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So You Want My Job: Digitas’s Dani Bassil who ‘feels like a proud mother’

The Drum 22 Jun 2021 12:00

Welcome to So You Want My Job? Each week we ask the people working in some of the industry’s coolest jobs about how they got where they are. Along the way, we dig into their philosophies, inspirations, processes and experiences. Hopefully, our interviewees can inspire you to pursue (or create) a job that’s just as exciting. This week we talk to Dani Bassil, chief executive of Digitas UK.

What did you want to be when you growing up? Does your job now resemble that in any way?

A politician. I wanted to change the world. In the 80s there was a huge environmental issue that was felt very acutely in Australia, about CO2 and the ozone layer (and the big hole in it above the country itself). We all had to stop using aerosols and change our fridges to different technology. We were all terrified of skin cancer; it was a frightening situation. I thought when I got to be a grown-up I would help.

I do think to some degree that there are aspects of being a politician in my job, by taking everybody’s perspective into account, managing the tussle between client demands, what people want, what different groups want, what the business needs – and all on an hourly basis. Obviously it’s not the same, but there are definitely some parallels. But I have too many drunken stories now to be a politician.

I’ve been told many times that I didn’t take a normal path to becoming a chief executive officer. In our industry, it’s usually account director to managing director to chief exec, whereas I came through the production and project management route. I’ve come up against many obstacles along the way and been told 100 times that I’d never get to managing director or above because I’m not a salesy suit. The silos in our own industry really need to be eradicated – anyone can do anything if they put their mind to it, regardless of role or department.

I came to the UK after six or seven years (I’d just split up with a boyfriend of ten years and had only six months before I hit the age limit for a work visa so it was a quick decision) and worked at Mother and Wiedens as a senior project manager and then I was part of the reinvigoration of Grey as head of operations. My most defining role was probably at Wiedens, because I learned there that I had to always be on my game. I was working with the best talent on the planet and I had to be as incredible as everyone else; I learned how to build amazing teams and that if you have a great team you can do anything.

When I came in as chief operating officer at Digitas I was blown away by the capability of the agency and the people. There was a lot of change at the agency and when I was offered the chief exec role I bit their arm off. We’ve come a long way over the last three years: we’re now one of the best places to work in the UK.

In reality, I would describe it as being a coach. My job is to help our team be brilliant and achieve what they need to achieve, and a big part of that is unlocking obstacles for them. I also advise clients on the best way to help their businesses grow.

Leadership is about providing a group of people and clients with somewhere to go and something to achieve – as well as to grow and make money. I had no senior leadership for the first six months while I made the decisions about where the business should go and who we needed to hire to build the right team. The opportunity I had is so rare – to work out how the business could grow, what the future could be, and then hire the people who could fit together to make it happen. They all got to meet each other and see if they wanted to go on the same journey.

They have no idea. But I’m sure they’re very proud of me anyway.

I love that I don’t get Sunday night-itis. I really look forward to coming to work. I love the team, the clients, the agency. I love helping clients navigate this crazy, complicated world and helping everyone to do their jobs better. I am constantly blown away by the talent and the incredible passion that everyone in the business has, and that they bring to everything that they do. I feel like a proud mother.

What’s great about now, as opposed to when I started out, is that the whole ‘you have to be this to do that’ has mostly gone away. The reason I did well is because I didn’t think like a project manager or a head of operations. I thought about the whole business and how it all fits together – what clients need, how to articulate that, how to motivate people to come along on that journey with you. If you are passionate, dedicated and smart, and you understand how to navigate the new world, see the opportunities and go for them, you can get to wherever you want to go.

What would you say is the trait that best suits you for your role?

I had some of this in me to start with, but I’ve been coached by incredible people along the way. I’ve learned the importance of resilience and I’ve seen how not being resilient eats away at people and their egos. It’s really important to have a level head and to roll with the punches.

Who should those who want your job read or listen to?

Last week we talked to Jack Koch, Reddit’s global head of marketing sciences.

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