On the Campaign couch: What makes a great agency leader?
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch: What makes a great agency leader?

Great agency leaders come in two forms.

Julian Douglas, the vice-chairman of VCCP, writes: Dear Jeremy, I have been asked to make a presentation on what makes a great agency leader. Considering I am not a great agency leader myself, and it is quite likely there will be several great agency leaders in the audience, this is proving quite a daunting task. As one of the great agency leaders yourself, do you have any tips?

Thank you, Julian – or should I say Dougie? – though I’m not at all sure that I’m grateful for this question. You make it difficult to answer for at least two reasons. Your title suggests that you’re an agency leader – or, at the very least, a vice-leader – yet you say you’re not a great one. But how am I to know whether you are or not? Indeed, how are you to know? And if you thought you were, would anyone else agree with you? And then you say that I am – or rather, was – a great agency leader; and I wonder why you think that, because I’m far from certain that I am – or rather, was. But then how would I know?

However, your question is an interesting one, so I’m going to try to answer it while keeping both you and me right out of it. I hope that’s OK?

First, a disclaimer. In order to avoid a succession of irritating qualifications, caveats and provisos, I shall sound a great deal more certain about everything than I actually am. Challenge me on any detail and I’ll roll over instantly and concede the opposite. (NB: no great leader rolls over instantly.)

So here we go.

Great agency leaders come in two forms: the Internal – or Invisible; and the External – or Highly Visible. They’re not alternatives: you need both. I’ll take the Internal ones first because they are the ones who are consistently under-recognised. But there’s never been a great agency that didn’t have an outstanding Internal leader.

They are seamlessly efficient but never officious. They are believed by all to be absolutely fair, a reputation they’ve earned by being absolutely fair. They may have favourites, but no-one knows who they are, least of all the favourites. The same applies to departments: if a glamorous department attracts a disproportionate share of esteem and popularity, the Internal leader will see that those more workaday departments have their regular moments in the sun; not as sops, but because the great Internalist knows that a great agency can be great, and stay great, only if it has disciplined and enthusiastic backstage professionals who know beyond doubt that their value is recognised.

Internal leaders have an important external role. They are trusted by their clients for exactly the same reason that they’re trusted by their agency: when they inform the client of a necessary change in the account team, they don’t fudge it. They tell it straight, and at the right time and in the right order.

There will be no surprises. The very presence of a great Internalist means that there is a presumption of probity and competence in all matters to do with money. They are principled, selfless people with miniscule egos.

And then there are the Highly Visible – the Great Externalists. It hardly matters from which discipline they emerged but nobody doubts that they have a mind of their own. However large their empire, their personal opinion is still sought. You feel they could still run up a multi-platform campaign themselves – and so do they. Unlike Internalists, the Great Externalists epitomise the agency; they stand for the brand. They love what it does and what it produces. They love winning; and they win a lot. They’ve never read a book on leadership but they radiate high standards. They don’t depend on their title for their authority; rather, they add lustre to the title. They just enjoy being – and their enjoyment is contagious. They’re very good company. Talented people want to join the agency because they want to be in the same building. Just because everything runs so smoothly, Externalists assume it must be easy; so all Externalists gravely underestimate the value of all Internalists. Internalists are happy to let them. Externalists quite often come in late and have been known to be vague about their expenses. Their egos are well-nourished.

Occasionally, a successful Internalist is given a new title and is expected to become an Externalist. It never works. But nobody would dream of asking an Externalist to become an Internalist.

So, there it is, Julian/Dougie: but I expect you’ve already made your presentation. How did it go?

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, Teddington Studios, Broom Road, Teddington, TW11 9BE