Welcome to My Net Worth, our regular column on the lives and motivations of our country’s top business, legal and political people in their own words.
Strahan Wallis is the chief executive of advertising and communications company Clemenger Group New Zealand. Raglan-born Wallis returned to New Zealand last year following a successful spell in charge of PR firm Porter Novelli Los Angeles, a division of the Clemenger Group. He now oversees some of New Zealand’s biggest media companies, including creative agencies Clemenger BBDO Wellington and Colenso BBDO and PR firm GRC Partners. Wallis targeted a career in PR at an early age, studying management and communication at the University of Waikato, before taking a graduate diploma in communications and public relations at AUT. After starting his PR career at BNZ, he worked for some of the world’s biggest agencies and corporates, including investment bank Credit Suisse in London, before heading back to the southern hemisphere to take up a series of leadership roles in the communications sector.
I grew up on a farm at Okete, Raglan, as the youngest of four boys. Our family has been in Raglan for 175 years. I got shipped off to boarding school, as all of my family had before me, and ended up at Auckland Grammar. I did my final year in Hamilton, though, as I wanted to know what it would be like to go to a “normal” school.
On a farm, you learn what a hard day’s work looks like. The mahi starts at 5am, and in the summer, you only get in at 9.30pm after haymaking. As a kid, you’re doing menial things like spraying gorse, but that set me up to understand incredibly hard-working, entrepreneurial people. It also taught me toughness. When I’m sitting in the office having a hard day, I think back to that.
I was one of the few people who actually intended to get into public relations from the start. From a fairly early age, of about 17 or 18, I made the call, which is unusual, as most people tend to fall into it. I started at Waikato, studying management and communication, but I was a really terrible student.
I left Waikato to do a cross-credit at AUT, and studied under an amazing man, Joseph Peart. As it turned out, he grew up on a farm next to mine in Raglan. He was a massive early influence for me, and he was so encouraging. I went from being a bad student at Waikato to quite a dedicated one at AUT because of him.
I didn’t know anything about corporate life when I got my first PR job at BNZ. My mother had to lend me money to buy a suit. A mentor at AUT, Suzanne Murrell, introduced me to Janiene Bayliss at BNZ, who I am still friends with now.
Janiene, with her shoulder pads, was quite a scary lady to me back then, working away at her desk. She told me what she wanted me to do, and that if I did a good job, she’d keep me on. My big break in the industry was really down to her and Suzanne. I’ve been very lucky, and have worked with some wonderful people over the years.
When working in London, I got to do all of the things you can’t experience in New Zealand. I even sat in on a conference call with Warren Buffett. I worked on the adidas-Reebok deal and held a phone call with him and the Wall Street Journal. It was surreal. I was thinking, am I really here?
While I was in London, my mum, whom I was really close to, got cancer. She ended up passing away while we were there. I came back home for her funeral and decided to move back. Sometimes life events can make you re-evaluate, and at that point, I was at a crossroads. So my wife, Rach, and I spent nine months travelling the world.
One of the great things about PR is that you get to work with senior people at quite a young age. So you get to see what a good leader looks like and what a bad leader looks like. That’s been a real privilege for me to watch and learn — not bad for a country bumpkin from New Zealand.
The big achievements in my career have always involved lots of people. I’m really proud of the work we did with the Recording Academy in the US (the American music industry’s representative body and best known for hosting the Grammys). It was purposeful work that had a huge impact on that organisation.
In leadership positions, the most satisfying times are when you see people in your sphere of influence flourish, be they staff members or clients. If you can have a hand in helping them out, these can be really satisfying moments in your career.
I’m a huge fan of having balance in my life. Mental health and resilience are really important. But my time in London also taught me to enjoy my work life. People there weren’t shy of having a long lunch or networking and meeting up for drinks after work. It can’t all be work, work, work, so the approach and balance over there were definitely influential for me.
A lot of people in PR are adrenaline junkies. We love the work and become engrossed in it. But you can’t do it all of the time. When you get a chance, you need to make the most of your time and get a break. Walking and thinking are important to me, and I love surfing — at least paddling around.
I often read Blinkist, an app that summarises business books. Often, you can read a whole book and the best bit is the last three pages of one chapter, so Blinkist just summarises it. So I spend a bit of time on that.
The most valuable thing I own is our bach in Raglan, as that connects me with my whakapapa.
I also have a penchant for buying surfboards — it drives my wife insane. The last thing I splurged on was a Don Takayama longboard, a noserider, which is perfect.
Rach rolls her eyes at my surfing and sends pictures to her friends in LA. She’s part of an Instagram group called Surf Widows, where they share posts of us doing terribly. Although I grew up in Raglan, where some of the best surfers in the country come from, I can’t claim to be a good surfer. I still love it, though.
As told to Daniel Dunkley.
This interview has been edited for clarity.