We are spotlighting some of the best essays from our MIPA qualifying courses and qualifications. Here, Agency Inc Chief Executive Matthew Morgan looks at how leadership is evolving and what it takes to run an agency in today's political and economic climate as part of the IPA Leadership Course.
We’ve witnessed a fundamental shift in the political landscape in recent years, with elected governments across the world now implementing policies to protect national interests over global interests. This inward view has resulted in trade agreements being broken, tariffs being introduced, and the free movement of people being restricted. Our elected leaders are making decisions that will inevitably change the way many agencies work, the clients they work for, and the people they recruit.
It’s difficult to write a piece on this topic without expressing a political bias. However, the purpose of this essay is to urge leaders to maintain a clear focus on the people they lead, and the customers they serve. If they can maintain that focus, and adapt their businesses to enable that to happen, even in the face of potentially dramatic macro-economic changes, they will continue to lead successful agencies.
Indeed, I would argue that international business leaders at this precise point in time must step up the fight and not be swayed from their paths by political and economic obstacles. Don’t accept the status quo. There is a solution to every problem. Continue to work with the best clients and businesses according to your business plan, and with the very best people, however that may be possible.
The core principles of running a successful business remain exactly the same. However, our individual and collective needs and expectations have changed, as workers, as consumers, and as business people, and they will continue to change at pace.
Business leaders have to develop a pattern of work which enables them stay in touch with these needs, and a model which is flexible enough to respond to changing patterns. This is the fundamental evolution required in agency leadership thinking to cope with the challenges ahead.
Agencies must continue to assess and embrace technologies and processes that enable multidisciplinary teams to be formed from multiple locations, to work effectively across different time zones, and in close collaboration with clients.
This paper briefly outlines seven qualities which agency leaders should already be adopting and following, but which may need to be dialled up a notch or two in the face of political and economic changes and uncertainties:
Our current political leaders aren’t able to offer a clear vision of the future, or a path for us to follow. It’s unsettling for everybody. During such times, business leaders have an added responsibility to fill the void, to provide direction and reassurance, and to support and empower people to keep delivering their best work, in a calm and creative environment.
Alison Chadwick, owner of growpeople, described the following characteristics seen in resilient leaders:
As a leader, you have to play to your strengths, and trust in your own experiences. Be confident in the direction you’re travelling, and why, and keep communicating this to everyone in the agency as often as you can.
Keep in mind the fact that leadership is highly personal. You need to know yourself and be yourself, rather than trying to emulate other leadership styles.
Almost every business goes through peaks and troughs on a cyclical basis. During times of feast and famine it’s all too easy to lose sight of the basics, the fundamentals which hold the agency together, and which empower employees to think and act beyond the strict confines of their individual job descriptions.
Leaders must continue to invest the time required to do the basics well - to define your purpose and values, and to set a clear vision and plan for the future. If you can be clear on the strategic objectives for the business, you can ensure that personal objectives are perfectly aligned to that vision.
Don’t let political and economic changes prevent you from working with the very best people in the world. Be flexible about how you work, where your team are based, and how you get paid. For example:
The economic climate has already prompted a shift in the agency landscape, particularly in the last two years. There has been a sustained increase in the number of in-house agency teams, and smaller independent agencies are adopting more agile, virtual models, employing specialists and resources only as required. Clients and procurement teams are much more open to such agile structures than they used to be. Leaders need to assess the processes which underpin the operational management of virtual teams to ensure that they can continue to deliver work consistently.
Agency account handlers and planners should be encouraged and empowered to develop a deeper understanding of their clients, to proactively invest time that their clients simply don’t have, to understanding their challenges, customers, trends and opportunities even better than they do. This requires the support and direction of agency leaders, especially if it’s at cost to the agency, and in the face of an uncertain economic outlook.
In response to briefs, agencies need to push themselves, and their clients, as far as they can to deal in facts, not assumptions. Agency leaders should foster a consistent research culture within their businesses, even if it results in portions of budgets being allocated to external research partners that might otherwise have been allocated to agency fees.
Research, benchmarking, and measuring effectiveness will equip the agency and clients to demonstrate the value of marketing investments, particularly when budgets are put under pressure.
Agency leaders must push their teams to prove the case for marketing, to reconsider the approach for presenting marketing projects and initiatives.
Ruth Saunders, founder and CEO of Galleon Blue, lectures on the need for marketing agencies to develop proposals which do more to sell the commercial benefits of marketing investments, to influence the senior managers and company directors outside of the client’s
Therefore, think like senior managers to influence them:
Be ‘on-point’ as they are time-starved. Make sure the agency proposals are:
The political shift towards protectionism which we have experienced in recent years is in contrast to the changing needs and expectations of international client companies who buy marketing services from agencies.
Increasingly, clients rely on agencies to put together networks of specialist people and companies that can provide the best possible solutions to their marketing challenges – from research and planning to production and implementation. They no longer want or require
teams to be drawn from a single agency, or to pay for idle resource through old fashioned retainer contracts.
Agencies need to move in the opposite direction of populist politicians, however difficult that may be. They need to share information openly, break down the walls between businesses, think outside of their own agency and their existing capabilities, be transparent
with their clients, and avoid trying to protect and keep everything for themselves.
The smarter agencies recognise that by doing what is best for their clients, even if that means diverting marketing budgets towards third party partners, they will ultimately benefit by growing with their clients over the medium and longer term.
The future of marketing agencies will be based on active collaborations, forging partnerships, and bringing the very best people together for each task. And with every successful collaboration the agency, partners and individuals involved will be enriched with new learning, skills and perspectives which will add further value to their client relationships.
If you can ensure that your agency is amongst the best in the market at what you do, you will protect it from many of the dangers of a falling economy.
For many agency owners and leaders, this will require them to narrow the field and focus of their business, to do more of what they really do best, and less of the rest.
As marketing budgets shrink it’s tempting to steer your business in the opposite direction, to try and pick up and deliver whatever you can, and whatever is available from whichever clients.
However, pursuing this strategy will change the shape of your agency and weaken the proposition to customers and new prospects.
Those agency leaders that can maintain their confidence, and hold their nerve, will do better in such circumstances, and will grow quicker when the economic conditions improve.
In addition to maintaining a clear focus on their external positioning, agency leaders must also ensure that new business efforts are consistently directed towards the types of clients that are best for the agency. You have to define the perfect client and the perfect prospect and try to ensure that any new opportunities are assessed against these criteria before investing time and resource into responding to briefs and pitching for new work.
Agency leaders should also be clear with new prospects at the outset. Set out the criteria and process that works best for you, and which you know will generate the best solutions and ideas for the client. Ask prospective clients to sign up to that, even before they have
decided whether they want to work with you.
Always consider asking for a pitch fee, and explain why, and what you will be delivering – research, insight, strategic framework, creative ideas. If the client agrees to it, they will have a vested interest in the outcome of your pitch. If they can’t agree to it, and you still decide to pitch, you will at least have made them aware of the depth of the process you are embarking upon, and the value of the solutions you are developing for them.
In the current economic climate, all clients are time poor.
You therefore need to invest time and agency resources to understand the complexity of their briefs and circumstances. However, your team also needs to be confident enough to deliver the simplicity of the solution, without feeling the need to impress the clients with all the background details.
Many people working in the creative sector are feeling devoid of leadership on the global stage. Nationalism, insularity and protectionism are fighting against the creative tide which encourages, and is enriched by, the open sharing of ideas across borders.
Business leaders may secretly rage against these barriers, but outwardly they must maintain and present an optimistic and confident perspective on how to overcome them.
Your agency needs you.