He chases challenges; he’s restless to evolve. PR and marcomms man come business leader, Aaron Crowther, has started companies, led countless teams, and is making a difference to the community as the chief brand and reputation officer for St John WA.
Starting his early career in the exciting world of journalism – chasing stories all over Asia, North America and Europe – today Crowther is more down-to-earth and practical, using his communications and branding skills to tell purposeful stories about the charitable, non-profit humanitarian organisation that’s been an integral part of the Western Australian community for more than 130 years.
As Crowther says, “stories are so rich in the health and emergency services space,” so he’s on a mission to tell stories in two important ways: highlight the social impact St John WA is making; and celebrate the character of the people that deliver its services.
Stories Ink caught up with Crowther – the proud Novocastrian – to discuss his lessons learned after working over 20 years in some pretty big comms and brand experience roles across APAC (in-house; agency and in the media); some of his coolest/funkiest projects ever; and what it means to be working to make the community a safer place.
Quick time frame of where you were born, raised, schooled. Tell us a bit about your:
I was born in Sydney, but raised in regional NSW. Even though I now live on the other side of the country and in spite of where I was born, I still consider myself a Novocastrian, having spent much of my early life near Newcastle.
I come from a proud public schooling family.
Growing up, what did you want to be?
Growing up I thought I might like to be an architect, but also flirted with the notion of studying law at one point. Truth be told, in some ways I feel like life chose my profession for me. There have been lots of choices I have made along the way, but I’m pleased to be where I am. It has been a great ride.
What were some of your first and most memorable jobs?
My early career was in journalism and it took me all over the world, which as a young person was pretty exciting. I spent time in Asia, North America and Europe and still maintain some of the connections today from those times.
How did your journey lead you to St John WA?
When opportunity knocks, I’ve always answered. For me, this job has been the best I’ve ever had. I still get to play in the areas that can be reasonably considered my core specialist skills in communications and brand, but it has also allowed me to continue my leadership journey. Getting the most out of people and teams is something I’m incredibly passionate about, so the mix of strategic business responsibilities was a motivating factor within the context of a large enterprise organisation. Add to that, I get to work for a purpose-driven not-for-profit and I know I’m investing my energies in making my community a better place.
Can you tell us about the organisation – and your vision as the chief brand and reputation officer?
St John in WA is massive, not just because it has a workforce of 8,000 and spans the largest single health system geography in the world, but because over the last 130 years it has designed a fascinating network of connected services, from the delivery of first aid training, physical and digital products, to the work we do with our Health Centres including GP, Urgent Care and Dentistry, to our Emergency Ambulance operations, which is the only one of its kind in Australia. All other states use a public service model. With our community, we’ve been able to create a unique offering here that delivers a cost-effective, yet innovative business. It’s both inspiring to be a part of and have a responsibility in leading. In that respect, my role isn’t typical of a CMO. I have responsibility for leading our First Aid business and Community First Responder Network, as well as our Group Business Development too.
What stories do you want to tell while in this role?
Stories are so rich in the health and emergency services space, so with my portfolio being so broad and including Brand Media, Marketing Programs, Fundraising and Community Engagement as well as the other business areas I mentioned, we have a series of platforms – in person and online that allow us to share. I break them down into two categories, those that highlight the social impact we make, and those that celebrate the character of the people that deliver our services.
You’ve held some pretty big roles – company director and managing director in PR and marketing land and now in the humanitarian arena. What are some of your main lessons learned from some of these unique and diverse experiences?
I would say my main lesson throughout my career has been to bridge understanding – whether that be on a one-to-one basis, or more broadly when using insights to design services, or drive impactful campaigns. The finances and the specialist technical skills are never as important as building a cohesive team that wants to work for each other and I think this applies to all industries.
You’ve had 20 years of comms and brand experience across APAC – in-house, agency, and in the media. Can you highlight some of the coolest/funkiest projects ever?
Rebranding Western Sydney University was certainly a highlight. That work was acclaimed by Gruen and it was amazing to be a part of that collective. It showed how great people and ideas can come together under a shared vision to deliver something really special. The Deng Adut content brought it all to life, as the embodiment of what can be accomplished in the right environment, with determination and passion. That campaign won all kinds of awards and is still commented on today in and out of the sector.
I’m also really proud of some great work at St John. Through our programs, we’ve been able to empower a community network with first aid skills and mapped defibrillators around the state via our app, so they can be an active part of the chain of survival. They say it’s PR, not ER, but for us, it actually is about saving lives. You can see this in the stories of our book, Land of Legends. This has been a core program for us under my leadership. It highlights the myriad of ways we’ve served our community, with emotive, shareable stories that unify our brand promises in a simple way. We produced this with local artists and it’s been an incredible strategic platform to recruit volunteers, link services and fundraise.
Can you highlight some of your main achievements/milestones in your career thus far?
When I look at some of the people I’ve led who have gone on to achieve incredible things, I consider those achievements. It’s special to be a part of other people’s successes, to have played a part in their journey. Beyond that, winning a host of awards with Red Agency (Havas), and then with Magnum & Co were lovely acknowledgements. Being judged by your industry peers for doing good things is always nice. In that sense, being called out by Campaign Asia in their 40 under 40 list a few years back was a milestone.
What’s a fun fact or something people don’t know about you?
I’m a pretty open book. I have blogged about my travels, experiences and general musings, so I don’t know how many fun facts there are. Maybe that I still harbour a dream of one day writing a novel. I’ve started a number of times but am yet to finish.
Have you had many challenges or hurdles to overcome?
Professionally, I think I chase challenges. I’m restless to evolve, so I want to keep testing myself. Starting companies, leading people, making a difference to the community, leading an emergency service through a once-in-a-100-year global pandemic, all come with hurdles, but in my life, they pale in comparison to trying to balance my professional aspirations with being a good husband and father. I have three boys and the littlest two have had some health issues. Supporting them and my wife through that has been tough at times, but I’m fortunate to have wonderful friends and family and a team at work that’s amazing.
What’s the term leadership mean to you – and what type of leader are you?
I’m a lifelong learner. I aspire to ask good questions and listen attentively to what is said and what is left on the table. I’m also prepared to be vulnerable, because I think you have to back yourself as a leader to make bold calls, and that means balancing risk, failure and opportunity, but being brave enough to try.
What are your top priorities for the next 12 months?
I have a lot in my portfolio, and in the more established spaces, I’ve brought in some great talent to lead those departments, so I’m keen to get more involved in some of the areas that have untapped potential to make a bigger impact. Our products, services and digital tools for community confidence, capacity and competence are just getting started, so I want to see this go into overdrive over the next year. I’m also the executive sponsor of our Reconciliation Action Plan and we’ve much work to do there too.
Looking back on your career, is there anything you’d change?
Don’t stress about things that don’t matter or you can’t change. Do the work up front and then let it be.
What are some of your passions in life? Favourite things?
Football. Food. Family. Music. Alliteration. Damn.
What exciting tech or martech changes have you seen over the course of your career?
Working in enterprise tech, I was proud to be a part of the cloud revolution. I hosted the first media conference Australia ever had on this game changing technology, and it helped form the strategic thinking for my organisation globally. Obviously, in more recent times, the rise and rise of social media has also been incredible to witness, particularly having worked in agency land, where you have to stay across this fast moving space to advise a raft of different clients how they can use it to their advantage. In practical terms, this has been incredibly helpful when it has come to St John’s roll out of Yammer as an internal community tool.
And finally, what do you wish to achieve moving forward?
I want to raise good humans. I want to inspire positive change. I want to be respected, not just for what I’ve achieved, but the way I’ve gone about it.