Don’t default to the HIPPOs

Agency heads give their best leadership advice

From cutting out micromanagement, to overcoming loneliness at the top, to not defaulting to the HIPPOs; we’ve asked a selection of leading agency heads for their top business leadership advice and for their sources of inspiration.

What’s your best piece of leadership advice for up-and-coming agency heads?

Julian Douglas, IPA President and Vice Chairman of VCCP Partnership:

Great leaders have courage. They make big calls that define their agencies. They have the courage:

  • to stand for something.
  • to speak up. To push back. To say no.
  • to decline a pitch opportunity because it doesn’t feel right.
  • to lead their agency into new territories – geographically, creatively, culturally, capabilities.
  • to leave their agency and join, or even start, another – many great agency leaders are the founders of their own agency.
  • to leave the industry altogether – Jonathan Mildenhall was able to achieve far more for creativity as the Global CMO of Coca-Cola than he could as Joint MD at TBWA London.

 It’s not all about seniority – don’t default to the HIPPOS (Highest Paid People’s Opinion).

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.


Pip Hulbert, UK CEO, Wunderman Thompson:

You are only as good as the people around you, so invest in and develop your people.

Ben Bilboul, CEO, Karmarama:

Make it personal. It's easy to get caught up in the formality of running a business - the P&L, the pipeline, the process and the policies - especially when you're starting out. But fundamentally as agency leaders we're managing and nurturing human beings. And as the Sicilians say - the fish rots from the head - so a motivated and honest leadership team is a critical part of the job. Take time to understand the motivations of your senior team and what they want to achieve in the next five years - do they want to change the world? Do they want to make lots of money? Do they want Fridays off? And then work out how those motivations can serve the mission of the business in a mutually beneficial way.

Valerie Ludlow, CEO, ASG & Partners and IPA Northern Ireland Chair:

It’s fundamentally about being true to yourself, your ethics and your vision. For me, that means total honesty, open conversation, challenging the norm, lifelong learning, data and the ability to make a decision that never troubles my conscience. I work hard to learn and improve every day of my career. 

In the role of agency head, I have worked to develop a culture and workplace where I am surrounded by colleagues at all levels who stimulate and challenge, share opinions, debate their stance, and ultimately ensure our business (and me) never rest on our laurels; instead, it pushes us all to thrive and grow.

I believe that only when you have the confidence to present this authentic version of yourself, other people have the opportunity to believe in you, support you and recognise your ability to lead.

Dan Cullen-Shute, CEO and Founder, Creature:

Have you ever cooked a steak on a barbecue? It's an infuriating experience, because all you want to do is open the lid and check how it's doing, and prod it, and move it around a bit; and if you do, oxygen will get to the coals, you'll have fire all over the place, and while it'll look cool as you like, your steak is fucked. And yep, you guessed it, running an agency is the same. You have to get the right people in place, and then trust them to do what they're brilliant at - the micro-managing agency leader is going to be eating burnt steak every time.

Michelle Wright, MD, Gough Bailey Wright:

Keeping people motivated is key, most of us are at our best when we are working towards shared goals, and we’re even better if we have been involved in the decisions that shape them. Taking the time to share your vision by consulting with senior managers/business managers/team leaders, listening to their thoughts and feedback, and being open to changing your path if necessary, goes a long way to ensure that everyone is on board. If people feel they have a part in shaping the goals they will be more invested in the desired outcomes. It’s always good to be close to the people.

Ben Quigley, CEO, different:

Empower your employees. Give your team permission to take action and make decisions. Empowering them means there is trust in place to ensure actions are in line with agency goals. It’s okay if a colleague doesn’t get from point A to B using the same means you’d use, so long as they are clear about boundaries and what you are trying to achieve. When you delegate, accept that this may mean your team may complete the task differently than you would. Relinquish control, avoid micromanaging and accept that your way may not be the only (or best) way to complete a project.

Who are your leadership mentors, role models and/or sources of inspiration?

Julian Douglas, IPA President and Vice Chairman of VCCP Partnership:

My biggest sources of inspiration are my mum and dad. My mum left Ireland at 17 to become a nurse in England. My dad moved here from Jamaica at 13. I cannot imagine how difficult and exciting it must be to change country and culture at those ages, let alone the challenges they faced as a mixed race couple in the 70s and 80s. They both built their careers and my family through a combination of talent, study, love and sheer hard graft. Everything I achieve is thanks to them and the upbringing they gave me. They are my mentors, my role models and my inspiration all wrapped up and I stand on the shoulders of giants.

Pip Hulbert, UK CEO, Wunderman Thompson:

Be brave enough to try different ideas from different sectors. Look outside of your immediate business to learn different strategies and ideas then decide what to apply and experiment with to evolve your agency.

Ben Bilboul, CEO, Karmarama:

Find some external mentors and advisors as it really can be lonely at the top. At Karmarama we used people who had been there and done that and were able to put our problems in perspective. Particular thanks go to Nick Horswell and Jim Kelly who were our unsung heroes. And keep reading! Again I'd recommend practitioners over consultants - for example Ben Horowitz's great book - The Hard Thing about Hard Things.

Dan Cullen-Shute, CEO and Founder, Creature:

The D, L, K, and W of DLKW and Mark Cridge at glue all taught me more than I realised at the time; Melissa Robertson (now at Dark Horses) continues to be a model of 'how to be good without being an arsehole'; Shirley Watson (formerly of DDB now our CFO) forgets more about advertising in a day than I'll ever know; Cheryl Calverley and Kristof Fahy teach me more than I'll ever tell them to their face; and in Ben, Stu, Gibbo, Hanisha and Sian Welsh, I'm surrounded by a leadership team that inspires - and improves - me every day.

If you work in the industry and are interested in developing your agency leadership skills, the IPA runs a suite of leadership courses to help you on your journey. These include:

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Discount details

If you book a place on MBA Essentials, you can receive a 15% discount on either the IPA Excellence Diploma in Brands or the IPA Excellence Diploma in Leadership. If you book a place on IPA Excellence Diploma in Brands, you can get a 15% discount on IPA Excellence Diploma in Leadership or vice versa.

Last updated 01 May 2024