Leadership   //   January 28, 2022  ■  9 min read

Profile: Earning the right to empathize – Jellyfish’s Rob Pierre on what it takes to be a leader today

The global crisis of the last two years is not just transforming businesses but the people who run them. Empathy is the new must-have in leadership, as is the ability to adapt in an unpredictable world. We spoke to Jellyfish CEO Rob Pierre to get his take.

Rob Pierre has a natural charisma and a positive energy that’s palpable — even through a Zoom call. Those characteristics, plus his determination, entrepreneurship and strategic vision have got him where he is today as co-founder and CEO of Jellyfish — a global advertising agency which generates annual revenue to the tune of £200 million. But in a global crisis, such as we’ve endured since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a business leader’s mettle is tested in unforeseen ways. Pierre was no exception. 

Pierre carries those bruises as well as those endured during the rise of social injustice movements in early 2020 and the uncomfortable spotlight that pressured business leaders to respond in the right way — with an air of grace and deep contemplation. 

For leaders like Pierre, 47, this has occasionally manifested in a compulsion to try to be all things to all people. That’s led Pierre to feel as if he’s had to be an activist, a historian, a philosopher, a psychiatrist, a philanthropist, and at times, even a politician, during the Covid-19 pandemic, he recalls. And he’s had to open up his personal life to his staff in ways he never had — or thought he needed to — before.

“For me, leadership has always been about being fearless, being positive, leading by example. And it’s still those things, but it’s also about being OK showing your vulnerabilities,” says Pierre. 

It took his colleague Sharon Harris, CMO of Jellyfish, to point this out to him in spring of 2020. She told him that his employees needed to know more about him to trust his empathy. To employees, she said, he was an infallible, high-energy, passionate, articulate CEO who had no financial worries, and was happily married to his wife Lisa, with two healthy children (Ria, 15 and Marley, 12). Employees couldn’t relate.

“I joked with her that everyone’s interested in seeing Superman — they’re not really interested in Clark Kent,” says Pierre. “But she told me I was wrong and that people needed to see Rob the person.”

So she interviewed him in a podcast, which was distributed to Jellyfish’s 2,138 staff across its 40 global offices. For the first time he found himself answering questions about his childhood in Trinidad, and the death of his nine-year old brother from drowning. Pierre, who was 11 years old at the time, had been in the water with him when the current swept him away. “It was a very traumatic period in our lives as a family,” he recounts.

“It’s not that I’ve never spoken about it before. But you don’t always want to burden people — or get the dreaded head tilt,” says Pierre, whose car licence plate is 9 KAP, in honor of his brother Kenric Anthony Pierre. “But I’ve come to terms with it, and in steps it’s made me who I am.” 

When Pierre’s son Marley turned 10 and overtook the age his brother had been when he died, it felt like a strange, “arbitrary milestone” he recalls.

“I didn’t want this [the podcast] to be perceived as a sob story for people to feel sorry for me, but I wanted them [his employees] to start to trust me and see me as a person, not just their CEO,” Pierre adds.

Being a Black CEO during social injustice movement

Looking back over the toughest moments of the last few years, Pierre considers the rise of the social justice movement after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 as his most raw moment as a business leader.

Speaking out in support of the Black Lives Matter protests, suddenly became a business imperative in the corporate world. For Pierre — doing so authentically in a way that didn’t appear knee-jerk or ill-informed — was critical. He wanted his response to be heartfelt and considered — not a broadcast-to-all memo that sought to presume he could understand the myriad of complex emotions that each brown and black individual at the company would be feeling. 

So he wrote a long, considered email to staff showing his support — as a first step. But, hitting the right note with every single employee on such a sensitive topic proved impossible. He felt stung when an employee responded by saying she felt shocked and saddened that he hadn’t done more, or reached out faster. 

“I was told I should know better [by the member of staff by email] It was suddenly expected that this should be a specialist subject for me — because I’m Black,” says Pierre. “And that I have all the tools, expertise, everything needed to address something like this — and that really started to feel very challenging for me as an individual,” he adds.

“On a personal level I was torn because some of the things we were talking about, I couldn’t relate to because I haven’t personally experienced discrimination. It’s not like I’ve had a life without tragedy, but it was more in my dad’s generation. But [in 2020] everyone looked to me like I should on a personal basis know exactly what to do and how to react.”

Despite only receiving negative feedback from one employee, Pierre was shaken by that response. It prompted him to re-examine his role as a business leader. “As someone who identifies as Black and proud of his heritage, it became clear to me that I didn’t want that to define me. But I also would worry that I may alienate a lot of the community if that’s misinterpreted [as not caring]. I want to be a successful CEO, have a business with a purpose, do great things and have a globally renowned organization. I just happen to be Black. I hope people can be inspired by that.” 

When the BLM protests were at their peak, Pierre tasked Jellyfish staff with creating a global BLM dashboard, which tracks global conversations around the Black Lives Matter movement as a free resource to be used by charities, businesses, institutions and news agencies. 

Authenticity, honesty and the ability to build trust are three of the core personality traits colleagues and friends recall when describing Pierre. “He’s a visionary and one of the most authentic leaders I’ve ever met, there is no hidden agenda — no face that’s being put on,” says Matt Bush, managing director of agencies, partners and creative at Google. “He is also incredibly reliable and that builds trust.”

Consistent problem solver

Pierre got his first taste for entrepreneurship when he was 10 years old and sold goldfish to classmates at his school in Trinidad (for which he got in trouble with teachers). Fast forward several decades and that same spirit of entrepreneurship led him to co-found digital advertising agency Jellyfish in 2005, along with Paul Walsh. As CEO, Pierre grew it from a boutique programmatic agency into the digital advertising giant it is today – one of the first major agencies to rival ad land’s big six holding groups: Dentsu, Havas, Interpublic Group, Omnicom, Publicis Groupe and WPP. Clients include Samsung, Uber, Nestlé and Spotify.

​​Colleagues and friends recall Pierre’s energy, passion and vision as characteristics that put him a cut above his peers. Bush met Pierre under awkward circumstances, when Jellyfish was still a challenger agency.

“We [Google execs] had to tell them [Jellyfish execs] they owed us money and they’d have to pay us. I had to to tell Rob we would pause their account until they did. But the vision they had — the passion and energy in that meeting — made me go back to my finance team and tell them we had to work something out,” says Bush. So they devised a payment plan, and since then he has watched the agency become the major player it is today. 

Jellyfish’s consistent growth attracted hopeful investors over the years. But he took his time, ensuring it was the right fit for the company and its people. “Making the right choice was something he agonized over,” says Bush. 

In 2019, the right investor showed up. French holding company Fimalac, owned by billionaire and CEO Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, took a majority stake in the company, which has reset its current value at £500 million ($662 million). And while the pandemic forced many businesses to scale back, Jellyfish has been on a growth tear, acquiring 13 businesses over the last two years. 

All brand and communication services companies under Fimalac were merged into the Jellyfish brand. Pierre was invited to France to speak to the 300+ people who would be absorbed under Jellyfish.

“The feedback from that event was immense,” says Chris Lee, COO at Jellyfish. “He has this huge smile that is so disarming, and is there even when he is telling people difficult news. But it’s not false — it’s his natural positivity about life and overcoming things. I think he said he had butterflies before he had to do it – but he relishes that.” 

Colleagues also credit Pierre with instigating what many describe as an “enviable” internal culture. Lee relates how Jellyfish has a “no blame culture.” If anything goes wrong with a project or campaign, the root of the problem is identified swiftly, and everyone encouraged to figure out what’s not worked and how — as a team — it can be overcome to provide an even better outcome. “It’s collective, not individual, responsibility. That’s entirely driven by Rob,” says Lee.   

In 2020 Jellyfish got rid of its traditional line-management structure entirely, in favor of a system in which every employee is assigned a five-person support network to help cultivate and support that individual’s career path within the business. 

“He is a consistent problem solver and has a mind that identifies the issue and problem and comes up with solutions, at rapid speed. Normally much quicker than other people in the room. That stands out,” adds Lee.

Man of his word

That commitment to cultivating a positive culture has carried through to Pierre’s other business Mber — a slick restaurant and bar located in the heart of London where he is based. Entering the highly competitive restaurant sector has always been risky. And in the wake of Covid-19, it’s tougher than ever. But Pierre’s management style has earned him fierce loyalty from his staff — unusual in a sector known for sky-high churn, according to Mber’s general manager Rick Boggia. While the restaurant has had to close its doors during various rolling lockdowns, Pierre kept the 18 staff members on furlough, with manager Boggia kept on full time, at his own expense. 

Boggia still remembers Pierre’s first words to him with crystal clarity: “He said ‘Rick — the important thing is you make this business a success because I’d love to reward you with success.’ And he has kept that mantra throughout,” says Boggia. 

Like many business leaders, Pierre’s focus in 2022 will be on figuring out the right flexible working models for Jellyfish and recruiting and retaining top talent — which will continue to be a challenge in 2022 against the Great Resignation trend. For Pierre, the last few years have demonstrated the importance of being able to adapt in an unpredictable world. 

“Whether we’re in the office or working from home, freelance or a full-time team member, there’s a confluence of trends with regards to how people today want to work,” he says. “Smart businesses will recognize these trends and accommodate talent accordingly. The future of any business model lies in building a competitive advantage with regards to how you employ, deploy, train and retain talent.”

Much as the tumultuous events of the last few years have prompted Pierre to re-examine his leadership style, as far as his staff and colleagues are concerned, he has more than earned their trust.

“The world needs a few more Robs. Had there been more people of his ilk out there, a lot of businesses would have benefitted from it, in terms of his approach, execution, input and guidance,” says Boggia.