“Creative without strategy is art” – CEO Q&A: Gillian Horan, The Pudding

By Business & Finance
18 March 2020

Gillian Horan is CEO and Chief Brand Strategist of The Pudding. The Pudding is a full service brand agency working closely with corporate brands, non-profit organisations and personal brands both nationally and internationally. The company’s aim is to partner with clients to gain clarity on their brand, focusing on the impact branding has on the bottom line.

What are the main priorities and goals in your role?

For myself and for The Pudding, successfully building our clients’ brands is always our number one priority. This is what drives the company. We’re very focused on the current and future business challenges facing our clients to ensure we’re always adding as much value as possible.

Internally, it’s important for us to continue to grow and scale internationally and build a strong team. In this context, focusing on our own brand is hugely important for us. We believe in practicing what we preach; a strong brand is central to the success of any business.

What are your biggest challenges as CEO?

I’ve always been a big believer in the value of having the right team, so the challenge for us has been to build a team of people that work well together, really grow and develop their roles and careers, and drive the success of the company as a whole.

As well as that, one issue I’ve dealt with over the years is changing the perception of brand in the boardroom. Business leaders sometimes don’t take this as seriously as they might other aspects, like finance. A lot of what drives us at The Pudding is challenging this viewpoint and showing the impact of brand in a very real sense, and it’s been great to see more and more CEOs maximising the commercial opportunities around this.

 How do you keep your team/staff motivated?

One of the main things is that everyone’s input is valued – we always let the team know what’s happening with the business, our goals for the future and our strategy so that everyone is really involved in different aspects of The Pudding. We put a lot of work into maintaining open and honest communication, whether that’s around solving business or creative problems or just checking up on each other. We also make a point of investing in our people and encouraging ongoing training, networking and getting involved in the industry. The Pudding is a learning environment after all. We encourage lateral knowledge sharing among the team, and peer-to-peer collaboration and mentoring is really important to us. Basically we try to build the kind of atmosphere that makes everyone want to come to work every day.

What are the challenges facing the industry going forward?

One of the key challenges facing a lot of industries today is the war on talent – great talent is so hard to find, there’s so much competition, and so companies really need to prioritise this if they want to build a strong team.

To be more specific about the industry, there are new challenges facing the agency model, particularly as bigger corporates take more work in-house. Client expectations continue to rise. The new paradigm is delivering work that’s contextually and commercial relevant to the client’s end customers. At The Pudding we are shaking up the traditional agency model by creating a more collaborative, partnership-based model of working with clients focused on delivering tangible business outcomes.

What new trends are emerging in your industry?

We have been seeing a change in recent years with more and more CEOs and Boards of Directors talking about the financial impact of brand. This is a really positive change for us and it changes the success trajectory for companies who really embrace it.

Gillian Horan, CEO, The Pudding

Are there any major changes you would like to see in your sector?

I would like to see a much sharper commercial focus from agencies. One of the reasons creative is often undervalued is because agencies really need to delve deep into the dynamics and drivers of a business, and their customers, to create great creative. Creative without strategy is art. For me this is one of the biggest challenges – and the biggest opportunities facing our sector.

In Ireland, compared to somewhere like the US, branding is seen as a ‘one-off’ or project-based activity, when really it should be an ongoing process. It should be integrated into your processes the same way as finance or HR. It also needs to be on the agenda from daily team meetings to the board room and back again. Without a more consistent focus on brand, companies will fall down when it comes to achieving their goal, and so I think it’s for CEOs, CFOs. Also, for creative directors and other industry partners, to really ground creative in the commercial dynamics of a business.

As an employer are you finding any skill gaps in the market?

We do put a lot of emphasis on training and developing people – everybody comes with different skills. We focus on training all team members to think both creatively and commercially, as the connection between these two aspects is really the core of our business. Whether that’s training our Brand Partners or Account Managers in creative direction or training designers in business strategy, that kind of complementary skillset is critical, but difficult to find out there in the marketplace.

How did your strategy develop in the context of the banking crisis and economic crisis?

While we’re very grateful to have an exciting client portfolio, we’re still just a young company ourselves – 2020 is our fifth year in business. For me the interesting thing about cycles is that those businesses that continue to grow see things differently when it comes to brand. They see it as an intrinsic part of their business rather than a support/cost function. They confidently invest in building a long-term brand asset. This mindset is one of the core elements of their success.

How will Brexit affect you, or have you started to feel the effects already?

We are seeing some effects of Brexit, but it’s more for our clients than ourselves at the moment. It hasn’t had an impact for us yet, but we do see increased anticipation around the specifics of the final EU trade agreement, and Northern Ireland border implications. Although it has to be said a lot of our international clients are in the US, so Brexit is less of an issue in that sense.

How do you define success and what drives you to succeed?

I would define success as making an impact for our clients. This is our reason for being. We want change the dial when it comes to businesses measuring the value of brand. The Economist recently reported that brands account for more than 30% of the stock market value of the top 500 companies in the US. That’s huge. This is a change that’s happening right now, and we want to be a part of driving it, in Ireland and beyond.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given, or would give, in business?

It’s a classic one, but “trust your gut” is always something I come back to. As CEO, I think it’s really important to trust your intuition, whether it’s in relation to the people you hire, the decisions you make, and the risks you take or don’t take. Validate, but don’t be afraid to have confidence in your own sense of direction.

 What have been your highlights in business over the past year?

Internally one of the highlights has been growing the team. This is something we’ve been working on for a while and it feels great to be in such a good place right now with the right people on board. There will always be people out there, but the real question for us has always been: Are they right for The Pudding, and are we right for their growth and development? Now we have a team that I feel is really progressing us as a company and it’s been really positive for us.

In terms of client work, we ran a successful activation campaign for Nursing Homes Ireland, following our rebrand of their organisation. It was really great to be able to bring that brand to life and continue to develop an exciting longer-term partnership.

Lastly, during this past year we launched our own executive event series. So far we’ve hosted some wonderful speakers from very high-profile companies such as Woodie’s, Colgate, and Jaguar. It has been brilliant to facilitate this kind of round-table knowledge exchange with our peers, partners and clients. And we’re sure there’s plenty more to come.

What’s next for your company?

We’ll continue to grow the company, nationally and internationally, and we’ll grow the team in tandem with this. We also have an exciting partnership deal on the horizon which should lead to some interesting things for The Pudding. Overall, we’re feeling very positive about where we are and where we’re going, and we’re excited about what the future will bring for us and for our clients.