Behind Thread Scenes with Justine Lefebvre, Managing Partner

  As part of our Behind Thread Scenes series, we’re sitting down with Justine, Managing Partner, to chat about what it’s like managing an agency, how times have changed in China and what it means to be a leader. If you ever want to swing by the office and get to know her or any of us better, drop by our lane house.

Tell us a bit about yourself, what did you study in school?

Originally I thought I would study something creative, such as fashion design. Short of finding an affordable program that made sense to me in Belgium, I actually studied entrepreneurship in University, and at that time thought it was a weird thing to study. “How can you learn to be an entrepreneur?“, “Isn’t it more something you are or grow into?” were all questions looking for answers.  It also wasn’t really something I set as a goal at the time – ‘to be an entrepreneur’. Originally, I chose the program because it seemed to align with my values and I believed in, it enabled me to spend a lot of time in companies rather than at school, which I figured was where I was learning the quickest and have an concrete overview of the options out there. Ultimately, I believed this direction would keep most doors open for whatever I decided to do afterwards.

How has your career developed and did you ever imagine you’d be in China managing a branding agency?

Well, mhhh, kind of not really. 😀 I knew I wanted to be in a company where I could concretely make a difference, and that I was most attracted to creative industries. After traveling Asia and a few months in Shanghai, I just loved the energy here. There were so many talented creative people and I wanted to enable them to make a living with their talent, that’s when I realized it was the best use of my own background. Long story short, I was lucky enough to pass the door of our beautiful lane house on that quest and something clicked.

What’s one thing that people probably don’t realize is part of a Managing Partner’s role, whether it’s officially in the JD or not. 

Well anything you haven’t put in someone’s scorecard is all yours, as awkward as this may get. Kill the cockroach, play meditation music in the car around big meetings, jump in my dinosaur suit is a nice overview of the spectrum. More seriously, never ever give up. It’s not an option. Fail, pick yourself up, learn something, and then try again.
More seriously, never ever give up. It’s not an option. Fail, pick yourself up, learn something, and then try again.

What would you say is an important trait to have as a leader?

Walking with people is the best way to make sure everyone is walking forward with you.

After being in China and with Thread for 7 years, do you feel like the role of an agency has changed over time and if so, how? 

After almost 7 years, most things have changed, at least once or twice including clients’ perspectives, the economy and also our understanding of the market. As we have been fortunate enough to get deeper and deeper into our work with some of our clients over the years, our level of understanding of the consumer, what makes for a strong brand and most importantly what makes it last have become invaluable assets in an ever-changing environment. For example, we have found that branding must be strongly implemented on the inside of companies for it to shine (and last) to the outside world.

On a daily basis, you’re interacting with a multitude of clients and there are times when they might be unhappy. How do you normally approach these situations? 

“People hire people” as Ben would say (sorry Ben, you can’t have that one for your interview anymore). We are all more alike than we think, whether on the client or agency side. I found that taking a deep breath first, then listening, doing our best to understand and find solutions together which are mutually agreeable is the simplest way to make things better. And recognize there was a mistake when we do something wrong (hopefully almost never 😊).

It seems that there are more and more clients asking agencies to do free pitches, what’s your view on it?

When I still lived in Belgium and worked at an agency, I saw and experienced first hand how much pitching can put a strain on the company. Agencies are rarely big corporations (who have deep pockets), even the ones that are part of a larger Group, many actually run like a Small Medium Enterprises. If you want your creative teams to stay creative, you have to look after your talent.
If you want your creative teams to stay creative, you have to look after your talent.
Meaning they’re not slaving away, stressed and on 12-14 hour days. As such, you’d need solid financing to be able to sustain a business based solely on free pitches, making revenue collection and salary payments really hazardous. At the same time, it’s important for us to understand that a lot of clients don’t require branding services every day, so they might not be familiar with the outcome or deliverables. So, it’s part of our role to walk them through our processes and set expectations, maybe also presenting relevant projects. And when delivering a sample of bespoke work beforehand is necessary, there’s usually a way to define a set budget of resources where both parties are comfortable and take a fair share of the risk.

Things can get pretty crazy in Shanghai, what’s your way of relaxing or decompressing?

I’ve found that the best way of decompressing is actually to avoid getting too stressed in the beginning. It’s easier said than done, but I’ve found that managing pressure levels on a daily basis takes a wide range of disciplined (as possible 😊) measures, including cardio exercise, yoga, a bit of meditation, eating healthy and getting proper sleep are musts. Then last but not least, proper silliness from time to time and being with friends or close ones is a good way to keep an eye on having a full life.

What’s something that happened at Thread this week that’s made you smile?

Possibly one of Harry’s jokes never fails to make you smile (at least on the inside). On a different note, having our client acknowledging our efforts and thanking us for our work is worth all the sweat.

What’s one of your greatest life lessons that you’d like to pass on?

Diversity is the richest part in life. I am lucky enough to be in business with amazing people who are very different from me and I get to put a lot in perspective thanks to that, not to mention how much learning comes from it, work-wise but also as a human being. I will always remember reading the results of our annual employee survey a few years back and reading 95% of the answers to “what makes you come to work every day?” were along the lines of “to learn and learn from one another”. It made us decide to make it one of our company values. Another one is respect and support each other which is truly key when so many backgrounds are mixed together and everyone’s opinion must be heard to do great work.   Enjoy the interview with Justine? We’ve got more coming up over the next few months or just drop by our office to get to know us in person! Up next, Thread’s Planner, Christina Tse.