It’s simple. Things move too quickly nowadays and when all the decision-making in an agency goes through one person, the whole process grinds to a halt.
So, if the old hierarchical system isn’t working, where should agencies look to for a fresh approach? It might sound surprising, but from my experience serving as an officer in the British Army, agency leaders would do well to take inspiration from the battlefield.
I’ve spent time in both worlds – and the military principle of battlefield command and control, which devolves responsibility to the person on the ground, could teach adland a lot.
Commanders simply set objectives and trust their lieutenants’ experience will lead them to make the right judgement. How they achieve their objectives is up to them.
It’s a way of thinking that has grown out of the realities of the battlefield, where there’s a lot at stake and troops are spread out everywhere. The military has learned that those closest to the task at hand are best-equipped to make the right call. In situations that require a snap-decision, you can’t afford to wait for orders to trickle down through the ranks.
Battlefield command and control is precisely why Germany 100 years ago had the upper hand against Britain in the Battle of the Somme. While the British army was following orders from on high, German troops were pioneering something different, handing over the decision-making to leaders of individual teams on the ground.
British soldiers on the other hand, forced to stick to Field Marshall Haig’s grand plan, only dug themselves deeper into a long and grisly stalemate.
Translating this devolved approach into an agency environment is no easy feat. But in my experience, it all starts with recruitment – senior executives should devote as much energy as possible to finding the right staff. After all, if you’re going to leave people to act on their own, it’s crucial you have the absolute best person on the ground.
The same rigorous selection process is central to the structure of the armed forces. For example, Sandhurst, Britain’s prestigious Royal Military Academy, only accepts one in every thousand applicants.
In agency-land, it’s vital to have internal leaders who are on brand. A keen grasp of a company’s core values means that when confronted with a problem, they’ll be able to get to the right solution first time. Of course, finding somebody who ticks all the boxes as a leader isn’t a walk in the park either.
It’s vital to have internal leaders who are on brand. A keen grasp of a company’s core values means that when confronted with a problem, they’ll be able to get to the right solution first time.
Though there isn’t a magic recipe, there are several qualities to look for in a reliable leader – which can be assessed when meeting with them.
Often I’m more interested in the personality of a candidate, than their professional achievements. When we meet I’m already familiar with their creative work. What I really want to know is what they do outside of their day job.
Why? Because an entrepreneurial spirit shows they can act on their own, the most crucial attribute to consider if you’re devolving decision-making responsibility. You want staff who can tackle problems creatively, who have the initiative to deal with a situation they’ve never encountered before.
Emotional intelligence is a key driver too. To make the right decisions you need to be able to understand people. And that doesn’t just mean being able to interact and empathise within your own organisation. The creative industries hinge on client work, so being able to read the person paying for your services is paramount.
In fact, these principles have a lot to say about the client-agency relationship more broadly. The rigidity of traditional models can be time-consuming and restrictive, which Oliver's in-house approach works to solve.
This emphasis on sensitivity applies for the C-suite creative leaders as well, albeit in a slightly different way. Just as the old military stereotype of the shouty, autocratic officer has died out, the role of creative leaders has changed too. Leaders at the highest level should offer support and guidance, not tell people what to do.
Mistakes happen, it’s the job of those at the top, armed with years of expertise, to help their staff solve those mistakes when they arise – as fast and efficiently as possible.
General Slim’s advice to his commanders was "to be the person people can come to with a problem". When staff are too scared to come to you mistakes get concealed, which can be disastrous. So, sensitivity, by building an atmosphere of support is far more effective and good for business too.
General Slim’s advice to his commanders was 'to be the person people can come to with a problem'. When staff are too scared to come to you mistakes get concealed.
Giving people responsibility allows them to fail, which is part and parcel of building strong, experienced staff. What’s more, as you give people more responsibility and freedom, their creative outputs improve too. It’s wonderful to see. Devolving responsibility actually emboldens people to think more creatively and create better work, making them genuinely happier in their jobs.
Marketing and advertising agencies aren’t dangerous environments. But like the military, they are fast-paced and increasingly unsuited to a centralised approach to decision-making. Checks and balances are crucial, but too much control hampers creativity.
Ultimately, it pays to dispense with hierarchy, put the right people in place and trust them to come up with the best solution. If they fail, it’s up to those who put them there to provide the necessary support.
Brian Cooper is the chief creative officer at Oliver Group UK.