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What's in store for Jason Levin

In July, Jason Levin announced his imminent departure from Africa's leading youth and family market specialist agency HDI Youth Marketeers. After eight years at the helm, he finally hangs up his HDI-branded gloves, and hands over to the new leadership team - dubbed HDI 3.0 - from the end of September.
So we asked, ‘where to from here’ for the man who has more than quadrupled the size of HDI in his time there? We chatted with Jason to find out what’s in store for him on the next leg of his journey.

What's in store for Jason Levin
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1. Tell us a little about your life before HDI. How did you end up in the marketing industry?

I studied marketing as one half of a double Honours majors. Then I did a graduate trainee internship programme in financial services with insurer: Alexander Forbes.

After four years, I realised that marketing is where my heart lay. I then joined a small integrated agency called Tool, which I took over after a few months, and re-invented as a digital pure play: Digerati. It was cool, but went through dot.com, then dot.bomb. I re-integrated it into the TBWA group, and became a bit more reflective, at marketing and brand advisors: the Disruption Consultancy. After two years there, I was offered the opportunity of coming to run HDI. I gave it some thought, and then took the leap. It was a good one, and has been for the last eight years.

2. Tell us about your journey with, and some of the challenges at, HDI.

In 2008, the original challenge was that the business was 12 years old and had been run by its founder, Liesl Loubser (V1.0), until then. It was very healthy, but it wasn’t my baby, and it was starting to crawl into its awkward teens. It was a small business (with a little over 20 employees), and positive, but small commercials. It was a great concept and had established a good footprint in its niche market, but it had massive potential to grow. There had been quite a lot of people who had been in the business for years, it had some well-established systems, and I came in as the outsider wanting to move, shake and make things different.

Another part of the dynamic was that the business is about youth, and youth are not that easy to get to grips with. They are a dynamic, fluid and fairly complex market, so understanding youth first-hand, their consumer needs and how to meet those was an interesting challenge for me. So was Africa, which was a path we decided to embark on in 2009.

3. Do you think that this is the right time and place for you to leave HDI?

Tough one. It’s been an amazing eight years, so you can imagine it hasn’t been an easy decision for me. The business is very successful and still on a steep growth trajectory. We now have a very strong head office and some other satellite SA offices. East Africa is growing fast and West Africa, 2015/16 aside, remains strong. It’s always tougher to leave a business that’s on a good wicket – but that is when leaders, in good conscience, need to do it. I came to HDI on an intended three year term, which I extended to five, then eight…and I am beyond that now. The business is now ready for new leadership, and I am ready for a new challenge. Hard as it is, and as magical as HDI is, it probably is the right time.

What's in store for Jason Levin
click to enlarge
What's in store for Jason Levin
click to enlarge
4. What is in store for you and your future?

There’s a couple of opportunities in discussion. Most of them mature in, or can be deferred to, the early part of 2017. A couple of months ago, in rat-race mode, I was quite disconcerted about that. Now though, I am really revelling in this opportunity to take, what I call, a ‘thought break’.

5. Why is it important for you to take this fairly long break before your next move?

For a couple of reasons. One is that I have been in my working career now for 22 years, which is the mid-point of (or past) my expected career duration. I think it’s a good time to just pause, get off the race track and reflect a little bit. I want to carefully decide what the rest of my career could and should hold for me. The other is that the luxury is rare! Taking three, four or six months off in one’s career doesn’t happen often, or for some, ever. So if fate and circumstance allow that, it would be crazy to not take advantage of it.

6. You’re known as a workaholic, what are you going to do with ‘free’ time?

It’s necessary to be in a different space to have a different set of thinking. I will be doing some deep exploration into two subjects adjacent to my current career, which is content marketing, and understanding the world of start-ups. I will doing a lot of research and reading on those. I am also going to be doing stuff completely unrelated to career or work. Things to round myself out, that I just have never got time to do really: adventure sports, more leisure reading, some recreational and reflection things like painting and drawing like I used to do years ago.

I am also going to be doing a little bit of travelling, some of which will relate to work and career, some just pleasure. Now in October, I’m doing a tour around the country helping to produce a photo essay for a visual literacy project called Room 13. I am going to London for a little bit, to explore some things there. And I am also going to spend some time in the bush, which is an easy and amazing thing to be able to do as a South African: it’s right on our doorstep.

7. If you could do it all over again, what would you change and why?

I probably would have been more bullish on hiring top-end people quicker, and overall I would have been braver in terms of growth strategies, acquisitions and geographic expansion. TBWA\ bought into the company three years ago, and I probably would have urged that deal to happen quicker, to get greater access to more growth capital quicker. But I have very few regrets of my time at HDI.

8. What kind of a legacy are you leaving HDI with?

In all honesty, it’s safe to say that there was a pre-existing legacy from the founder. HDI has a very distinct DNA that I’ve only been part of, and not that I have created. Some things that pre-date me are a fixation with client satisfaction; brave thinking and wanting to try new things; generosity and caring; a strong belief in expertise and professionalism, but being humble about sharing it.

I think I’ve helped entrench these in the business, but I’m hopefully leaving behind an additional legacy of passion-driven work ethic; information sharing; opportunity-hunting and a sense of excitement about solving business problems. I’m an absolute stickler for detail and the importance of small things as a proxy for big things, so I think lots of people in the business now understand the importance of good writing, good proposals, crafting things and bothering with the details. And I hope a sense of bravery. I made some brave decisions, not as many as I could’ve or would’ve maybe under other circumstances, but the business should continue being brave. And lastly, I’ve had an amazingly fun time at HDI and that is part of the legacy I would like to leave. People should be able to enjoy life outside of HDI, but enjoy it almost as much inside of it.

9. If you could give advice to your successors, what advice would it be?

Be curious. Be savvy. Be brave. Be generous!

3 Oct 2016 10:34

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