Tom Poynter of Southpaw: how knackered CEOs can survive adland’s permanent revolution


Company CEOs rarely receive a good press. The UK government recently announced a new governance code that will require listed companies to publish the pay gap between their chief executive and the average British worker. A response to the howls of protest that chief executive pay is out of control and CEOs over-valued.

There’s another side to the story, however. After months discussing industry challenges with some of adland’s brightest network and independent agency leaders, a prevailing sentiment is clear: being an agency CEO has never been harder. For many, exhaustion and disillusion have become a uniting theme. The inexorable rise of non-traditional ad budgets, short-term client relationships and less new business is taking its toll on some of the leading figures in our industry. Yet it doesn’t have to be so. Which is why, as I look around me and see the potential brain drain as talented leaders in their late-40s and early-50s cash in their chips to find fresh careers that are less exhausting, the time feels right to explore how jaded CEOs can get back their lost mojo.

Looked at one way, a certain ennui amongst this industry’s leaders is not surprising given the extent to which the rise and rise of digital pretty much reversed the polarity of the old world we once worked and lived in. The landscape changed, irreversibly, with social media bringing about a new era in consumer engagement. Marketing automation had profound impact on creative processes – and quality.

Talent requirements changed, too, with expectations fuelled ever higher. Meanwhile a new breed of transient nomads emerged who thrive on the empowerment that comes with freedom of movement – not exactly a sentiment conducive to fostering the continuity that comes from established, long-term teams.

Yet today, after the years of reinvention, restructuring and reinvigoration the reality in which many senior industry leaders now find themselves has all gone a bit beige. Small wonder that for some – especially those who came to advertising at a time when programmable VCRs were the biggest threat to the dominance of the four main TV channels and building brand fame meant a great 30-second TV script and superlative media planning – the magic is evaporating.

So if you fall into this emerging C-suite category of agency bosses of a certain age who are finding themselves feeling dejected, disgruntled and a tad jaded, what should you do? There really is only one answer: keep moving:

Take Your People To Your Heart

Embrace the people who work in your business – with whom you must stay close, especially when it comes to engaging with and understanding younger talent. Mutual lessons can and should be learned.

Foster a Progressive Culture

Cultivate diversity and foster a learning environment in which change equals opportunity and evolution is a permanent state of mind. By constantly striving for greater creativity you will attract and retain the best talent on whose shoulders your future success depends.

Challenge Received Thinking

Don’t just expose yourself to stimuli such as books by creative thinkers that inspire – be open to counter arguments that you totally disagree with to ward off complacency and keep your critical thinking skills sharp.

Challenge Established Practices

Optimise daily working practices and modes of work. Shake things up a bit: you don’t have to be based in Shoreditch to do advertising … sorry, creative content.

(Above All) Challenge Yourself

Question your attitudes, assumptions and motivations. Examine your feelings about change – school yourself to accept the inevitability of it and embrace it as an opportunity. Set aside cynicism about ‘novelty’ and do new stuff – which can be as basic as learning a new piece of software or as complex as becoming a seed investor in a start-up brand that you help bring to market.

If you try all these tactics and find that you’re still tired of advertising then it’s probably time to move on. But before you take such a drastic step, why not take a creative approach to tackling the things that are getting you down. With any luck, this will help you fall back in love with the industry you once cherished and your life – and your business – will improve incrementally as a direct result.

Tom Poynter is CEO of Southpaw.

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