David Ogilvy once observed that giving somebody a new title would
guarantee you at least two more years of satisfied service without
costing money. And it's easy to apply his cynicism to the flurry of
senior promotions being dished out by some major agencies.
Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, BMP DDB, Leo Burnett and HHCL & Partners have
all moved people a few rungs up the managerial ladder and exposed them
to the tantalising prospect of running the store one day. The hope is
that they'll all succeed spectacularly. Some won't.
A combination of recession and short-term thinking in the past has
resulted in a shortage of seriously bright people capable of filling
boardroom jobs. Even more worryingly, there's every reason to believe
that the decline in senior management mentors in agencies is going to
make a bad situation worse.
How has this happened? Time was when agency powerhouses such as Ogilvy &
Mather and J. Walter Thompson saw it as a sacred responsibility to put
the next generation of management in place.
The conspicuous absence of management material may be the result of a
number of factors, some historic, some economic.
The late 70s and early 80s spawned a number of exciting new agencies
which grew rapidly while enabling their brightest people to build their
management experience fast. Few start-ups since then have expanded at
the same pace and their founders have often been more concerned with
fulfilling personal agendas than identifying tomorrow's management.
Meanwhile, big agencies opted for quick-fix solutions. As the good times
rolled, it was often easier to buy another agency - and the senior
management talent that came with it - rather than develop their own
A changing economic climate hasn't helped. When times were good, bright
young people who started out in advertising were tempted to taste other
careers, confident that there would always be a job for the asking. Now
things are less certain, cash-strapped agencies are much more likely to
follow Ogilvy's dictum than pay top dollar for top-rated outsiders -
assuming they can find any.
But if reasons for the managerial dearth are easily defined, finding the
solution is a lot harder. If there's any good to come out of the agency
jobs cull, it's the hope that the most able and ambitious people remain.
Agencies will need to satisfy their aspirations and desires.
Long term, the industry must recruit the best graduate talent. Short
term, agencies hunting for succession managements must acknowledge the
law of the jungle.