is not a great word to use.

SA: No, no, that’s just between you and me.

M: You spoke of ‘the end game’ – is there a main goal in your career that you are aiming for?

SA: I think for me, I’ve always wanted to see how successful I could become, and that always changes. I’ve been doing brand and marketing for 20-odd years now and learned a lot about digital in the last year or two.

The thing that’s been really exciting for me is that I can still use that brand and marketing knowledge that I’ve got, that digital taps in so well to, and it’s pretty exciting and it’s really new and it’s the fastest growing technology in human history, so you can’t afford to not see the opportunity.

That’s why I think it’s a really exciting space to be in. There is a lot of opportunity for us and for us helping companies on their digital change journey. It’s just really exciting, and it’s fun. I’m loving it.

 

Peter Roper
BY Peter Roper ON 16 July 2014
Editor of Marketing Magazine and Marketingmag.com.au