Close-Up: Live issue - The rise of the chief strategy officer

Agencies are looking to this role to sharpen their practices and define their aims.

Anyone reading the news section of Campaign last week may have noticed a mini trend forming. No, not that there were loads of media stories, but that there was a number of new planning appointments, specifically chief strategy officers.

McCann Erickson promoted Nikki Crumpton from head of planning to chief strategy officer while Giles Hedger left Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, where he had been its joint planning director, to join the Leo Burnett Group as its group chief strategy officer.

More and more agencies are bringing this role to the forefront of their managerial strategy, generally placing them in a triumvirate alongside the chief executive and the executive creative director.

However, how a chief strategy officer's job is defined and how the role differs from the traditional head of planning still seems to be in flux, with each agency apparently looking for something different.

One week into the job, it is still early days for Crumpton but, after seven years as a head of planning (at both Fallon and McCann), she is clear about what her new role will and will not involve.

First, Jon Tipple, the former deputy head of planning at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, will take over as the head of planning to manage the day-to-day running of the planning department. So the hiring, firing, administration and reviews are definitely out of the window for Crumpton.

Instead, she will focus on taking hold of the management of the agency's brand much more significantly, while still being at the end of the line to deal with big strategic issues for all of its clients.

This will involve planning business strategy, not only on the PR and communications front, but also judging how to service clients better while looking at investment opportunities or where revenue streams come from.

But Crumpton stresses that it's not a glorified PR role. "Planning is taking a seat at the management table," she asserts.

However, at the Leo Burnett Group, the decision to bring in a group chief strategy officer only came after it merged the creative agency with its direct marketing sister agency Arc, which included bringing the planning, research, econometrics, futures and positional planning teams into one big division.

Andrew Edwards, the group chief executive at Leo Burnett, says: "This meant I was on the hunt for an entrepreneurial individual with the right level of experience, who embraced new thinking and would provide a senior level of management and support to guide this new division." And in came Hedger.

He will now work in partnership with Jon Burley, the group executive creative director, to create "better products and a better level of thinking". As part of the executive team, Hedger will be one of five running an agency of more than 400 people.

Russ Lidstone, who has been Euro RSCG's chief strategy officer since 2006, describes his role as being both inward- and outward-facing in the sense that he applies the same level of thinking and strategy given to its clients to the agency's brand and business.

As an equal partner, Lidstone says he has a broader overview of the business and oversees all of the accounts with the other senior management, Mark Hunter, the executive creative director, and Mark Cadman, the chief executive.

However, unlike McCann, Euro RSCG does not have a head of planning. Instead, Lidstone is liberated from the departmental day-to-day planning responsibilities by distributing these among its senior planners; almost like having a planning board in place.

At Grey, the chief strategy officer Neil Hourston's remit and influence extends across the agency at large, well beyond the planning department. This involves setting the strategic direction and positioning of the agency - such as what it stands for and how it sets itself apart - building strategic client relationships and getting involved with broader, long-term client decisions.

Working in what David Patton, Grey's chief executive, describes as a "buddy-buddy" system alongside Jon Williams, Grey's chief creative officer, Hourston has permission to walk into any part of the business and challenge its practices.

"His job is to quality control thinking across the agency so everyone is speaking the same language, breaking down walls and cross-fertilising ideas." It is a role Patton believes is now essential to building "a cohesive and innovative agency culture and DNA".

One industry source says they believe the role has grown in popularity because advertising is simply an industry of followers who copy the most recent trend, but Crumpton has a different take.

In her mind, as the boundaries between disciplines have blurred in adland, the way agency management teams are put together has also changed.

"The culture of collaboration has broken down the silo mentality. The walls have come down and the flow of ideas is much more fluid; it's now a collective way of working."

Chris Macdonald, McCann Erickson's chief executive, looks at the birth of this role as a sign of how the industry has woken up to the importance of strategy, planning and thinking.

"Planning slightly fell off the radar. It's a very different world now and strategy needs to sit at the heart of the agency. The way the world is going, with multiple media channels, we have got to be able to navigate into a different place," he says.

However, for David Jones, the global chief executive of Euro RSCG, appointing a chief strategy officer was an approach the agency has been taking across its global network, not just in London.

For example, in Euro RSCG's New York office, Andrew Bennett, its chief strategy officer, brought in management consultants and researchers to take a broader strategic lead for their clients.

It is a broader approach, beyond advertising and communication, which Jones believes is now vital to meet the needs of clients, who want to involve agencies much more in their business.

However, Farah Ramzan Golant, the chief executive of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, is sceptical about this "trendy" new role. Instead of hiring a chief strategy officer, her agency has joint heads of planning, Bridget Angear and Craig Mawdsley, who run the planning department, work on pitches and existing business. "The truth is I don't care what you call it. It's about the task, not the title. The best way for an agency to function is not to have a level of management in place, but to have practitioners. All of your talented people should be on the frontline gaining client business," Ramzan Golant says.

She is not convinced the chief strategy officer title has a place or function between the head of planning and the chief operating officer. She questions whether the chief strategy officer has been introduced in agencies where a strong chief operating officer is not in place.

But Edwards and Macdonald disagree. They believe the chief operating officer should have a legal and financial background not a planning one.

Edwards says: "The chief operating officer looks at the operation, not the products or relationships at the agency. The chief strategy officer is very much about the strategy of the product, as well as playing a part in the strategy of the agency."

Although the reasons for hiring a chief strategy officer vary across the field, everyone does agree that there is a clear distinction between those who run a department as the head of planning and those who are part of the management team and have a broader remit, vision and engagement with clients across the agency.

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