Caroline Williams, Senior Vice President and Head of EMEA Agency Operations, sits down with LBB to discuss how flexibility and efficiency can still be achieved with a big global partner.

Flexibility and efficiency seem to have become the buzz words of choice over the past two years. What’s more, these values have become synonymous with “small”. It is widely believed that to be flexible and efficient you must be a small business. 

In reality, global agencies, when built in the right way, can be just as effective, while connecting you with some of the best talent worldwide. Something that ultimately leads to elevated work.

In this interview, Little Black Book speaks with Caroline Williams, senior vice president and Head of EMEA agency operations at George P. Johnson. She reveals how GPJ is set up to act global and think local, how global agencies are not too big to be agile and why they are more relevant than ever when flexibility and efficiency are paramount.

LBB> Tell us a little bit about your background and your role at GPJ.

Caroline> I started at GPJ as an events coordinator at our German office in 1999 which was my first role in the company. And then I steadily worked my way up from there. I ran events for 10 years or so and then took on a local team management role as well as still running my own events. I branched out from there to manage events services teams across Europe. I moved from Germany back to the UK eight years ago with the responsibility for global accounts as well as agency operations across GPJ EMEA.

I love the international aspect of our company, working across different countries and cultures is always exciting. We learn from each other and we problem solve together no matter which office we’re located in. I enjoy working with such a variety of teams and yet we all have that common thread that keeps us together too. We do feel like a big family regardless of where we are in the world. 

LBB> Your career at GPJ has spanned many years! What have been some of your highlights?

Caroline> It’s always really hard to choose because there are so many. One of my very first highlights was running my first big conference – I loved having that responsibility and seeing it all come together. You really do live and breathe a project when you’re in it, so actually seeing it become successful and being an instrumental part of the team is always so rewarding.

One of the most brilliant things about GPJ is that everything just keeps evolving so another highlight for me is how we’ve always been able to build on previous years. We all make mistakes, but don’t be scared of them because you can turn them into something positive. You’ve got to be prepared to evolve, embrace change and keep learning. That’s how I’ve always found new opportunities and why every year feels different.

I’ve loved experiencing the expansion of the company. We’ve just opened an office in Dubai, for example, moving us into the Middle East. With every new market we reach, it becomes more exciting and enriches our global capabilities. 

LBB> There are some misconceptions surrounding global agencies being cumbersome – what’s your experience of this?

Caroline> There’s definitely a misconception that global agencies are quite difficult and unwieldy – that they’re so big that it’s hard to get anything done and that there’s too many layers to get through. While you do need process and structure to manage any business of this size, we are actually set up to be extremely flexible and agile.

We have the ability to span time zones to get the job done faster, we have squads of teams and online collaboration tools to allow for agility, and we’ve got the capacity to come up with a plan B (and C and D!). This was especially useful with the constraints of the pandemic.

As a global agency, we have a lot of collective knowledge about what works and what doesn’t as we have so many connections and access to so much information across the world. That’s one of the things that people don’t always see or realise. I like to think about it as if you’re on a motorway – you’ve got your barriers either side that guide you in the right direction but then within the lanes, you can go slow, fast, overtake, stop. Giving people parameters and then allowing for flexibility is something that I think we do really well. 

That’s one of the things that our clients really respect us for – the fact we’re there to advise on the best practices to get them the results they’re looking for but that we also have the ability to be flexible to suit an individual client’s needs.

We focus a lot on education and training our teams, regardless of where they sit. We share that information and knowledge so that everybody knows the foundation of what works well and what doesn’t, but then can deviate from that for a client if they need to. This creates great consistency across our business globally. But then we also have speciality areas depending on the types of business that you would conduct in a certain market. So some markets will run more large scale events like the US. We try to pull out what we can standardise for speed and efficiency and then keep that ability to localise it or move flexibility within it too. 

LBB> Is that where your ethos to act global and think local comes in?

Caroline> Exactly, we manage a lot of global accounts so we work to pull out what it is that the different markets need but also really understand what the common requirements across them all are. It helps us drive consistency and standardisation while also localising for specific markets. We have a lot of understanding and knowledge on what works well in different regions. 

We have a good mix of overarching teams that provide the standardisation and the requirements, and then local teams that are able to take that and make it work for the market itself. We can build teams for global programmes across multiple entities and disciplines if needed and also provide the local flavour and insight. 

Our people will always be our most important asset. We make sure we tailor the right individuals to any project, programme or account – a dedicated team who understands your business and is committed to its success.

LBB> Why is this sort of model particularly important considering what is going on in the industry right now? 

Caroline> If you look back to the pandemic, during that period a lot of companies really took stock of what they wanted and considered whether they wanted to shake things up a bit. Cost was a big factor in most decisions – just like it is now – and many companies had to make cuts. 

This drove a desire to look for more efficient solutions and potentially outsource some work to other companies. People are looking for partners they can rely on and companies that have a strong infrastructure across the globe. That’s why there’s been an increase in focus on standardisation. If you do that something once and you apply that across the globe, it does save you money in the long term. Especially if you are able to localise at a certain level, so that you still have the ability to be creative in the areas where it’s important. 

In terms of cost, we also have regular fair value assessments and the ability to pull resources from anywhere in the world, giving you budget options to play with.

And yes, it may take some time to onboard a global agency – there is absolutely no denying that any global programme is a heavy lift for everyone involved, and we undoubtedly find ourselves building the path as we travel on it. With the various models and infrastructure GPJ has in place globally and locally, we are confident that we can shape this for our clients’ businesses successfully. 

We know that one size does not fit all and are always learning and open to new ideas and ways of working. Sometimes we have to dust off ideas which may have not worked in the past but may be worth trying again. We enjoy collaboration and problem solving together to find the best outcome, which is ultimately the most rewarding part of our work. 

An interview with Caroline Williams, Senior Vice President, Head of EMEA Agency Operations at George P. Johnson, featured in Little Black Book.