The Five Cs of Successful Agency Leadership

This essay earned Simon John a Distinction for the IPA Leadership Course.

We are spotlighting some of the best essays from our MIPA qualifying courses and qualifications. Here, Simon John, Managing Director at JIN UK, explains why curiosity, consistency, culture, collaboration and creativity are the five keys to leadership in 2020.

It only gets tougher and more complicated

The title could legitimately be "The Six Cs of Agency Leadership" with commerciality having its own section. But given that the most successful agencies are the ones which make it integral to their businesses, the importance of commerciality features throughout this essay.

The demands from leadership have never been higher and agencies leaders are included in this. Their day to day challenges were already compounded by a backdrop of global volatility and disruption on an unprecedented scale such as: Brexit, trade wars, alleged Russian interference in elections, the slowdown in China and that was even prior to the coronavirus global pandemic.

All of these challenges have and are having profound impacts on the economic stability of the advertising and media industry. This pressure is further amplified by a job market where agencies "…can and will seek the best leaders and talent to achieve their goals anywhere in the world".

Whilst these macroenvironmental factors are universal to all leaders, the microenvironmental factors are more localised and, in some ways, more complex and transient. They include managing a young workforce (the under 30s constitute 45.6 per cent of an agency on average) and how the young workforce define leadership (think Colin Kaepernick taking a knee or Greta Thunberg leading youth climate strikes). In addition, a 15 per cent swing in digital media consumption versus non-digital between 2015-18 and the implications this has, not only in agency capabilities but also traditional revenue models, exemplifies the changing patterns of media consumption.

Navigation of these challenges means that today, more than ever, agency leadership is about the example you set and the culture you create – the legendary Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers famously said "others follow you based on the quality of your actions rather than the magnitude of your declaration". Successful agency leaders will be the ones that can reflect on the state of play around them, provide clear goals and mobilise their employees whilst consistently marrying this with listening to and understanding their clients’ challenges – no easy task! Those that do win in today’s climate will not only showcase the qualities and behaviours needed to succeed, they will emerge more resilient, innovative, thoughtful and responsible.

Be curious and ask questions of others and yourself

The future "is not shaped by people who don’t really believe in the future. It is created by highly motivated people… who want something very much". This drive to be the best is underpinned by an insatiable curiosity. Hal Gregersen told Forbes that one of the key traits he sees in innovate leaders is the ability to ask provocative questions that challenge the status quo. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric from 1981 to 2001 and who transformed the company to a multinational corporation, put his success down to being insatiably curious. A trait shared by the likes of Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and the late Steve Jobs of Apple who all shared the characteristic trait for staying relevant.

There is a pattern with these companies which can be seen in successful agencies. It starts with the ability of leadership to ask 'why' do we do what we do, keeping this front of mind and relevant and in turn making sure this comes through in everything we do. This approach can be seen in R/GA who operate on a nine-year revision cycle of their business model, continuously innovating to deliver against changing needs and creating competitive advantage for their clients by disrupting the status quo.

To be a truly successful leader there is a requirement to understand what you learn means to those around you and to understand how you can support those you lead to motivate them to achieve. As Alison Chadwick, Executive Coach and owner of Grow People explains, in order to create a high-performance culture, there is a need to balance support with challenge – understanding the right balance of enablement, empowerment and protection to maximise delivery.

Further, it is not enough to simply be curious of others, authenticity and self-reflection is also key to becoming and staying a successful leader which requires you to be:

  • Comfortable with what you are saying
  • Have a sense of purpose that align with your strengths
  • Understand the difference between being helpful and useful
  • Lead yourself and take responsibility

Jerry Colonna, CEO and co-founder of Reboot.io, argues that better humans make better leaders – acknowledging and understanding how we are feeling not only makes us better, happier people but better and more resilient leaders capable of understanding, supporting and motivating our workforce.

Empower people around a vision and be consistent in how you deliver it

State your intent and have a clear plan as to how you are going to get there. As with any relationship, successful leadership is the accumulation of the small things that are done repeatedly. As an agency leader it is important to be consistent which starts with setting out your vision, purpose and values – a north star that everyone can rally around - and which extends to how it is delivered day in, day out.

Much of BBH’s success is arguably attributable to their vision. Their mantra of "our objective is effectiveness, our strategy is creativity" remains appropriate today and gives the agency a consistent direction which guides the journey for everyone. This intent can be understood by everyone and is vital to generating momentum. Whilst every agency will have their own vision, there are lessons to be learned in making a vision easy to understand and apply:

  • Keep it simple
  • Create a shared language
  • Map out all the moving parts
  • Learn your client’s business
  • Understand the different levers

In his book, 'Winners and how they succeed', Alastair Campbell credits the success of sportsman, politicians and businessmen alike to having a clear objective, strategy and tactics which allows them to execute consistently time and time again. Maintaining this clarity mitigates against any reactive short-term actions which can result in chasing the bottom line and which often only have short lived benefits to the detriment of the long-term vision.

Get the culture right and the rest will follow

One continual challenge for an agency leader, is creating the space and freedom for people to come up with ideas and run with them. Agency leaders are tasked with creating frameworks for both the physical and environmental culture which motivates and enables people to take considered risks, voice dissenting opinions, be creative and discover new ways to collaborate to drive towards success for the agency. A truly successful agency will make the employees feel engaged, have a sense of purpose and, ultimately, have a commitment to the organisation, its values and have a willingness to go the extra mile for their peers, leadership and clients. Agencies are diverse environments where free thinking creatives sit alongside strategic planners and commercially astute 'suits'! Leaders need the ability to recognise that people are different and create the culture, tools and motivations to get the best out of them as a collective.

Creating a co-operative culture of helpfulness is core to successful teams and routinely produces superior results to individual working. A culture of helpfulness is the ability to understand and appreciate that people do not need to be experts at everything, they simply need to work amongst other people who are all good at getting and giving help. Leadership needs to define the conditions and culture in which everyone, not just the superstars, can excel together and a place where criminals are not harboured. Creating this environment builds trust and allows for all parties to focus on their specific tasks, knowing that the result will come together because of the contributions of the whole team.

Collaborate, you cannot do it alone

Collaboration is one of the keys to success for an agency given that an agency comprises a grouping of people with different interests, perspectives and skills. But collaboration should not only be an inward facing behaviour, clients and partners should also be included. In fact, some of the oldest agency-client relationships have been built on aligned objectives and shared goals, without which there can be no continued unification.

Internal collaboration:

  • Build a relationship with your staff, finding great talent is harder than retaining it.
  • Find ways to get employees reaching outside their silos to find people and partners with complementary expertise to learn more, sell more and gain skills faster.
  • Make it easy for the Board to say “yes” to your proposal. Build their trust by showing them how, where and when the value is created.
  • Understand your different investors – what do they want: maximum returns, managed risk or sustainable growth?

External partnerships:

  • Understand and discuss your client’s goals (including those beyond advertising) and how you can help deliver them. Align on the objectives and agree on the plan to achieve them. Do not accept a brief without a genuine dialogue with the client to ensure a full understanding of the client’s aim, to communicate any impact your delivery of the brief will have on your business and to set the tone of the relationship early.
  • As briefs get more complex, there is necessarily greater reliance on partners. These relationships are commercial and a two-way road. Understand the expectations of each party, what they are looking to achieve and how you might get there together.
  • There are lots of industry bodies, like the IPA, who have huge experience and expertise. It is important to understand how they operate and where and when they can support you.
  • Do not forget about the consumer. Listen to them, hear what they say and make sure that others are too.

To promote collaboration as an agency leader, be the first to listen and the last to speak. Get to the bottom of people’s motivations, their financial goals and how they want to engage. And do not forget, be there for them as you would expect them to be there for you!

Think creatively at every opportunity

Sera Miller, a regular contributor to the industry conversation on effectiveness and Co-Founder at The Fawnbrake Collective, points out that more creative companies are more successful companies. Cannes Lions Creative Marketer of the Year companies outperform the S&P 500 by a factor of 3.5 (based on average annual share price growth). Creativity should not only be present in agency output, it should lie at the heart of modern agency leadership and be entrenched throughout the business.

Motivating people to be creative requires allowing and encouraging others to express their creativity and views. This can start with using simple open statements such as:

  • The things I like about it are...
  • I think it would be even better if...
  • The questions I think still need answering are...

Being a creative leader is a multifaceted skill including promoting different ways of working and managing your staff, setting office environments, establishing new commercial models including commercial creativity (creative advertising is more effective advertising, delivering eleven times the ROI of non-creative campaigns) and being present in the today whilst keeping one eye on the future.

The adaptable leader

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, 2020 was predicted to be a year of optimism for the advertising and media industry. But even in the face of exceptional challenge, there are still multiple leadership levers that can and must be pulled to control the success of an agency. Fundamentally leadership has not changed over the years and it is no different from industry to industry. 

Key to agency success is how you mobilise the people in your organisation around common goals and values to deliver results. This starts with the culture you create and culminates in the empowerment of your people.

Identifying your key players and building a culture of trust allows a leader to focus on defining the vision for everyone to follow. To deliver this, it is vital for the ultimate leader to have the drive and desire to want to better oneself, not just for themselves but for the benefit of the agency, employees and clients. A successful leader must be continuously curious to evolve their own thinking whilst having a consistent application irrespective of the external and internal pressures which try to derail their approach. Alongside this, there is a requirement to be creative in how you approach problems and out think the competition. In today’s disrupted socio-political landscape, success is not guaranteed, but leaders who build a unified team and spirit will be the ones with the best chance of being successful!

Simon John is the new Managing Director at JIN UK. This essay earned him a Distinction for the IPA Leadership Course. 

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Last updated 17 September 2020