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Bossing It: Why Honesty Is the Best Policy with Winston Binch


GALE's chief brand and experience officer on leading by example, learning to focus frustrations and why leadership is a journey, not a destination

Bossing It: Why Honesty Is the Best Policy with Winston Binch

Winston is chief brand and experience officer of GALE, AdAge’s 2021 Data & Analytics Agency of the Year, where he leads the brand, creative, and experience design team. GALE brings business strategy to brand storytelling and activates it across every channel. He works with companies like the NBA, Chipotle, Seagate, MilkPEP, Pella, Santander, Bain Capital, H&R Block, and many others across categories.

Over the last 20 plus years, he’s helped countless global brands tell their stories in innovative ways and advised them on the marketing potential of the digital age including Domino’s, Michaels, American Express, Target, Burger King, Nike, Vail Resorts, Taco Bell, Pandora, AB-InBev, and Volkswagen. Prior to joining GALE, Winston was a brand consultant, chief digital officer of Deutsch North America, and a partner at CPB. 

He has won 45 Cannes Lions including three Titanium lions and three Grand Prix awards. He was named one of the 100 People Who Make Advertising Great by the 4A’s, and Adweek recognised him as one of the 50 Most Indispensable Executives in Marketing, Media and Tech. An industry pioneer, Winston is known for his ability to grow brands through creativity and marketing innovation and transform large scale businesses and organisations.

He's cofounder of the M-School: Institute of Marketing at LMU and an emeritus board member of Protect Our Winters, a non-profit dedicated to fighting the climate crisis. He used to play guitar in touring indie rock band, Stereobate.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Winston> I was co-captain of my 9th grade ice hockey team. My approach was to work hard and lead by example, but I also tried to keep it fun and made room for laughs. I take leadership seriously, but levity can be a disarming way to inspire others to follow your lead.

LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn't want to be?

Winston> I'm still figuring it out. I don't think you ever really master it. You're always trying to improve. But there was never one archetype. I modelled my approach after my dad, teachers, coaches, colleagues, clients, and bosses. A common trait with all of them was having a bias towards action. They were visionary in their own way but also capable of making hard things happen with a hands-on approach.

A former colleague once called me 'a wartime general.' I'm a Ulysses S. Grant fan, so that's a compliment, but it's also a one-dimensional and intense way to lead. As I've gotten older, I've become more influenced by people like author and former FBI negotiator Chris Voss. I have tried to get better at leading by listening and being a more empathetic. In my experience, the best leaders are the best listeners. There's a great book called Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz that also got me thinking about the power of listening. Thanks for the recommendation, Kip Voytek.

LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?

Winston> Leadership is about many things, but selflessness is near the top. Great leaders put people and purpose before everything, including their own interests. When I was 17, I spent seven weeks outside of Budapest building an orphanage and learned that lesson. My father also volunteered for the Red Cross when I was growing up. That made an impression. 

LBB> Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?

Winston> No. I wanted to make a creative living. I started in music and then got into marketing. Leadership wasn't the objective. I stepped up and assumed it was because others around me weren't. I wanted to be helpful and move projects forward. Selfishly, I wanted our ideas to reach the world. Over time that ended up putting me in leadership roles. It was probably during my time at R/GA, working on Nike, that I realised I had it in me. My background in competitive sports probably helped. I've also always been attracted to performance cultures with leadership expectations. But you don't need a title to lead. Anyone can do it. Leadership can and should come from all levels of your organisation. 

LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?

Winston> It can be learned, but it helps if you grew up competing in something. I have two friends on debate teams, and both are industry leaders. It doesn't have to be sports. Drama and performance art are also great tools to help unlock leadership potential. Being a leader requires you to put yourself out there. Getting comfortable speaking in front of strangers is important. I'm naturally shy. My experience not just in sports but acting and music was an asset. I'm the quiet one at most parties but am relaxed on stage. I enjoy it. Take improv classes or encourage your company to provide them. Toastmasters is also an excellent program to improve your public speaking and leadership skills.

LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?

Winston> One of my mentors once told me, "Winston, I know it's hard but don't get negative in front of your team. Particularly about clients. It's contagious. You set the tone and have more influence than you think. Keep it positive. They look to you for guidance when it comes to facing adversity." When you're passionate about an idea or project and things go sideways, it can be difficult to keep it together. It's also unrealistic to think that you won't get upset as a leader. I find this sometimes challenging. If I do get upset, I try to focus my frustration at the problem, not the person. But it's true. Positivity is the right path, and it's the calm who survive, an idea that Laurence Gonzales lays out in Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. I try to keep this in mind and go into meetings with the intention of being a better listener. Some days I'm more successful than others. 

LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?

Winston> All the time. When you screw up, the only solution is to own it, apologise, move forward, and course correct as best you can. Honesty is the only policy. We all make mistakes.  

LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what's your approach there? Do you think it's important to be transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?

Winston> I value all these things, but the mission is always the priority. Depending on what it is, the approach can vary. The common thread is collaboration. As a leader, you're always trying to get people to collaborate and effectively problem-solve together. Sometimes the best way to do it is through transparency. Sometimes it's focusing your team only on what they need to know. It depends on the problem, the environment, and the people in the room. 

LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?

Winston> I've had many mentors, beginning with my father. He taught me the value of selflessness. My high school English teacher, Jeff Scanlon, taught me to fulfil my commitments and not to be late (I'm still working on the latter). One of my first bosses, Lisa Stevens, the former head of marketing at Sony Classical, showed me how to navigate Corporate America and first got me excited about marketing. Bob Greenberg taught me the importance of empathy and patience when it comes to managing creative people. Alex Bogusky helped me find my creative confidence, learn to ask interesting questions and shape ideas. 

Mike Sheldon, the former Deutsch CEO, taught me that it's not just about how smart or creative you are. It's also how you make people feel. He also told me that I should smile more. As an introvert, I can come across as aloof. To lead effectively, it helps to be warm and welcoming. My current boss, Brad Simms, the founder of GALE, has challenged me to embrace next-level collaboration and ditch standard creative management models.

The list goes on. The great thing is that there's always something to learn and mentorship goes both ways. I've managed hundreds of people throughout my career. I've learned just as much or more from many of them. That continues to this day. I'm a big believer in hiring smarter than you. It pushes you and your company forward.


LBB> It's been a really challenging year - and that's an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?

Winston> The last couple of years have certainly been challenging and uncertain, but I didn't radically change my leadership approach. I made an extra and concerted effort to check-in on people, gave team members time if they needed it, and put a greater emphasis on ensuring that everyone had a voice, but I largely kept the focus on the work. That paid off. During this period, GALE grew from 200 to 650 people. 

Part of the reason for this is that I could. GALE is a global, culture and values-driven agency. We had values before we had a website. We're not perfect, but inclusivity and compassion are woven into the DNA of the place. Since we have a single global P&L, video conferences were not new to us. We already knew how to work together virtually across time zones. Like all companies, the experience changed us and forced us to adapt and innovate, but we were more ready for the moment than most.

LBB> This year has seen the industry confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?

Winston> First, by listening and trying to better understand the experiences of my Black and diverse colleagues. I also read. One of the books I picked up was Stamped from the Beginning: The History of Racist Ideas in America. It not only taught me new things but changed my view about many significant events and popular figures in American history. It also made me understand the critical difference between being non-racist and antiracist and the latter's importance in moving us towards a post-racial society. It's one thing not to support a harmful and hurtful idea, it's another to fight against it actively. 

This inspired me to act. As a global company, inclusivity and diversity has been a priority at GALE since day one. 'Everyone Matters' is one of our core values. But frankly, you can never be good enough. I met with my creative leadership team, which includes Geoff Edwards, one of the founders of Saturday Morning, an organisation that fights racial bias and injustice, and we made hiring more diverse candidates our number one priority when it comes to talent. We still have a ways to go, but the extra intentionality and focus helped. You need to discuss your goal and work on it regularly to make change happen. The pandemic was difficult but forced positive innovation, particularly around this issue.

LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely in 2020?

Winston> Company culture is the most important thing. As I mentioned before, we had values before we had a website, and they're not just words in a deck. They're an integral part of the GALE experience. We have a rigorous and thorough annual performance review process. Everyone in the organisation is evaluated through the lens of our values, which include, Masters of Our Craft, Friends Collaborating, No Silos, Passion is Not Optional, Be Creative, Build a Legacy, and Everyone Matters. Whether or not you get a raise or get promoted is determined by how well you perform against our company values.

It's not easy to establish, maintain, and evolve your culture when you're working virtually, but having clear values and measuring everyone against them has been an essential driver of our growth. I encourage all companies to take their values seriously. Make them a part of your review process and be consistent. Put them everywhere so that they're seen. Common language, expectations, and repetition is the best strategy to developing a strong culture.

LBB> What are the most useful resources you've found to help you along your leadership journey?

Winston> There are various things that I do to keep learning. I meet with mentors and masterminds when I can. I ask for advice and help. That includes my wife. She's incredibly creative and wise. I read history and business books and listen to podcasts while I'm on bike rides or runs. I find transcendental meditation useful to help me work through problems. 

I also take part in mentorship programs like Creative Futures, where I can work with emerging talent and learn from them. I also meet regularly with my creative leadership team. There's also a lot you can learn from your people if you listen more, talk less. 

Like life, leadership is a journey, not a destination. The leaders I admire get this. They're constantly looking for ways to up their game. To get smarter, legendary producer Brian Grazer meets people with specialised knowledge outside his field of understanding weekly. He wrote a book about his process called A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life. Use all the tools you can find and stay curious.

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