6 things agencies might not think of when looking for a new boss

Gay Haines, the founder of global executive search firm Grace Blue, gives her tips about things to consider when looking for a new agency leader, whether chief executive or executive creative director.

Gay Haines: the founder of global executive search firm Grace Blue
Gay Haines: the founder of global executive search firm Grace Blue

Great advertising agency leaders are thin on the ground. Ideally, when your business needs a new CEO, CFO or ECD you'll be able to promote an outstanding internal candidate or recruit from a top agency just down the road, but that isn't always the case.

Even the best agencies struggle to find exceptional leaders. That’s why you need to be brave, creative and imaginative. Great leaders have transferrable skills.

1. Look outside adland

Most agencies still seem to think only a dedicated ad person will do. But confining a search to the advertising industry can mean missing out on the wealth of talent in, for example, adtech, media and client companies.

Look at how Grey London brought David Patton in from Sony and revitalised their business. Many said "client appointments never work" but we’ve rarely been brave enough to put it to the test.

You might lose out on craft skills, but those can be taught (and your agency will have them in abundance). Provided the client has a reputation for creative empathy, there is an upside in gaining broader knowledge and credibility with the agency’s clients.

2. Look outside your geographical region

It’s certainly true that people from another country may struggle to understand the brands and culture of your market. However, senior ex-pats in other regions may want to come home. It would be careless to confine your search simply to the UK market.

Just as you need to think globally with your ad campaigns, do the same when hunting for a new leader. It’s more difficult, but it can work when the candidate has had no experience in the market. For example, Ogilvy’s UK managing director Jaimes Leggett went to M&C Saatchi Australia last year and has quickly made a difference.

3. Look outside your immediate discipline

CHI recently hired Andrew Bailey from Proximity and has just won the huge Telus Telecoms pitch in Canada. Did his background hold him back? Hardly. In such a fast-moving sector, experience in digital or DM or shopper has real benefits. 

4. Promote someone less experienced

Whether you look internally or from another agency, consider promoting someone exceptional from a number three to number one role. It’s a way to attract top talent to a less-than-top agency by giving them a leadership opportunity. And if it might upset one of your existing team, that’s unfortunate.

Nothing is as important as finding a great leader.

5. Bring back people who have moved away

Look at how Dare rehired Brian Cooper and Flo Heiss back in August. Stay in touch with your talent, whether they’re at another agency or went off to join clients such as Google, Unilever or News International.

6. Job share

This requires tremendous courage and I don’t know an agency that’s done this yet, but many people now want to work part-time (not just working mothers, either – perhaps an outstanding CEO wants to write a book?).

Might you consider having two leaders each for three days a week? The casting is all-important as they need to like, trust and respect each other, but it’s a way to seize strong leadership talent that is otherwise unavailable.

A significant by-product is that being given the rare opportunity to return to a senior role on a part-time basis will create both loyalty and commitment.

Given how scarce great leaders are, I’m often disappointed that more agencies don’t try something different when searching for the best people. Perhaps it’s time our industry showed off its innovation, imagination and creativity.


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