IRS+ Leaders Questions with Christina Duff

Welcome to IRS+ Leaders Questions! The interview series with a difference, where Peter Smyth, CEO of IRS+, interviews media industry leaders while putting them (and himself!) completely out of their comfort zone.

In this episode, Peter Smyth is joined by Christina Duff, Managing Director of Core Investment.

Peter and Christina discuss problem solving in the media industry. They talk about the importance of staying authentic, asking questions, leaning on the experts and much more… All while playing Jenga!

Watch the full IRS+ Leaders Questions interview now or read more below.

Peter: Right! What’s the most important lesson you’ve ever learned in your career?

Christina: In life, I say, ‘beat to the sound of your own drum.’ From a business point of view, always be authentic, stay true to yourself, and go with your gut feeling.

Peter: Have you ever felt that trying to stick to that has been difficult over the years, like sometimes you’re under pressure to be someone you’re not?

Christina: Yes, you can be under pressure to feel like you need to be somebody that you’re not. There are all walks of life that work with us. But it’s important to be honest, authentic, and just bring out your true self. If that’s not your best, then I don’t know what is.

Peter: Our environment is fast paced. Have you ever rushed into something you’ve regretted and learned from it?

Christina: Back yourself, you know? Go with your gut feel, and it’s scary sometimes because people are more senior to you. But we’re all human at the end of the day. So, if that person is 9 out of 10 times right, there is one time that they might be wrong. So, if you fundamentally think something’s wrong, challenge it. I’ve learned to back myself more in these situations.

Peter: I agree. I’ve learned all my best lessons from the worst situations and I’ve been in some of those over the years where if it feels right it is right usually is how I feel about things and I have messed up plenty of times. And I’m in the industry now about 17 years, CEO for over 10 years and there’s probably things that I’ve learned a lot over the years that I feel I know back to front. How do you stay curious in your role?

Christina: I’m in this role nearly two years, and I’ve learnt a huge amount in those two years. But before that, I’ve been in advertising for over 16 years and before that, I was in retail. So, I’ve learned a lot along the way. But I think, you have to just keep asking questions, just ask the questions. Like we work in Core Investment, but there’s like strategy, there’s media teams, there’s planning and all that has to happen before Core Investment get their hands on things so ask the why and the what

Peter: Do you ever get afraid of asking questions in a crowded room, thinking well, I’m MD, I probably should know all of this now or do you think it’s a good thing to ask to give other people a bit of courage in the room or what way does the culture work?

Christina: Well, I think it goes back to being authentic. You have to be your authentic self. If I don’t know the answer, someone else might know the answer. So just ask it. Even if you think it sounds stupid. Just ask the question because there’s somebody else that might not know either. And like I said, I started in retail, moved to advertising, worked in print, radio, out of home. I jumped over to TV, and got into digital. Just keep learning and roll your sleeves up.

Just in terms of your peer group, with that amount of experience, does it lend yourself for you training your staff? Like if you have all this experience in print and radio, any of the things that you’ve done over the career, do you find it that much easier to impart your knowledge? The best people I’ve ever worked with, the mentors, they usually have had this significant amount of expertise in certain areas so, as much as they know how to manage, they know the product as well or they know the ins and outs and they’re able rhyme off answers. Have you found that it’s good for training staff, because that’s obviously a big thing when you’re a leader.

Christina: It’s definitely good to have an oversight of everything, but you can’t be an expert in everything and that’s what I found. And I think it’s really important to lean on the experts and build your team around people who know absolutely what they’re doing and trust them. Empower them to be the experts and to show your team, as well as you, that you’re the safety net behind your team. So let them do the work, whatever they want to do, be the experts, but of something goes wrong, you’re there as the layer of support to figure out why they went wrong and how they can do it better next time.

Peter: As a relatively new leader, for a couple of years, comparing myself, the most difficult transition for me at the start was delegating, because I felt I probably micromanaged more, because I felt there was a fear of quality and what would happen. It led me to change my team, so I surround myself with great people and actually delegate everything now. Would that be the same for you?

Christina: You know what… Because obviously when you’re moving up the ranks, you want to know everything, or I personally want to know absolutely everything. And I think it’s learning that it’s okay not to, again, be the expert in everything, because you have the team there, that are the experts and delegation is definitely a big thing. It’s kind of like letting go and again, it’s back to trusting your staff. But if you’re really clear with the team on what you need to do, first and foremost, that it makes it so much easier to do that.

Peter: Are you a good communicator?

Christina: I like to think I am. I try to put my expectations out from the offset, so nobody’s unclear. If people are unclear, I ask them to say that to me, because, again, we’re not perfect, we’re all learning at the same time. So, if I’m not communicating properly, there’s a problem, or when somebody comes back with an answer that’s not what was intended, there was an issue with my communication skills, so I’d rather know that than not.

Peter: Do you find it easier to communicate with clients or staff? Do you find there’s a big difference, like are you clear with one just because you’re under pressure more on one side or?

Christina: When you’re going to meet clients, you’re meeting clients for specific problem or with a specific solution. It’s kind of much more structured and you’re going as part of a wider team, whereas when you’re with your team, you’re the person that’s trying to communicate to them. So, you have to be equally structured but it’s just a little bit different. From a team point of view, you just have to listen, ask questions and try to understand all of their points of view, so it’s slightly different.

Peter: When you think about the industry we’re in, it’s full of deadlines from our side, from yours… With clients, you often get a brief that will come through the door from our side or probably from yours, that you know, you have to answer in a couple of days or you’ll have deadlines and all that kind of stuff… Do you have any tips on how to get around deadlines?

Christina: So, deadlines… Like sometimes you just can’t avoid deadlines. You know, if you’re working on a pitch and there’s a hard deadline you just have to be ruthless with prioritising what you need to do, but sometimes, you just need to manage expectations. Whether that’s your team, whether it’s a client, whether it’s a media partner, if you can manage expectations upfront and kind of explain to them why you might need a little bit more time, or explain to your team why this has to be done… Again, it’s back down to communication and making sure everybody’s aware of why they’re doing what they’re doing. Sometimes, they can’t be avoided, but other times, you know, if you’ve gone to a client and said this is why I need an extra few days because you’re going to get a better response from me, it’s worth having that conversation.

Peter: It’s interesting you say that, but do you think our industry is good at that pushing back? In your opinion do you think we’re good at pushing back on those things? Because it just does seem to be, there’s always something to be done yesterday and there’s no time and could we get better you think?

Christina: I think that question is difficult because the industry has gone much more short term and especially since covid and especially with digital. Everybody wants everything now, because we’re in that fast paced, instantaneous… Kind of like ourselves, even just looking at our phone, you can get information. So, unfortunately, I just think it’s the way of the industry. But you know, again, it’s not about getting people to work necessarily harder, maybe just a little bit smarter in terms of like utilising AI, technology and everything that’s at our fingertips. Embrace that a little bit more and we should be able to become more efficient and deal with those deadlines, not always, but it could help us if we embrace it.

Peter: And speaking of partners, who’s your favourite partner? I suppose what I would ask is, you guys are right in the middle working with clients, you have all your staff, but you also have all of these partners… Do you get the difficult relationships? Look, I always say this is not rocket science or it’s not life and death, but some people take it very seriously. Do you have trouble, is it like a challenge on our side or what’s the harder side to deal with, the clients or the partners?

Christina: So, mum mom always says, when I ask who’s the favourite, she says she doesn’t have any. It’s clearly me! I can’t answer that because… Do you know what, again, it’s like, we work in an industry that’s just people are sound and everybody just comes to work to do their job, as god, as best as they can and maybe a bit of fun along the way. So, I think we could learn by just taking a deep breath sometimes when pressure comes and just be kind to each other. I know that’s a cliché, but it’s true. We’re all human at the end of the day, you don’t know what’s going on behind the Christina, behind the Peter, you just don’t know what’s happening. And that’s from clients, your team, people within your company and media partners. I think I’ve said it already but it’s back to communication and if everybody’s clear with what you’re supposed to be doing. If, I suppose, you’re just upfront with people, you communicate… You’re not going to get along with everybody, you know, that’s life and if anyone tells you that you get along with everybody, they’re lying. But again, it’s just back to being sound, respectful and I can’t say who my favourite is.

Peter: Has thinking differently and challenging norms ever led to a real success for you?

Christina: So something that is always a challenge to me, to my team, because it can be taken for granted is scale, is what gets you the best deal. You take it for granted, but actually I think while scale obviously is very important in this market but it’s actually the people and what they do with the scale that counts. So, you know, I might be biased but I have the best team in the business and that team are the people who utilise that scale, our relationships. Work hard on those relationships to give our clients the best above and beyond what scale could just deliver. It’s taking those relationships, just challenging a little bit, taking time to say thank you. I think we all forget that in this industry, because it’s so fast-paced, you’re just fighting fires all the time. Just take a deep breath, say thank you to people and work hard in those relationships because, again, they’ll be at the end of the phone when you need to get extra value, when you need to get something away. Thinking a bit differently to utilise the relationships to get that little bit extra for your clients, I think that’s really important and something I was taught a long, long time ago and I’ve carried that through to my team, that again, just goes back to be sound to people.

Peter: That’s all the questions for today. Thank you very much.

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