What does a creative director know about running the agency business?

Just a few days ago, we ran a story Should more ECDs demand the CEO role?

As a follow-up to that Marketing spoke to a number of ECDs who now helm an agency with complete P&L responsibilities. From facing challenges of perceptions to the daunting task of uniting the agency as one team, these CEOs have faced it all. While these challenges may not be very different from what most CEOs face, being creative leads in their past lives makes this transition a bit more nuanced.

According to David Smail, chairman and ECD of BBDO Vietnam, the biggest struggles when evolving from an ECD gig to an agency leadership role are external factors and the perception of them being “simply a creative guy”.

Over time, the dual role has also opened his eyes to factors such as the office environment and the agency being a place individuals would want to thrive in, he says.

He adds that wearing the dual role requires him to “care more holistically about different elements of the business” – which is something he now embraces. Not only does it make him care about coming up with a great communication idea, but also getting the work executed on time.

“It’s caring that we have a viable business, and making some considered decisions that may have real impacts. Caring more about making sure our people are being taken care of, with things like good health insurance (my mum always badgers me about that one), and caring that our people have ample time away from work with family and friends,” he says.

For Josh Moore, ECD and CEO of Y&R New Zealand, the biggest struggle was in learning to balance strategic, creative and client responsibilities.

“You’re pulled in every direction and while it’s extremely energising, it’s also unsustainable,” he says. The trick, he adds, is to quickly determine where your energy should be directed, that is, in the order of your priorities.

Being CEO doesn’t suddenly change the fact that the quality of the agency’s IP is all that really matters.

"Great ideas in the market define the agency brand, generating ROI for our clients and, in turn, organic revenue growth for us. New business opportunities quickly follow,” he says.

Meanwhile, recently appointed CEO of Leo Burnett Singapore, Chris Chiu, says what has helped him immensely in the transition was already having been in the Exco management of Leo Burnett Singapore during his ECD days.

Hence, the usual transition woes of having to familiarise oneself with the business parts was not overwhelming – having been a part of those conversations from day one.

He adds when it came to meeting clients, even before he was appointed CEO, frequent meet-ups were a must for him. This familiarity helped make any possible transition friction, on either side, a little more seamless.

Sure, there are some administrative parts that are markedly different from doing a creative review or hiring a creative team, but it’s all pretty logical once you roll up your sleeves and get into the thick of it.

And managing people is a big part of that transition. Once at the helm, these creative leads, who were pretty much focused on just one aspect of the agency, now need to consider all other teams equally and vice versa. Biased views and sceptics are therefore only natural, but getting rid of the sceptics isn’t always the best option.

As Tan Kien Eng, CEO of Leo Burnett Malaysia, says: “I chose not to fire anyone, but instead worked with existing resources, even the sceptics. I focused on being firm, set high standards with the promise of rewards and recognition for team members when collective goals were achieved.”

Tan took on the role of CEO in 2009. Tan was also previously holding the role of ECD of Arc Worldwide.

For Tan there were some self-imposed challenges such as how to unite a complex agency structure with many different heads of departments and senior people into one team.

There was also the urgent need to transform a traditional ad agency into an enterprising and contemporary solutions-focused creative agency.

“We were and still continue to explore different ways on how we can deliver the business growth to sustain our momentum. Not to mention the development of our people as well to meet future demands – all very exciting,” Tan says.

Advice to those aiming for the role

To put it simply, as an ECD you spend 80% of your time on the creative product, creating ideas to solving “positive” problems and the balance of 20% on administration.

“As a CEO you end up with 80% of your time dealing with people (which can be most challenging at times), business and another 20% to ensure we have the best work leaving our doors. But that’s not all, on top of the 80% and 20% you need another 50% to find ways to constantly reinvent yourself and the agency. Hence, be careful of what you wish for,” Tan says.

One advice Smail gives to any creative professional aiming to take on the top role is to conscientiously be strict with time. The role often requires him being pulled in several directions, while trying to maintain a consistent course.

“My advice to anyone, and myself on a daily basis, is to be conscientiously strict with time. Making sure I proactively allot time for doing the management tasks, time for doing ‘the work’, time for clients, partners and the crew, and just as tantamount, time for caring about the people in life away from the job,” he says.

He doesn’t care much about the prejudice that creatives don’t have the acumen to the shoppe. It’s a misconception, he says, adding he was never a big believer of the left brain/right brain theory.

I presume our brains are much more complex apparatuses than that. I like to think that we all have different pockets of neural talent in our grey matter, regardless of which hemisphere they may reside. It’s just a matter of being able to throw a switch every so often.

Y&R’s Moore adds that in the dual role, a CEO from an ECD background should use their judgment as an ECD to protect that great work even more than you could previously.

“How you go about that will be different for every ECD making the transition, but if you keep great ideas and great effectiveness as your key focus, you’ll find your way,” he says.

Leo Burnett’s Chiu adds: “Sounds terribly clichéd, but it’s so very true – you’ve got to thrive on what you’re doing. If you look at it as a job and just that, you’ll bring the wrong kind of energy to the organisation and that will be toxic. Very quickly.”