Editorial: Managing succession is too important to ignore

Three years ago, a Campaign journalist phoned the head of a WPP-owned regional agency to ask if there was a result on its pitch for a sizeable retail account.

The business billed several million pounds but was no big deal within the great WPP scheme of things. "Funny you should be asking, because I have just had a call from Sir Martin Sorrell, who wanted to know the same thing," the agency chief replied.

The story provides an insight into the way the big-name communication group leaders such as Sorrell and Publicis Groupe's Maurice Levy are obsessed by every corner of their empires. Call it control freakery if you wish.

But it goes to show how easy it is to become immersed in all aspects of your fiefdom - and how hard it can be to let go.

Having such well-known chiefs can be a mixed blessing. The upside is the sheer force of their energy and their abilty to access client companies at the highest level. The downside is their management styles do not encourage future leaders to be nurtured. Their natural inclination is to hire managers beneath them. This may work well in the short term; in the long term, there is a danger their groups are managed rather than led. There is a big difference.

But, as the feature on page 28 points out, succession management is too important to be ignored or deferred, not least because strict corporate governance laws in the US have elevated the issue towards the top of the agenda. However, there are even more important reasons why the leadership of the leviathans should not remain primarily with those who won their spurs in above-the-line agencies.

For one thing, the woes at Interpublic (which is now led by a numbers man in Michael Roth) are a warning about what can occur when insufficient financial controls are imposed from the top. For another, it is vital leadership of the groups reflect the diverse media landscape and the fact above-the-line advertising is a declining revenue stream.

Undoubtedly, the global communications world will be a less colourful place should the great wheeler-dealers like Sorrell and Levy ever decide to call it a day. But common sense dictates the groups they built are simply too large to remain under one person's control.

Collaborative management structures may not make for great headines, but the logic of them is overwhelming.

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