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How to appoint an agency CEO

If you have been around the industry a reasonable amount of time then no doubt you will have seen spectacular failures (when you thought they would be sure fire successes) and conversely very successful appointments when you thought no way would it work.

And of course we have all witnessed the ‘on the surface’ successes but when they leave, it becomes clear not all was as good as portrayed – in the press at least! This is true of any hire or significant promotion and no matter how much rigour you apply to the decision making process there is no magical success formula.

The basic premise of the CEO appointment has to be that the person has got the necessary hard and soft ‘skills’, personality and temperament for the role irrespective of their current role in an  agency. It’s important to recognise that this doesn’t mean the smartest person nor the most creative – these usually end up being the wrong choice for the CEO role. Besides having the skills, the person or persons choosing the CEO need to evaluate the candidates on having the following critical qualities (not in any order of priority):

  1. Ability to analyse and evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses and build a leadership team that fills the gaps / weaknesses in the leaders capabilities
  2. Builds and engenders a culture that is open (as can be), transparent and supportive
  3. Sees the big picture but is not afraid to get into the detail.
  4. Allows discussion, debate and even passionate arguments but once completed ensures the decision made is followed
  5. Always makes timely decisions – and they don’t always have to be right!
  6. An ability to delegate, delegate and delegate but ensures the ‘result’ is delivered
  7. Commands respect – from all parts of the Agency

But the CEO role is different to any other role in an agency. As Linda Locke pointed out in the earlier article in Marketing Magazine on the same topic, the role of the CEO is unique as it has the ability to truly shape an agency. So you have to factor in the ‘external’ factors that influence the decision to appoint a CEO. The key ones would be:

  1. Industry Disruption – global and local

We all know the marketing communications industry is going through tremendous changes. The CEO must be able to fully understand how these industry changes impacts the agency,  as he and his/her team must subsequently determine how the agency needs to change to meet these needs and take advantage of them, and within the constraints of the agency’s capabilities, craft and manage the delivery of that strategy to make the agency a success.

  1. The size of the agency.

The bigger it is, the more complexity, administration, scrutiny of numbers and the more the CEO is pulled into other things (new initiatives, NPD, regional clients and new business, etc.) than their clients and the work.

  1. The type of agency

A stand-alone creative agency has quite different challenges to a highly integrated agency with deep digital capabilities. The ability of the CEO to add value to the Agency will therefore  depend on how much they understand the complete offer / capabilities they have. For example, the more integrated agencies with deep digital (read data and technology) capabilities will dictate what the CEO needs to appreciate (if not understand) and how these capabilities will help clients win.

  1. Local and Network Management Complexity

Some of the bigger networks now have complex regional and local management structures and some can be highly political in nature. The CEO needs to know how to navigate this complexity, building support for their office’s key decisions whilst avoiding getting stuck in any regional politics or delayed decision making.

None of the above indicates whether a creative or suit would be more successful as a CEO – there are creative directors that get the digital world and there are senior suits who have no idea how clients can take advantage of their agencies digital offer. What is key is that the people who are responsible for the CEO appointment understand their agency’s needs and are able to evaluate which of the candidates can best meet them to make the agency succeed.

The writer is Paul Davies, managing partner of Roth Observatory International.

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