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Tips From The Top: One On One With Jean-Marie Dru

I spoke to TBWA Worldwide Chairman and President of UNICEF France Jean-Marie Dru, author of the new book Thank You For Disrupting, about his journey and best advice

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Jean-Marie: Thank you to Thrive Global for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts.

Well, I was 20 in the sixties. So, with the exception of Jimi Hendrix, I went to see live concerts of all the major rock bands, including the Beatles, twice. It is through music that I opened up myself to the world and felt being part of what was going on.

Adam: How did you get here? What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth and success?

Jean-Marie: I became CEO of Young & Rubicam France (an agency of 300 people) when I was 30. I was so young at the time and I made a huge number of mistakes, which is the best way to learn. Later, in 1984, I co-created an advertising agency in Paris. It became very successful in Europe. Then we made the mistake of acquiring the 3rd largest agency in New York. Too large for us. If we consider that one has to go through the worst to get to the best, then I’ve done it. Omnicom came to our rescue. And a totally new story began.

Adam: How did you coin the term disruption within context of business? Does it bother you that it seems to be used ad nauseum now or do you get a kick out of it?

Jean-Marie: My agency’s philosophy, back in the eighties, was called in French ‘stratégie de rupture.’ When we became international, we chose the word “Disruption.” It was the first time the word was being used in the business world. So, we trademarked the word because we used it to name our methodology, the Disruption methodology. It’s our way of working and being. It’s who we are. And that’s why we define ourselves as The Disruption Company.

By a twist of irony, the word, as you correctly point out, is now overused for anything and everything. And I would even say that it’s quite often misused.

For many, disruption means destruction. Not for us at TBWA. We gave the word a positive meaning. We talk about disruptive strategies, disruptive ideas, disruptive business models. This is what disruption is all about for us.

And, obviously I don’t get a kick out of the fact that so many are misusing the word.

Adam: How can leaders build a culture that engenders disruption? How can entrepreneurs build disruptive businesses?

Jean-Marie: They have to stop thinking incrementally. To avoid moving progressively, step by step. They have to make strategic leaps, and they should not hesitate to jump into the unknown.

In order to do that, they have to follow their intuition. Deduction creates nothing. Intuition can help create everything.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Jean-Marie: They need to have an overarching quality which is the ability to bring clarity. Great leaders clarify what is vital and what is less so.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Jean-Marie:

  • Success has little to do with being right.
  • Writing helps you understand your own thoughts.
  • Be the change you want to see in the world (this last one is a lesson from Mahatma Gandhi).

Adam: What are your three best tips pertaining to marketing, advertising and branding?

Jean-Marie:

  • Avoid sequential thinking, that is putting strategy first and execution second. It has become irrelevant. Today, business relies on a constant back and forth between the two.
  • Don’t be afraid of making more mistakes. Because as the company grows, the size of the mistakes has to grow as well (this one is from Jeff Bezos).
  • Make your company a driver of social change. I strongly believe that in the future, companies will be the most powerful platforms for social change.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Jean-Marie: It comes from William Faulkner: “Don’t bother to be better than your contemporaries or your predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” 

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Jean-Marie: Leave it better than you found it. Everyone should contribute, in his or her own humble level, to the collective effort of repairing the planet. There’s no such thing as a small action.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you as a leader?

Jean-Marie: I am a huge sports fan. I have played several different sports and I also usually read a lot about sports. So, I know that there is often very little distance between losing and winning. And I’ve learned it the hard way. 

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