Close-Up: Are chief strategists just souped-up planners?

Has globalisation led to a need for a CSO in UK agencies or are they little more than 'fashion accessories', John Tylee asks.

As the incoming chief strategy officer for Publicis Group UK, Tom Morton assumes a title that, a few years ago, few in the UK ad business would have encountered. Fewer still would have been able to explain exactly what a CSO does.

Today, the CSO has become a much less rare breed. Earlier this month, WCRS appointed Jonathan Moore, a former senior Unilever marketer, to the role. This followed a similar move by Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, which promoted its planning chief, Ben Kay, to the newly created role three months ago.

Meanwhile, Leo Burnett, Grey and McCann Erickson have all recently announced broader roles for their top strategists - Giles Hedger, Neil Hourston and Lee Daley respectively.

The emergence of the CSO is being attributed to the state of flux the industry finds itself in. "Agencies increasingly think of themselves as brands," one CSO says. "That means they need real clarity of thought in working out their strategies."

But as CSOs proliferate, so grows the debate about whether they have a meaningful role to play - or whether they are just planning directors with knobs on. Richard Pinder, the Publicis Worldwide chief operating officer, believes it's probably the latter and may be linked to the industry's increasing globalisation and the fact that "strategy" is a better understood definition of "planning" in many markets beyond the UK. Another senior executive simply describes the CSO title as "a fashion accessory" for a lot of planning directors.

However, advocates of CSOs claim that their arrival within the UK ad industry is merely reflective of what's happening in the wider business world. "A chief executive's decision-making is increasingly influenced by strategic issues that aren't within his skillset," Hedger explains. "So why shouldn't the CSO help him make the right decisions about the agency's future just as he helps the agency's clients?"

Some also see CSOs as the answer to what has been one of the industry's biggest shortcomings - a failure to transform enough of the talent it attracts into broad business advisors to clients.

But isn't that what planning directors are supposed to be doing? Not according to some agency chiefs, who regard their role as more concerned with what one calls "pay and rations".

"It's quite common for the head of planning to be someone who isn't even the best planner in the agency, because you don't want your best planners doing admin work," an industry source says. "A chief strategy officer, on the other hand, not only defines the strategic direction of the agency but can be client-focused too."

"Our industry, which is predicated on creativity, has become so commoditised because its understanding of business strategy is insufficient," Daley, the chief strategy officer for the ad division at McCann Erickson Worldwide, asserts.

Now the hope is that CSOs can fill the gap by being more than just astute planners but possessed of multi-faceted talents and whose boardroom status within agencies will earn them client respect.

Debbie Klein, the WCRS chairman, sums up her CSO's task. "He's there to get under the skin of our clients and to talk to them in their own language," she says.

Nevertheless, some ask whether clients will be suspicious that the emergence of CSOs is just another attempt by agencies to part them from their money. Agency chiefs don't think so. "Clients, particularly those with US-based companies, are familiar with a large variety of titles," Russ Lidstone, Euro RSCG London's chief executive, and its former CSO, suggests.

The CSO role was a familiar part of US corporate life long before it was adopted by agencies. The crossover is usually dated to 1993 when McCann Worldwide hired the late Peter Kim from JWT to be its CSO to strengthen the network's creative and strategic offerings. Seventeen years on, it remains to be seen if scepticism among UK clients will be a stumbling block.

Richard Hudson, BMW's UK marketing director (and a WCRS client), says: "It's immaterial whether it's the CSO or the planning director that understands the business issues and asks the right questions. It all comes down to what they deliver."

In the end, it may all hinge on whether agencies can attract CSOs of sufficient calibre to win clients' trust. Klein admits: "You need those with strategically trained minds and great understanding of how clients' business works. Such people are rare."