Interview with Sean Lyons, global chief executive officer of R/GA

23 April 2021 4 min. read
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Sean Lyons has been the CEO of R/GA since early 2019, when he succeeded industry icon Bob Greenberg at the helm. spoke with the company veteran – he joined the firm in 2005 – on how the firm is navigating the pandemic and what’s next for the 1,600-strong digital innovation and transformation consultancy.

Tell us more about R/GA and what makes the business unique.

In our 44 years, we’ve continually evolved our business. In our industry, our restlessness is unique and the way we change what we do and how we do it. We intentionally leave our business model unfinished, which allows us to add and subtract to our model. Subtracting is much harder than adding.

Today, we organize our services for clients across communications, experience, and relationships. We have specialist functions, including brand design & consulting, our "Ventures" studios, and our healthcare practice. Much of our work is at the intersection between these different but related fields because this is where all of the innovation happens.

Sean Lyons, Global Chief Executive Officer, R/GA

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome during the pandemic as the CEO?

I am thankful that those close to me have been healthy during the pandemic, and I am grateful to have a talented and resilient leadership team with me the whole way. The biggest single challenge was leading through complete uncertainty. There was uncertainty in both mental and physical health, business, education, and nearly every aspect of life. 

As a leader, you think you need to provide all the answers, and you don’t. Your need to communicate what you’re thinking and what you're feeling as much as you have to trust your gut and make quick decisions to provide everyone with a sense of direction and purpose. In that way, the pandemic was the most valuable leadership lesson in my life.

How has R/GA adapted to the pandemic? Do you have any leadership advice for others?

There is technological adaptation and human adaptation. We were very well-positioned technologically as we’ve invested in and designed our software to enable us to collaborate across our global network of 15 locations. 

My advice is on the human side. The impact on our people, on each employee, was different and required entirely new levels of listening and openness to new solutions. Whether it was a ‘work from anywhere’ policy or regular listening sessions with small teams of people to understand how they are feeling and what we can do about it. The critical piece of advice is that you can never provide too much communication during stressful times. 

Remember, don’t try and solve everything and answer everything before you communicate with your teams. While I have more work to do here, I’ve learned to share work in progress more. People appreciate being informed. Also, make sure you are communicating in all the forms available to you, both formal and informal channels. Slack, TownHalls, emails, small group zooms, and 1-1s. 

What is most important to your organization – mission, vision, or values?

Everything stems from the vision and our ability to demonstrate that through our work. If our vision isn’t grounded in the truths and values of the company, both good and bad, it won’t work. This is a long and continuous process of thinking and making, reflection, and refinement.

What should businesses be thinking about in 2021 and beyond?

Business leaders need to be asking questions to themselves and their team. Live with that uncertainty and trust your creativity and your curiosity. What if?  What if we used technology in the service of creativity instead of optimization? What if we use deepfake techniques to create awareness for a global campaign to eradicate malaria? What if we use computer vision to remove bias in judging sporting competitions? 

In a sense, we are always looking for opportunities to use or adapt the technology for creative, cultural, or human reasons. This makes differentiated and more meaningful work. 

What do you feel is the biggest strength of R/GA right now?

Our openness to the new. We compete heavily for talent with Silicon Valley. Creativity is our business, and we define it broadly at R/GA. For example, we believe media is a creative discipline. We believe technology can and should be used for creative purposes. When you define creativity narrowly, and you think you have figured everything out, you become commoditized.

This is part of what attracts talented people to R/GA who want to learn from others and see their fingerprints on the work we create. It’s incredibly satisfying getting real messages, products, and services into the world. It’s quite hard to do that in big technology companies and consulting firms. 

What’s next for R/GA?

We believe that R/GA is only ever 80 percent finished as we’re constantly evolving. This is both a necessity of our business and an ongoing opportunity to bring your imagination and talent to the work. We have spent the better part of the last year building the team we want; to take on the challenges our clients are facing and provide leadership and guidance for the challenges and opportunities that we also face. And the people we have brought together in the R/GA network also reflect the society we live in, our values, and the work we now choose to do.