James Harris is Global Chief Strategy Officer at Mindshare. With over 30 years’ experience in the digital media industry, he joined Mindshare from Carat and was previously International Head of Agencies for AOL and Managing Director of digital services for IPG Mediabrands. He also founded and co-agencies including both iProspect (formerly Diffiniti) and Mediacom North.
Who is your digital hero?
I have a long, long list of people who would qualify, so I will select using recency, and at the risk of being labelled sycophantic will give you my current boss Nick Emery — Mindshare CEO.
What has he done to win hero status in your eyes?
Well for sure, it is not based on his fluency with adtech or his ability to create kick arse TikTok content and worryingly he sometimes refers to Uber as magic cars. Rather it is based on the simple fact that he was one of the few people smart enough to see beyond the word digital and my connection to it when he handed me the chief strategy role at Mindshare.
I have always considered myself a media person not a digital specialist, and indeed my first startup (I was one of the founders of the Mediacom North group) was very much rooted in traditional media as well as based on the fact I could fix computers.
However more recent ventures including founding Diffiniti (now iProspect) and being Chief Digital and Data Officer for Dentsu Aegis had rather confined me to a digital prison from which I feared escape was impossible, but Nck saw beyond that label being the sharp cookie that he is and that qualifies him for hero status here.
How has his heroism helped drive digital?
Well exhibit A above, and whilst some would disagree, there are those that would suggest it turned out to me a good plan on his behalf.
One of the things I like about Nick is his constant state of asking ‘why not’ his vuja de thinking — why couldn’t he hire someone to his top strategy role that on paper had never had that title and actually that doing so would be the thing needed to break the historical silos between digital and thinking.
For sure I don’t look at the world in digital and non-digital terms and never have done, but that is a curse that does afflict both the more traditional strategists and digital specialist too — like chalk and cheese they just don’t mix and that is what holds things back.
What are the biggest challenges in digital we need another hero to solve?
As well as the above silo behaviour I would say it is two other things.
Firstly, we need more focus back on ideas and storytelling. I am on a personal mission in our agency to drive this but without these I fear that media cannot advance itself and will always be in a battle to survive when it should be thriving as media is no longer a thing it is now in everything.
Secondly, we need to bring simplicity back to the centre of all we do digital or non digital.
I joked with Nick when I took the job at Mindshare that the role was really chief simplicity officer, but over the last 18 months or so I have been on a mission to eradicate marketing jargon and made up words from our work and language sets.
It doesn’t matter whether you are in a digital role or not, talking bollocks is the same, and as an industry it has become a massive problem as we have moved away from trying to convince people, to trying to confuse them.
What is your most heroic personal achievement so far in digital?
In the current climate and crisis hero is not a word I am comfortable with — a hero is a doctor, a nurse or delivery driver and I am none of them. But if we swap the word out for proud then again it would be a long list (again not intending to sound like a wanker) and would include founding both Mediacom North and Diffiniti (now iProspect) as well as helping turn-around AOL back to a match-fit business in my short tenure there.
But actually going back to the recency filter again, it is one simple comment that a strategist said to me recently and that was simply that she now saw strategy to be something very different from what she had thought it to be prior to working with me and that I had inspired her like never before.
And that for me is the thing I am most proud of, the talent that I have helped unearth and develop during my 30 years or so in this business and at times taken a risk on.
Just as with my career, titles are no indicator of talent, nor is experience and I always feel both old and proud when I look around our industry now and see how many of its leaders are talent I can proudly say I helped find and develop.
In reality that’s the reason I still turn up to work.