Should more ECDs demand the CEO role?

Appointing a CEO is never easy.

The CEO role, especially in the arena of advertising, is one which requires a delicate balance of understanding creativity and the game of numbers. While the former is abundant in any agency’s creative department, the misconception is that creative folks do not necessarily have what it takes to win the numbers game.

One agency that recently challenged this notion was Leo Burnett Asia Pacific. The agency handed Chris Chiu, chief creative officer of the agency’s Singapore operations, the CEO role. The appointment will see Chiu lead the agency in a dual capacity of CEO and creative head.

Just next door, the agency’s Malaysia operations is also being led by Tan Kien Eng, who took on the role in 2009. Much like Chiu, Tan also came from a creative background, holding the role of ECD of Arc Worldwide before the CEO role. Both Tan and Chiu report to Jarek Ziebinski, president for Leo Burnett Asia Pacific.

We ask Ziebinski if the agency has a soft spot for its creative folks and sees a special talent that its creative folks harbour. He said:

As an industry that has created some of the most innovative and creative works, we operate in a surprisingly rigid and traditional set up that we seemed to have worked ourselves into over the years.

The real paradox, he added, lies in the fact there are so few creatives sitting in the top positions in leading ad agency businesses.

“If you think about it, our industry was built by creative leaders. From Leo Burnett and Ogilvy, to Dan Wieden or David Droga, they all shared the same beginnings as creatives and entrepreneurs. It is therefore rather bizarre there seems to be a perception in our industry that questions the effectiveness of creative leaders as CEOs.”

Short comings of an ECD-turned CEO

According to Ziebinski, there really are no stark points of differences when it comes to challenges in taking on the CEO role.

Whether an individual comes from a creative background or not, business acumen will be needed to excel in the role of a CEO. What he specifically looks out for is leadership qualities and the ability to set a clear vision for the company.

“I have met many well-educated, smart, talented people who lack the determination and energy to be a successful CEO. I strongly believe that it really isn’t about what you know, but what you can do to achieve success in today’s hyper competitive world. Attitude, energy and determination are key. This is especially true for a CEO, or any leader,” he said.

In many organisations, the CEO is the face of the business and has to be a great storyteller. This is where creatives can play to their strengths, explained Priya Bala, regional director of specialist marketing, digital and creative industry recruiter font.

By nature, a creative director’s problem-solving approach is likely to be different from a suit’s, and hence, these creative folks will not be restricted by what they have seen or done before.

Where they are likely to struggle, said Bala, was in management and strategic business skills. Good creative work alone will not ensure the success of an agency. A CEO in the ad industry needs to also be able to manage P&L, staff, clients and have a “holistic view of all the moving parts of the operation they may not enjoy”.

Another point of challenge for an ECD-turned CEO might be with the relinquishment of control over the creative department.

“I have heard of some agencies facing bottlenecks because the CEO/ECD wants to have the final approval. But because he has not worked with the teams in the creative process, coming in at the end and wanting things changed ends up delaying the output and causing a lot of frustration,” Bala said.

In a conversation with Marketing, S P Lee, who has been the managing director and ECD of Dentsu Malaysia since August 2005, said the role essentially required a right-brain person to do a left-brain job.

“Going from ECD to CEO is the fastest way to lose your sense of humour. All creative businesses thrive on chaos, and how successful you are depends on how well you organise the chaos. One is risk-averse and the other seeks risks. One believes in discipline, the other is given to impulse. One creates process and the other tries to take it apart. This is the inherent discord in our business, but it is a necessary one,” he said.

He added that whether you were a suit or a creative who had been saddled with the job, recognising this conflict was necessary to harness it positively.

If you can, hire a top-notch management guru as your personal coach. It’s a minefield out there and everyone needs a Yoda.

Confessions of an ex ECD-turned CEO

Linda Locke spoke to Marketing about her experiences prior to her current role of marketing consultant of Club 21.

Locke held the role of CEO and executive creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi for more than 13 years. She was also chairman and regional ECD of Leo Burnett for nine years.

Much like Bala, she is of the view that CEOs of ad agencies needed a right mix of strong business, finance and strategic skills.

Most of all, ECDs, who have decided to don the CEO role, need good people management and leadership aptitude, communication and organisational capabilities.

“Not many would be able to compartmentalise the roles to function optimally and have enough perspective. Equally, not many creatives make good creative directors for many of the same reasons,” Locke said.

When asked what she would have done differently in hindsight, Locke didn’t feel like there was a whole lot. She added that despite the doubled hard work and stress levels, the role came with its own set of pros.

As both creative lead and CEO, an individual in this role has the ability to truly shape an agency and decide on favouring the quality of the creative product over money, especially when it will lead to more new business.

Meanwhile, when it comes to briefs, the CEO/ECD can also look at both the business implications and problems, as well as give the strategic and creative input that can potentially lead to more focused creative work. She said:

I would, however, have told my younger self to delegate the work a bit more, so there are less monkeys on your back.

(Photo courtesy: Shutterstock)