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The Rise of the Chief Client Officer

While the role isn't new, it's been enjoying a resurgence. But why, and what do they do anyway?

By ian darby

Agencies know that strong relationships with clients are fundamental to their success. But somewhere along the way, and the isolating impact of the pandemic hasn't helped, this knowledge was lost.

Xavier Rees, the CEO of Havas London and Havas CX Helia, says: "Agencies – if we’re being honest – have become less and less client-focused over the years." Yet savvy shops are already making moves to address this, with a flurry of recent appointments to the new role of chief client officer.

These include the promotion of Magnus Djaba, previously global president at Saatchi & Saatchi, to chief client officer at Publicis Groupe in November 2021. The selection of Jessica Tamsedge, the McCann London managing director, in the chief client officer role across McCann Europe and UK, followed in January. And, just last month, Havas London hired James Fox, the former managing director of both Lucky Generals London and New York, to the chief client officer post.

Publicis hopes that Djaba's strong relationship-building and leadership skills, plus proven experience of operating closely with organisations outside of agency life (he sits on the Premier League Equality Panel, and is chairman of Marketing Group of Great Britain) will pay dividends. Arthur Sadoun, chief executive of Publicis Groupe, praised Djaba's "deep understanding of our clients’ business needs."

But does the creation of the chief client officer role really improve relationships at a fundamental level, and drive forward standards of creativity and innovation from brands and their agencies?

Greater focus on client need

Havas' Xavier Rees says that the reason for hiring James Fox is to provide a greater external focus on client need, and improve its ability to view everything through the eyes of clients. The appointment also adds firepower to the agency's senior team - Fox will working closely with Rees, chief creative officer Vicki Maguire, global chief strategy officer Mark Sinnock, and executive strategy director Britt Iversen. This was needed at Havas following a period of growth and momentum, cemented by big account wins including Asda's business a year ago.

Jessica Tamsedge at McCann says the group and network element of her role is important, in terms of bringing together markets and disciplines around client need. While the majority of her time is externally focused on the client, there's also an important internal job to be done in terms of "creating a culture of community and connection" across the agencies to deliver the best results for advertisers.

Tamsedge is working closely with senior colleagues, the global business leaders who hold the client relationships at the highest level, and CEOs at individual agencies. While providing a clear point of view on a range of issues to senior clients, drawing on expertise across agencies in the group to provide this to brands, she is also involved in all aspects of growth, from existing client relationships through to new-business. And she's adamant that she adopts an "agnostic" approach in terms of the level of the people she deals with on the client side, and the marketing disciplines involved in delivering solutions.

James Fox at Havas might have a more localised, UK mandate but the challenges are similar. "My role is to provide the client with a very equal, executive-level, conversation, while working alongside my other partners [at the agency]," he explains.

Beyond "buying a seat at the table" with clients, Fox hopes that the role will then provide him with the ability to go back into the Havas business to outline solutions on where to strengthen without being focused overly on operations or a specific department (as opposed to the greater internal focus of, say, chief operating officers and heads of account management).

Future-proofing relationships

It's clear that this is a highly-skilled role, requiring fleetness of foot combined with the ability to deliver both proactive relationship building and reactive troubleshooting. The job also demands the flexibility to be positive and encouraging in order to meet with client needs. As Tamsedge puts it, while her willingness to "hustle" is important, success in the role will come through "influence not mandate" as she draws on the skills of more than a thousand people to "future-proof" the relationships McCann has built with major clients including XBox, Reckitt, and Mastercard.

While agencies are clear that there's no direct demand from marketers for the creation of this specific role ("clients give zero shits about agency titles and labels" says Tamsedge), it's also apparent that agencies have identified that it's never been more important to provide greater support to senior marketers. As Fox indicates, post-pandemic, CMOs are under immense pressure to "regain their footing" against their competitors, and relationship cracks will appear if agencies aren't there to soothe the pain points.

But, ultimately, the creation of the chief client officer role is pointless if it doesn't drive higher levels of innovation and creativity. Xavier Rees at Havas says: "Too often, clients have to choose between an agency that delivers brilliant work or an agency they can bear to work with – but clients shouldn’t have to make that choice. The truth is, happy, satisfied clients have always gone hand-in-hand with the best creativity – and James’ appointment will have a profound effect on our work itself, not just our client satisfaction scores."

At McCann there's a sense already that Tamsedge's appointment has made a difference to the work. She cites as an example a collaboration between its teams in Italy and Romania on a metaverse experience for Nestlé Lion cereal, which featured branded pyjamas that could be worn as virtual wearables at Metaverse Fashion Week in March. “I’m as proud of the commerce and brand salience as I am about the learning," Tamsedge says.

Thanks to tech such as AR and VR, new creative spaces are emerging for brands and their agencies in which to meet with consumers. There's no doubt that chief client officers can be a driving force in encouraging this form of experimentation and learning. That spirit, alongside providing meaningful support to marketers in challenging times, explains why the rise of the role represents such a positive step forward in connecting agencies with their clients.

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