The key to running a successful agency is separating leadership from management

I was with some senior chaps from the ad world the other day and the discussion turned to the topic of management; the good, bad and downright ugly.

The collective view was that getting a management role is a bit like the curate’s egg – good in parts. One of the group was an ex-creative director and he feels his biggest career mistake was moving from a senior creative role as an art director to becoming creative director.

His reasoning was a combination of doing less of the work he enjoys plus the task of managing people and the misery of being blamed for things that don’t work out on the basis that the buck has to stop somewhere.

It made me reflect on the past for me and I tried to plot the high spots and low spots. The correlation was pretty well perfect because the unhappy times were to do with pure management rather than being a practitioner. Certainly after my agency Simons Palmer Clemmow & Johnson merged with TBWA followed by the acquisition of GGT I was ‘booted upstairs’ as group chairman and found most of the time I was dealing with stroppy people, politics, and very little to do with what I’m probably better at, and certainly what I enjoy.

The same happened at Ogilvy where I tried to keep close to a few live projects (for example I put together a small team to develop what became the MORE TH>N insurance brand) as well as getting involved in most pitches. These moments were the antidote to the management tasks that never filled me with any kind of passion.

The other side of the coin was all about working on interesting assignments for clients. Launching PlayStation was a massive buzz, turning around the fortunes of Wrangler was very rewarding; many other examples over the years were the high spots.

It made me think about the phrase ‘be careful of what you wish for because it may just happen’.

So many times in the past I’ve had conversations with people who claim they want ‘to get more involved with the business’ and I have honestly never understood why. In an advertising agency the key management tasks are finance, reporting, talent, new business. That’s about it as the rest is serving the needs of paying customers, the client base.

What I have tried to say to people is stick to the knitting and strive to be the very best at your core skill. The best copywriters get paid shed loads, have no other issues to think about and the agency support system takes care of their welfare.

The creative director on the other hand has 10,20,30 people under his or her wing all bellyaching about something from the office facing the wrong way, why account management are a pile of useless tossers, where to go for lunch for a creative review. Who needs it?

People don’t enter advertising to become managers. People don’t get trained in management or finance or law or property. Most people want to do the thing they enjoy the most and mostly that isn’t wiping the noses of spoilt girls and boys.

So this led me to a different point, leadership versus management. There is a big difference. Some people are natural leaders and they are needed in every business. So this division is something I hadn’t really thought about before I had this conversation. Then the penny dropped.

I’ve always disliked routine admin, I’m therefore not good at it and someone else needs to do it; however I’ve always been gung ho and rushing forwards to the next goal on the horizon. Obviously a great leader could be a crap manager and a great manager might be a crap leader. This on reflection I think this is why Simons Palmer worked, we were a team complementing each other’s strengths and compensating for our respective weaknesses.

This argues for a team rather than a person when it comes to management, someone to carry the leadership role and someone to carry the housekeeping role. Every business needs someone pushing forwards but with a counter balance of common sense and caution.

I began working with an account director at Ogilvy on a pitch and we forged a very strong working relationship. She would always say to new clients that I was the brains and she was the brawn. Her intention was not to diminish her role or elevate mine; it was to make it very clear who did what.

It worked every time; it was a very effective and very successful. The partnership of skills was much greater than either of us on our own. She was highly rated by clients because she delivered big time and once the strategy, creative direction and the general thinking bits were signed off I tended to drift in to the shadows and get out of the way!

For me this is a practical example of the management point, do what you are best at, don’t try and do everything.

So having thought about the conversation in the wine bar more deeply I think we all had the same issue in common; we are all practitioners at heart and therefore are not going to be the best at the management role. Maybe we are good leaders in need of a management partner.

My heartfelt advice to anyone working in the advertising world is to understand what you are good at, then work hard at developing that skill so that you shine out as being a great planner, an inventive copywriter, an award winning art director and avoid the temptation of wishing to move on to management unless you have your eyes open and done plenty of research. Talking to people doing or having done the management job is essential.

Final anecdote relates to a friend who is MD of a very well known and respected advertising group. We were chatting some time ago and I asked how the different management tasks were distributed amongst the team. He said he was responsible for making sure the loos were up to scratch and that reception was neat and tidy.

His point was that after finance and new business, both of which are handled impeccably in his agency, there isn’t too much to occupy the management. He is though a magnificent leader, a hard worker who keeps his hands firmly on the height of the bar the staff are expected to leap over.

The conclusion of this must be the need to define the role and expectations of someone about to take on a management role; I’ve never been given any guidance at any time and therefore followed my own agenda. This is why management for some can be likened to a poisoned chalice. It may sound good but it could be just the reverse.


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About Paul Simons

Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.

One comment

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    paul, you obviously have your finger on the button, and so you should with all that experience and passion behind you. you are in sync with with the revolutionary ideas in “managing creative people – lessons in leadership for the ideas economy” by gordon torr ex top creative leader at jwt who felt exactly as you did on reaching the top of the tree.
    also visit for a good debate.