Arun Sudhaman 22 May 2017 // 9:00AM GMT
Last year, when Chevron public affairs GM Dave Samson was due to begin his tenure as chairman of the Arthur W. Page Society, he did what most in his position would have done and began canvassing views regarding his goals for the influential in-house communications body.
"I was soft-sounding a few people whose points of views I really valued on what I wanted to accomplish," recalls Samson. Unsurprisingly, most people offered little in the way of resistance when presented with Samson’s ideas, the kind of easy boosterism that sometimes passes for intellectual rigour in the corridors of industry associations.
That was until Samson spoke to Aedhmar Hynes, the Text 100 CEO who has been a major presence at the Page Society for more than a decade, and a person that the Chevron exec counts as a confidant.
Hynes’ advice to Samson was pleasantly put, but there the respect for ceremony ended. "Dave, what you are proposing is pretty predictable," Samson recalls Hynes telling him. "You need to step back and think about what you want to be known for."
Samson admits he was a little taken aback — "no one else said that" — but adds that Hynes "ability to say it like she sees it" was hardly unwelcome. "It made me really rethink what I really wanted to accomplish," he points out. "Also, she does that with her clients."
Hynes, now 50-years-old and 27 years into her career at Text 100, would probably take that as a compliment. A skilled operator whose networking abilities extend to a string of high-profile nonprofits, there is nevertheless a refreshing lack of artifice to Hynes’ demeanour, an honesty that Next15 CEO Tim Dyson — her boss for more than two decades — ascribes to the unflinchingly high standards that the Irish native has set for herself since she joined the firm in 1990.
"When I met her she was always the most mature person in the room," explains Dyson. "She’s one of these people who sets incredibly high expectations for herself. She is never satisfied with where she’s at."
Speaking to me in a conference room at Text 100’s midtown office in New York, Hynes is clear that she demands a lot of herself. "It’s that notion of continual growth," she says, noting that it will always be part of her psyche. These are qualities that may help to explain Hynes’ meteoric rise at Text 100, where she became global CEO at the tender age of 34, winning the coveted IBM account one year later, all within barely a decade of starting work.
But Dyson thinks they point to something rather more elusive. "She never quite believes that she has been successful," he says. "That’s remarkably rare — most people get to a certain level and they are happy with that. Aedhmar will never rationalise a situation to make herself feel like good is good enough. She will just keep on pushing, keep on working. And, I suspect she will always be that way."
"Aedhmar will never rationalise a situation to make herself feel like good is good enough"
Hynes’ high standards are no accident. Born into a well-known Galway family, her father was a senator and CEO of education for the West of Ireland, while her three older siblings all went on to successful careers in the arts and sciences. "I was career-minded — I had a father who had a strong belief in the success of his children," she explains. "It was a family where what we were doing and what our passion was, was widely and vigorously discussed."
That environment not only helped Hynes hone her debating skills, but provided an invaluable launching pad for her career aspirations. Despite an initial plan to follow in her father’s footsteps in the education sector, Hynes opted to take a postgraduate diploma in marketing after studying economics and English. "Marketing felt like a terrific combination of these two," she recollects. "Also, technology was emerging."
At an age when most of us are perhaps more occupied with extra-curricular pursuits, Hynes was already displaying a singular focus on her career. "I thought if I was going to expand my experience in marketing, I’d do some work in PR, advertising and marketing, with a vision to ultimately becoming a CMO," explains Hynes of her decision to move to the UK at the age of 25, after completing a three-year programme in international marketing. "But I joined Text 100."
Founded eight years earlier, Text 100 at that point was a small agency distinguished by its focus on the technology sector. Yet rather than joining one of the bigger behemoths in London, Hynes viewed all of those qualities as arguments in favour of an agency that was rising fast.
"It was a very young agency with a very dynamic feel to it," she says. "That was probably to do with the fact that they were talking about expanding across Europe. The other thing I was fascinated by was technology. That was where innovation was happening — the notion of translating technology to tell complex stories was appealing."
Hynes arrived as an account executive. Within a decade she would be global CEO, which she describes with some understatement as a "fairly accelerated" period of her career. After rapidly rising up the ranks to become a board director in London, Text 100 went public in 1997. Soon afterwards, Hynes was dispatched to launch the firm’s San Francisco office, working for Xerox and capitalising on the massive tech boom of the late Nineties.
"I loved the notion of possibility," recounts Hynes of her decision to depart London. "Working in the UK was tough — moving to California from London suited my disposition."
And while her relationship with Xerox chief scientist and PARC director John Seely Brown, soon to become an influential mentor, got off to a rocky start — "he thought corporate was sending an Irish woman over to manage his communications" — Hynes thrived in America, becoming regional director by 1999, in charge of five offices.
A year later, then-global CEO Tim Dyson took on leadership of the holding group that would become Next 15, leaving three contenders for the vacant leadership role at Text 100. Despite her stellar rise and the firm’s expansion in North America, Hynes’ elevation — at the age of 34 — was not assured.
"Genuinely the company saw the future growth was going to come out of America, so I definitely feel the fact I was running North America was quite important," she notes. "The other thing that had always been a hallmark of my work was client relationships. So it was both location and serendipity."
Hynes may be understating the transition. "There were a few people that raised eyebrows when I picked her to become CEO, because she was so young," notes Dyson. "You can give people experience but not talent. And she had that maturity of thinking. You always felt that even if she did face a situation she had never been in before, she would figure it out in a way that belied her relative lack of experience."
"My first exposure was competing against her for an important piece of business and she cleaned our clocks"
Around a year later, IBM put its $40m global PR account up for pitch, sparking one of the biggest reviews in industry history. All of the big networks circled; few thought that a relative newcomer like Text 100, headed by a motley crew of Brits, stood much of a chance.
"We did really well on the corporate side," recalls Samson, who was pitching the business for Ketchum then. "Then we came up against this upstart agency, all in black t-shirts, led by Aedhmar Hynes. It wasn’t even a contest. My first exposure was competing against her for an important piece of business and she cleaned our clocks."
Text 100 ultimately landed the account alongside Ketchum, an arrangement that continues to this day. Samson is clear that the agency’s success at such a pivotal moment holds wider resonance, particularly where Hynes is concerned: "She led this whole generation of tech agencies that really started to flourish at the time."
"Winning IBM was a watershed moment," agrees Hynes. "A lot of tech specialists were suffering. We had gained something of a foothold but I don’t think we taken seriously by our competitors until IBM. It was also validation of my approach — it was the right thing at the right time."
Spend a little time in Hynes’ presence and her affection for technology, a constant throughout her career, shines through. It is that, as much as anything, that IBM marketing and communications SVP Jon Iwata calls out as a fundamental factor in his long relationship with the Text 100 CEO.
"It’s a thing that stood out for me more than 15 years ago when we were talking to different agencies," says Iwata. "I’d never heard of Text 100 as an agency. Their expertise and passion for IT stood out. Even today, when I talk to Aedhmar, we often find ourselves discussing some new emerging technology."
That mentality, of course, can lead to missteps. "Somebody used to call us enfants terrible," says Hynes. "We were always trying things." Hence Text 100’s high-profile entrance into Second Life, a short-lived virtual world that launched with a bang, but soon petered out with barely a whimper. "It’s almost like we want to forget that now."
Today, it is clear that the latest shiny bauble does not interest Hynes too much. "PR people are often asked to promote anything that has a new technology," says Iwata. "It’s good to be curious and to have passion for the possibility, but it also means you have to be discriminating and thoughtful about it too."
That sense of "balance and perspective", says Iwata, is why he continues to rely on Hynes as a key counsellor. "Her intimate knowledge of IBM as we continue to change and her counsel to me and my colleagues has been very, very important," he says. "It isn’t the sole reason [we’ve stayed with Text 100] but it’s a key reason."
"She actively seeks out and empowers innovation from the edge"
After weathering the technology downturn, Text 100 returned to a growth trajectory as Hynes put in place a series of measures to build on the strong agency culture engendered by founders Mark Adams and Tom Lewis. In this endeavour she was particularly well served by having spent the best part of a decade with a close-up view of the unique corporate culture at places like Xerox PARC and IBM.
"It was about bringing people with very diverse backgrounds together in order to co-create very diverse solutions," says Hynes of Xerox, where Seeley-Brown served as something of a mentor that she has tried to emulate. "I’ve always wanted people from different cultures and different disciplines and backgrounds. We never wanted to be an American company with an Irish leader with our roots in the UK."
Burson-Marsteller technology head Rowan Benecke, who spent a decade working for Hynes at Text 100, points out that Hynes’ inclusive leadership style remains a rarity in the PR industry, particularly "her genuine belief and interest that the best ideas may not always come from the top or the centre of the organisation."
"She actively seeks out and empowers innovation from the edge. That speaks a lot for her management style of being very non-hierarchical and open to input and ideas wherever they may come from. That approach results in the culture of Text 100 of being very collaborative and very familial."
Many MNC agency CEOs would be hard-pressed to express a corporate vision that does not begin and end with growth, profitability and being slightly better than your rivals. Hynes’ version — "how do I take 25 offices and create values that made everybody feel they were part of something" — hints at what has distinguished Text 100 from its peers over the past 15 years. A serial winner of industry best workplace honours, Text was ahead of the game in many respects, whether it was staff perks or globally dispersed leadership.
Hynes, of course, was already keenly aware of how important culture was to the agency. She was promoted to Text 100’s UK board of directors in 1996 while nine months' pregnant with her second child; by the time she moved to New York it was with four kids in tow, but the firm’s progressive leadership style, which enabled her to blend her corporate and personal lives to successful effect, never suggested that she could not succeed.
"I think an authentic culture has to come from an authentic leader," she points out. "I believe you have to be true to yourself. People that try to be a different person at work than you are at home — it’s a real challenge."
Under Hynes’ leadership, Text 100 turned from a collection of offices around the world into a far more cohesive global network. Second Life came and went, and with it the promise of a more digital future, one that a firm like Text, with its CEO’s unabashed passion for technology, would surely capitalise on. But those plans were somewhat derailed by the global financial crisis. By 2011, Text 100 was a $65m business that was failing to report significant global revenue growth, a state of affairs that has persisted until the last couple of years.
"We needed to take the transformation of the industry really seriously," admits Hynes. "Prior to that, we had tried to hire diverse talent and create our own solutions organically to the changing marketplaces. We were always trying things, but the notion you could build it was slow."
At the same time, meanwhile, Next 15 was undergoing issues of its own. After acquiring a string of highly-rated tech PR firms, the holding group suffered through a series of setbacks, including a fraud case at Bite and takeover bids from Huntsworth and Chime. As the group’s biggest agency, it was not hard to imagine a measure of frustration at Text 100.
"The logical side of my brain got my head around the fact that we were the largest brand in the business," says Hynes. "There was a real need for Next 15 to expand the rest of their business to reduce their dependency on one brand and to diversify. I understood that. But that’s where the frustration arose from."
By this stage, Hynes was regularly being touted as a contender for leadership roles at bigger, rival agencies, testimony not only to Text’s emergence on the global stage, but also to the remarkable reputation she had built in the industry via her elevated profile at such groups as the Page Society, the Aspen Institute and MIT Media Labs.
Dyson is no doubt aware of the covetous glances that have been cast towards the head of Next 15’s biggest operation. "Absolutely, I fear it — you always worry with really talented people about losing them," he says, trusting that Hynes' "amazing loyalty", and her preference for freedom and culture would mitigate the risk of her departure. "My job is to make sure she has the tools to succeed and then get out of the way. If you tried to control her, it would fail massively."
For her part, Hynes is typically honest about the relatively unusual nature of her situation, in an industry that turns over talent — even at the upper ranks — with some alacrity. "I think everybody considers leaving and anybody who tells you otherwise is lying. It almost seems crazy to spend an entire career with one organisation."
Two factors, she says, have convinced her otherwise. "The opportunities that have come along have never been as interesting as the opportunity ahead of me. The other thing is the clients/people — not only would I lose a company like Text100, but I lose IBM, Xerox, Cisco, Harmon, long-established client relationships that I truly value."
"I do think we needed a burst of new energy in the business"
It is no surprise that agencies focus so much energy on cultivating a unique culture. What else, in truth, distinguishes them from the next shop down the street? And Text 100 has handled this challenge better than most. But the flip side of a strongly differentiated workplace culture is the risk that an insular, ‘not invented here’ mentality takes hold. "The downside is it can often foster a lot of people who are very similar," says Hynes.
Even so, Hynes dismisses the notion that this had taken root at Text 100. "That was something we were really careful about," she asserts. "To encourage dissent and disobedience. You have to create an environment where people are encouraged to ask the dumb questions."
Which is just as well for this interviewer. Hynes does admit, though, that Text 100 was in need of some form of renewal over the past few years. So, after making her case to the board, against a backdrop of a Next 15 agency buying spree, Text 100 acquired and merged with two London agencies — IncrediBull and Republic Publishing.
"We were hungry for it," explains Hynes. "I personally was a big proponent that the reason we made these acquisitions was in order to challenge our thinking."
The two deals have had an immense effect on Text 100’s London office, which had declined considerably since its heyday as the city’s hottest tech shop, ushering in new talent and expanding the agency’s services, in line with the transformation underway across the broader industry.
"The acquisitions have been huge," agrees Hynes. "People are willing to challenge the status quo. It’s a whole new cast of characters. I had a strong and seasoned leadership team which I think is really important, but I do think we needed a burst of new energy in the business. Our industry is being disrupted and we have to disrupt ourselves."
Dyson believes that Hynes’ own leadership style may also have been a contributing factor in Text’s renewal. "She’s an incredibly strong individual leader, but she’s one of those people who’s remarkably inclusive in the way she runs her business," explains Dyson. "The people who work with her find that very unusual. They are not used to such strong leaders also being very inclusive."
"I would say my leadership is a really clear sense of the future," adds Hynes. "I just rely on the team around me to help me figure out how we make all that happen."
However, Hynes’ willingness to delegate, her essential belief in the people she works with, has not always worked out to Text 100’s benefit. "It created some ambivalence for a while," suggests an ex-Text 100 source who asked to remain anonymous. "There have been lots of rotating chairs over the years — and each person had different versions of what they thought was important"
As Dyson puts it, that sense of loyalty means Hynes is "someone who tries to find the good in somebody."
"The only downside of that approach is that sometimes you can end up with mediocre people in roles," he adds. "It speaks a little bit to her odd insecurity about her own abilities, she sometimes believes that people around her are better than they are."
Dyson thinks that Hynes’ is a "lot more ruthless now." For her part, Hynes will only say that she has "never been more energised," pointing to Text 100’s rebranding and its global restructuring in line with the new London model.
"We were more complicated than we were big," is how Hynes describes Text 100 before the moves. "We just started to replicate too many roles, and we had so many different policies."
Hynes' energy, as you might expect, is being directed in a number of directions, all part of her non-stop focus on improvement. "Whether that’s personal growth or growth on behalf of the agency," she points out. "I demand a lot of myself. It’s probably part of my work ethic."
With that mentality, you would expect Hynes to evince a measure of frustration at the pace with which the PR industry has adopted digital transformation. Sitting on the Page Society, does she not find it strange to see massive companies continuing to operate as if nothing in the communications world has changed?
Hynes is far too diplomatic, and aware of her position, to agree wholeheartedly with this premise. "It’s fascinating to work alongside CCOs in highly-regulated industries and have a better understanding of what prevents those industries moving as fast as others."
But she accepts that her original notion of a three-year industry disruption around the time of Second Life was a little ambitious. "I have been surprised at how slowly that has evolved," she admits. "Yes, there is some level of frustration but I’m very mindful of the fact that the pace of change is very much reflective of the pace of change in large business corporations. It’s as much the buy-in from the executive suite that is determining the pace of change."
Hynes believes that the arrival of millennials in the C-suite will hasten this shift, as will the continued integration of marketing and communications functions. But, as she warms to her theme, she is less than willing to laud the scale of transformation underway in the PR industry, demonstrating the candour and refusal to settle that mark Hynes as out a slightly different animal to most of her leadership peers.
That mindset, trained on the industry’s digital progress, makes for some illuminating insight, without the shameless self-promotion that can often colour these conversations. "I think we should be growing at 10+%" she notes, for example. "That will be the measure of our ability to secure more marketing dollars."
Unsurprisingly, Hynes thinks the biggest challenge is talent. But, despite the high-profile moves made by some of her rivals, she does not think the industry is doing a good enough job of attracting non-traditional talent. "I don’t see enough of it in my own agency and enough of it in others. I would love to see some big names from the ad agency to communications. And on the analytics side. We’ve got to figure that one out."
"She never sets a limit on her own capabilities and achievements," notes Dyson. "The person she is competing with most is always herself — she is her own worst critic. We always joke about reviews — there’s almost no point in giving her feedback, because she will be far more critical of herself than I would ever be."