Jay Haines of Grace Blue: why great ad industry leaders don’t need to be advertising people

Sir Martin Sorrell has been in the news again over his pay packet at WPP. His remuneration is a contentious recurring theme, but one thing that’s never been in question is his clarity of thought and understanding of the communications sector. And this begs the question – what will WPP do when the time finally comes for him to step down?

imagesSome businesses look externally to fill their leadership roles, but WPP is blessed with both some exceptional leaders in its constituent businesses and a solid group management team. Of course, taking a leader out of one of WPP’s successful agencies might adversely affect that agency, but the group’s culture is such that it will probably want to look internally, perhaps for another ad expert like Sorrell himself (left).

But while he heads an organisation that is big enough and talented enough to fish within its own leadership pool, not all businesses in our sector have that luxury. In fact, you could argue that adland as a whole needs to be less myopic and look for leadership talent beyond its own confined shores.

Like all commercial entities, ad agencies succeed by having the best leaders – people with the perfect mix of inspiration, innovation and commercial nous. And while historically they’ve looked within the industry for those men and women, on the premise that advertising is a unique space with its very own demands and expertise, times are now changing.

Yes, adland is filled with exceptional people who would (and do) make exceptional CEOs or senior planners or strategists, but they’re by no means the only ones who should make it onto the shortlist.

thumb.phpThe truth is that great leaders can come from anywhere, and to bring in an outsider can actually help redefine and reposition an agency. For example, when Grey London hired David Patton (left) from Sony as Group CEO. He came in having never worked in an ad agency, did a great job and is now President & CEO for Grey Group EMEA.

The fact that Grey is now perceived as a modern and creatively strong brand is in large part down to him. The best agencies and networks already contain a wealth of experience and acumen in advertising, so that the need for leaders to bring their own technical skills to the table has faded away.

An external perspective can actually kick-start an agency’s efforts to redefine what it is and what kind of business it wants to be going forward. To take one example, with many businesses in the sector still looking to reconcile the traditional mores of advertising with the brave new world of digital, having a digital expert at the helm can help immediately push the company into the right ways of thinking for these new channels. Mindshare US evidently has this in mind, having brought in Colin Kinsella from Digitas as CEO.

And leaders from outside advertising don’t just generate a new positioning, they offer a new perception. They instantly demonstrate to the wider world – both other agencies and clients – just how seriously the business is taking those challenges. It’s not just about being different; it’s about being seen to be different.

So where might an agency look for these exciting new leaders? Realistically, a great ad agency boss is going to come from the communications space – but that still leaves a huge amount of room to manoeuvre. There are top-quality people at media agencies, digital agencies and below-the-line agencies – perhaps even client-side marketers or broadcasters – who might be a good fit for the business and be able to take it in the direction it wants and needs to go.

What agencies need is someone who understands the service ethos (after all, advertising is still very much a service industry) and will be comfortable with the company’s culture and way of working. But at the same time, that external perspective can be invaluable and can provide useful insight into other sectors. It also can help reinforce the business’s long-term thinking by driving it in new, innovative directions.

That’s not to say every agency looking to bring a new leader on board should ignore its existing senior management and the leaders in its peer businesses. Sometimes, of course, the best person for the job will be another advertising specialist.

But when looking to fill those vitally important roles at the top of the organisation, agencies that get stuck in traditional, insular thinking – and automatically assume that only a fellow advertising expert will ‘get’ them – are cutting themselves off from a pool of highly talented, highly motivated, highly effective people.

Unknown-4Jay Haines (left) is New York CEO of executive search firm Grace Blue.

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