“I’d like to inspire a movement to help people choose a more positive outlook”

With Daniel Thomas, the CEO of TimeZoneOne

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As humans we tend to err on the negative of people’s success. Michelle Obama made that famous statement of “When they go low, we go high,” and that is fundamentally what it’s all about. I say time and time again. look at the glass as being half full as opposed to half empty. That’s not anything that you read in a textbook, that’s something that you learn. You choose your attitude each and every day and I think that one of the biggest pieces of advice that I’ve been given and can give. I too have been guilty of looking at the glass being half empty, but look at it as being half-full and you’re going to have a calmer, more peaceful, more meaningful outlook on everything that you do, and I think that applies to business and life. I want to inspire people to choose a more positive outlook, and it starts with me.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Daniel Thomas, the CEO and Tourism Strategist of TimeZoneOne, a global creative communications agency with offices in Chicago, Toronto, and Christchurch, specializing in marketing destinations, attractions and adventures. Daniel is recognized as an international expert in destination marketing. He leads TimeZoneOne from Chicago, although he frequently returns to the office in New Zealand. Prior to joining TimeZoneOne, he was general manager at Chicago’s John Hancock Observatory, where he rejuvenated the brand. Before that, he held senior management positions at Air New Zealand. He holds key positions in the Chicago tourism and business community, including serving on the board of Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and recently co-chairing the Illinois Governor’s Conference on Tourism. His vast experience and connections and relationships in the destination marketing industry — both in New Zealand and internationally — have positioned him well as an influencer with valuable perspective to share on the tourism industry.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My career path has been hospitality through and through since I was a youngster. I got brought up in family hotels, restaurants, and I decided I really wanted to work in the airline business. So, I started working for Air New Zealand at the age of 17 and had a great career there where I learned most of my tourism skillset. I learned everything from sales, marketing, human resources, operations, in-flight services and service delivery. I then lived in New Zealand and went to work for Sky City Entertainment Group, which was a hospitality and casino operator in New Zealand, so, really, attractions have been a core part of my tourism career.

I happened to be presenting at a conference in Malaysia and met the new marketing director for The John Hancock Center. Long story short, I came up here to give them some marketing advice and, it ended with me falling in love with the city of Chicago and moving here permanently. I came to work in Chicago — moved in the dead of winter 2007- originally as the general manager for the John Hancock observatory.

TimeZoneOne (TZO) was an agency I had used for certain side projects and what really stuck out for me were the talented people and the quality and the creative and innovative thinking they have. TZO is for 25 years, but it really took off for me after my work with John Hancock Observatory. Had you rewound five years and said that I would now own a marketing, advertising and PR company, I would have probably laughed at anyone who suggested that. Now, I’m fortunate enough to lead this team and really a journey over the past 4–5 years. We have been evolving our business into the tourism and attraction space where we represent key businesses in the industry and ultimately tell their stories with a tourism focus. We also tell stories of brands like The Chicago Wolves, The Illinois Office of Tourism, amongst many other types of verticals.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I once won a partnership when someone leaned across the table and said “You’re the only agency that told me the truth and you didn’t dance around the negative. You actually told us that we had problems in our organization,” and we won the business as a result.

We were in a competitive situation with five or six other agencies. In the fourth conversation we actually did some market research with their clients. We sat down and had some lunches and asked about their brand and what they thought of their brand, and I would say about 50 percent of that was negative. I walked into the next meeting with this feedback, both positive and negative — mind you this was a new relationship — but the way I approach things is that businesses don’t generally partner with us because they want an agency in their life, they partner with us because they have a problem to solve and they can’t figure it out on their own.

The lesson I’ve learned being in the agency world, that there are a lot of agencies out there, there are a lot of brand-builders out there, there are a lot of people who build websites; there’s not a lot of agencies that truly have a transparent, open, and two-way relationship out there. That for me is the most important part of what we do.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I think that to actually be great at what you do you have to make mistakes every day. The key is that you learn from those mistakes and you don’t repeat them ever again. In the agency world, a big portion of what we do is about testing and learning. It’s almost like you try stuff and if it doesn’t work, or if you don’t get the result you want, you look at why then keep going. I like to think that we are in the business of making mistakes, and therefore we learn by them. There’s no silver bullet in marketing or advertising. You can have the best laid out plan, but then you can have an external that you hadn’t thought of, or that came up as a surprise or a change in the market that you have to adapt to.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

TZO has had a lot of learnings over the years. We started as a small agency in New Zealand that was seated around innovation and thinking outside the square and trying to push boundaries from a marketing and advertising agency perspective. TZO was lucky enough to be the agency of record when we first opened our US office for the US Army and Crocs Shoes.

We earned our stripes, so to speak, in the global market. That transition from a small New Zealand creative agency into a good, medium-sized agency that had global insights, and then into this phase that I have been working on over the past five years is really diversifying our business. The world of public relations, trade marketing, social media has become a gray area as it relates to traditional agency advertising. In my opinion, you can no longer do one without the other. You have to have a truly integrated strategy. We still build websites, we still develop really great, hard hitting brands, but fundamentally what we do out of integration is we tell stories.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We have a number of exciting project right now. We are in the midst of a 25th anniversary roll out for The Chicago Wolves, a professional hockey team in the American Hockey League. We have been their partner for four years now and we’re excited to be rolling out, really, the foundation of the next 25 years for them, but as we do that it’s also about acknowledging the successes and the wins they’ve had on and off the ice.

The second, from a personal perspective, having worked for Air New Zealand, was being able to support and help them with their inaugural flight that launch from Auckland to Chicago here in November.

We’re also working on a really great virtual reality project right now for The Illinois Office of Tourism. We are creating a virtual reality of Historic Route 66 and The Great River Road and we are going to be launching this in London in November. Our video team is all over the state right now producing Illinois Made videos, Illinois Bicentennial videos, it really is just a great, a very interesting time for us and there are a lot of great projects going on that are really diverse.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

The biggest advice that I can have is making sure you articulate your vision. As a CEO your teams look to you to be their visionary, to be that high-level thought leader, to set the tone, the voice, to include them and get them to understand that there is a bigger objective out there. The day-to-day work is a given and the reason that you hire, I always like to think I hire people smarter than me, and letting your people flourish and making sure that they buy into that big thinking. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned over the years, you have the vision, you’re the CEO you’re a high-level thinker, but with the people around you, if you don’t find a way to articulate and take them on that journey, if you don’t get them moving at the speed you’re moving at, then it falls flat for your employees and it becomes a lost opportunity.

What advice would you give to other CEOs about the best way to manage a large team?

The thing to be aware of, is that not everyone moves at the pace you move at. People learn differently they articulate differently, they retain information differently. So as a CEO you’ve got to learn that your management style is to be different for every single employee. You’ve got to make sure that people have been bought into that high-level vision and understand how they’re going to bring that vision to life. Once you understand that and you find some mutual ground there, you just have to make sure your employees are happy.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve had three really great mentors over my career and I’m not sure that they realize they were mentors to me when we were working together, but they taught me and set me up with the basis of the success I’ve had today. Janice Jenkins was an old manager from my Air New Zealand days when I got onto airport operations and she sort of saw something in me and the way that I thought that others didn’t at the time and she took a chance with me and I learned really a lot about running large operations and business operations. She taught me a lot about saying my bit and moving on, not holding onto grudges, but just articulating — if you’re disappointed, fine, be disappointed in the moment but then move on.

Paul McCloskey was another individual who really taught me how to articulate and to explain. He always was focused on the why — why are we doing this? I think that he was a hugely influential manager in my life and I think he taught me a lot, I was working in HR at the time, he taught me about the emotiveness side of managing people.

My third mentor was my late grandmother, she fundamentally was a businesswoman. Her and my grandfather were partners in business.. That was hugely inspiring and motivating for me and that’s where I learned a lot of the ground roots of business.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I thought about this question a lot. Candidly, I have not brought as much good to the world as I would like right now, but I strive to do more. TZO is on a journey to become a Certified B Corporation. It’s really about being the change that you want to see in the world.

You want to be kind to your people first and foremost, that’s both employees and your client partnerships. You also want to be kind to the world, the environment and the B Corporation certification is really about changing the DNA in an organization. There’s only about 380 certified companies globally. We’re aspiring to be that change and to do more good in our business. Fore me it’s important that whatever we do, and whatever we touch, is done in a way that’s respectful of people, client partnerships, the environment and and in turn being philanthropic and paying it forward to make sure the world is a kinder kind of place. I think that in today’s world it could go a long way.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Focus on what you are good at — You don’t need to be all things to all people. You don’t need to be good at everything, but be really great at a few things. Be honest with yourself regarding what you are good at as a CEO and don’t try to be something you are not.

Be aware of your faults — For those things you aren’t good at, well that is why you build an entire organization. Let someone else be great, especially in those areas you personally struggle or lack.

Don’t sweat the small stuff — As hard as it is to do, you really need to remember that it is easy to get caught up in the minutia and worry. You can’t change the things you can’t change. But you can counteract them and plan around them.
Slow down and have regular check-ins with your employees — If you asked one of my people if that was the case they would probably laugh and say you know I’m not so sure he’s a bit of a control freak. I’m a control freak when I have a vision, can see it clearly, but I don’t see that vision being executed and implemented. You’ve got to recap the game plan and make sure you truly are on the same page.

Keep your ultimate success in mind– When you think boldly and you are required to have a strategic mindset and it’s all about what success looks like. I spend a lot of time asking our clients and our employees “Why are you doing what you’re doing for this client right now?” If you’re writing a brief, or you’re building a website or you’re drafting a press release, what does ultimate success look like if you were to achieve your goals with this mission? If you can answer that and what you’re doing contributes to getting you to the end goal, then you’re absolutely on track.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

As humans we tend to err on the negative of people’s success. Michelle Obama made that famous statement of “When they go low, we go high,” and that is fundamentally what it’s all about. I say time and time again. look at the glass as being half full as opposed to half empty. That’s not anything that you read in a textbook, that’s something that you learn. You choose your attitude each and every day and I think that one of the biggest pieces of advice that I’ve been given and can give. I too have been guilty of looking at the glass being half empty, but look at it as being half-full and you’re going to have a calmer, more peaceful, more meaningful outlook on everything that you do, and I think that applies to business and life. I want to inspire people to choose a more positive outlook, and it starts with me.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Don’t doubt yourself” is wildly important to me, because if you doubt yourself others will. You have to be confident in whatever it is that you’re doing. Off of that I would also say “Don’t let education be the main driver of your career.” I’ve been in the fortunate position of being of recruiting for different skill sets, and I will say that attitude wins someone their job over education. I have gotten jobs that I have not necessarily been qualified for on paper, but I got them because my attitude and my approach and my outlook is stronger than the candidate with the technical ability to do the job. You can teach people the technical skills, but you can’t teach them attitude.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

Look, I’d love to have a one-on-one sit down with Richard Branson. I was fortunate enough to be part of a team that helped him launch his inaugural service into Detroit from London. So, I was fortunate enough to be a part of a team that was with him for two or three days. I didn’t take the opportunity to sit down with him and actually have a one-on-one conversation with him, which I still kick myself for. He is one person that I would love to sit down and chat with. There’s probably two other US people, Tim Cook is one of those people. I think Tim has a style, a calmness about him in his leadership style, he obviously has the smarts, and he’s someone who I’d love to sit down with.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can learn more about TimeZoneOne by checking out our website and social media channels.

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