creative salon selects

Has the nature of leadership in advertising changed?

After the last few years of turmoil, agency leaders can be forgiven for feeling a bit punch drunk. But in adversity some important leadership lessons have been learned

By ian darby

There's no doubt that the events of the past two years have tested boundaries of resilience. Beyond the impact of Covid, people and businesses have faced a seemingly endless barrage of challenges - not least rising living costs, the spectre of war in Ukraine, and shifts in the nature of employment.

But perhaps these pressures have had a positive effect too. In the sense that they're contributing to a new-found spirit of openness and empathy among leaders. Not least in advertising when we heard Arthur Sadoun, chief executive of Publicis Groupe, speak movingly about having surgery for cancer.

The main reason Sadoun chose to comment publicly about his situation was, he said, "to be open and to be transparent", which involved showing a vulnerability not always on display from business leaders. But is this emblematic of a wider shift in leadership styles in the advertising world over the past 24 months? Creative Salon asked a range of agency leaders for their views.

Karen Martin, CEO, BBH London

Compassion, kindness and empathy have never been more important, across all levels of a business but leadership especially. The last two years have had a profound impact - on how we work, how open we are, what we share and what our priorities are. It has sped up a fundamental shift in how these types of characteristics are viewed and valued in leadership. It allows leaders to be open and vulnerable too, we don't have all the answers, how could we? So I suggest being a little kinder to ourselves in the process.

At BBH we work hard to create and protect a culture of kindness. I'm stealing words from our new CCO Alex Grieve here, who recently said when talking about what that means to him, that "kindness thrives on empathy and kindness insists on diversity." It shapes the kind of business we are and it shapes us as leaders, making us more generous, more open, more honest and more collaborative.

Andrew Stephens, co-founder, Goodstuff

The types of challenges, and opportunities, we are currently facing, are in their absolute form, no different – people, product, purpose and profit. What is different, however, is the intensity, pace and the interconnected nature of these challenges. For example, it’s hard to put on revenue when you don’t have the optimal resources and it’s hard to get the optimal resources when the industry’s talent churn is the way it is, and so on.

What I do think is interesting, and why I admire the CEOs of other agencies, is how on earth one individual copes with all of the above, and looks after themselves. At Goodstuff, Ben [Hayes] and I co-run the business which means that for all these challenges, we have two perspectives, two skill sets and two sides of the brain to call upon to help make the right decisions.

Fiona Gordon, CEO, Ogilvy UK

Leaders now must be able to pivot from strategy to execution – yes, it is critical to set a clear vision and be sharp on your agency's role in the world, but you have to be able to pivot at speed and land that vision with tangible actions. Words are simply not enough - we need actions to move forward. Our people need them to thrive, our clients need new ways to grow, and consumers demand that we evolve with them at pace.

To achieve that balance you need a lot of positive energy as a leader - energy begets energy. You have to believe we can make a real impact. I genuinely love my job - we work in an incredible creative industry solving problems with amazing, smart, fun people. Sometimes I think as leaders we need to remind ourselves and everyone of that. My best friend is an oncologist - that's a tough job.

I get my energy from people, and over the last two years despite the challenges I have been constantly inspired by people's capacity to innovate, to form new teams that just gel, so when you hear them present you smile and feel that bubble of excitement of what could be. As leaders we do have to be galvanising forces and release that bubble of excitement - helping our colleagues and our clients realize what is possible so all our people flourish and bring their own unique ideas. Energy begets energy.

Charlie Rudd, CEO, Leo Burnett

The last couple of years have created a whole set of leadership challenges, the like of which very few of us will have experienced before. But I think it’s been an absolute privilege to be a leader through these times. I believe most of us will be far better leaders because of the last two years. And I sincerely hope that means there will be a legacy of a stronger ad industry.

I was very fortunate to spend many years at BBH and of the many iconic mantras, the most pertinent for me was ‘none of us is as good as all of us’. I love this dismantling of the myth of the single advertising genius. It empowers every single employee. I’ve never enjoyed, or respected, the "command and control" leadership style. There is no point in hiring great people if they are essentially told what to do.

The new management concept I’ve been embracing is VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity). What a great summation of our times. It has undermined ‘command and control’ as it’s clear to everyone that nobody knows what is going to happen. Nobody knows! And anyone who says they do looks even more out of touch. But what I have enjoyed is recognising at this time, there is a requirement on leadership to change. We have to provide a lot more clarity, communication and compassion.

Clarity because although much is uncertain, we can be very clear about our plan and how we’ll succeed. Communication because things change fast and it’s incumbent on leaders to keep everyone fully and regularly informed and, therefore, engaged. Compassion because these are hugely challenging times for everyone; uncertainty is difficult and absolutely everyone in the agency will have ‘stuff going on at home’ to deal with as a result of these challenging times.

I’m excited that these leadership behaviours will be here for good. We’re better businesses because of them and our employees will demand this to be their ‘new normal’ if we want them to stay and thrive with us.

Dan Cullen-Shute, CEO & founder, Creature London

I hope in years to come we'll look back on these last two years as the period that revolutionised our industry - and transformed a bunch of "talking points" into business imperatives. Whether it's flexible working, a focus on D&I that delivers not just headlines but a more diverse industry, an understanding of infertility, miscarriages, the menopause, and other things that just weren't talked about before, genuine shifts towards sustainability and planetary responsibility - where before these were too often the preserve of niche, uber-progressive corners of the industry, they're now the foundation on which any kind of sustainable commercial success has to be built.

The last two years have, to varying degrees, been tough for every agency out there, and for everyone tasked with leading them: we now, though, have not just an opportunity, but a responsibility to learn, and to build an industry that's better for everyone in it. And shame on us if we fuck that up.

Jon Goulding, CEO, Atomic London

Leadership only ever really gets tested thorough periods of great adversity. We all have business plans and people we lead day in day out. But, as Mike Tyson famously said, “everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face”. So, I’m not sure leadership has necessarily changed. Just that it’s been properly tested in ways most of us have never experienced.

I believe 100 per cent that creative agencies are a team sport. The best teams win and retain business, create the best work, and provide the most motivating and fulfilling places to work. For me, the last two years has felt like having to do a complete 360 in how you lead that team.

Now we are having to use every ounce of every individual to help lead the team back together. To show why working as a tight team, physically not virtually, is the best way to work, and the best way to win.

Leaving behind the rigidity of back-to-back Teams calls helps more accidents happen. Because I think every creative agency CEO would agree that creative accidents happen in teams, not on Teams. But it’s a journey and I believe the agencies that get their teams working properly again across the whole business will be the ones that prevail.


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