CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/AGENCY BOARDS; Is board directorship a worthless status symbol?

Damian Lanigan wonders if the hordes of directors at agencies have any clout

Damian Lanigan wonders if the hordes of directors at agencies have any


BT is a company with global influence and a complex and diverse range of

interests that employs tens of thousands of people worldwide. It is

managed by a board of 13 people. Bartle Bogle Hegarty is a small,

focused, private company employing 270 people. Its board is 39-strong.

In fact, walk the corridors of any London ad agency and every sixth

person you meet will have ‘director’ on their business card.

Nobody could pretend that these people are actually directing the

companies they work for, so what are they doing? And what does it mean

for the individual and his or her colleagues and clients when they are

given the preferment?

The feeling is, not a lot. Inevitably, as the boards of agencies have

grown in size, they have diminished in importance. As one veteran of

some of London’s most distended boards puts it: ‘Directorship is a cheap

chocolate medal, a replacement for a real increase in responsibility and


The ledger of privileges and responsibilities involved in most board

appointments makes enticing reading to the prospective ‘director’,

particularly if he or she is into cars and doesn’t get out much: bigger

car allowances, free petrol, a parking space near the agency and a free

TV and video are among the most common perks. Extra responsibility,

however, is neither demanded nor expected.

Stephen Carter, the managing director of J. Walter Thompson, doesn’t

seek to disguise the toothless nature of the board over which he

presides: ‘It doesn’t run the company. It’s a context in which senior

people can meet and take time out. Being a board director of an agency

means that you are recognised as a senior practitioner of your craft

skill.’ A kind of Worshipful Company of Adfolk who meet to exchange

views and tips.

Agency board meetings contrast sharply with their counterparts elsewhere

in the commercial world. Tom Bury, the managing director of Ogilvy and

Mather, has just been promoted to the O&M worldwide board. His view of

the O&M London board is clear: ‘It’s a sort of gentlemen’s club. It’s

not a decision-making meeting at all. It’s an opportunity for us to

cascade information back into the agency and it also acts as a status

meeting where everyone can be updated on the creative work.’ But is it a

status meeting with no status? ‘A board directorship is still seen as a

huge status symbol,’ Bury says. ‘The hardest three days of the year for

me and Mike [Walsh, O&M’s chairman and European chief executive] are

those after the annual board appointments. People push hard for it.’

The fact that the chocolate medal still has value among juniors helps an

agency control personnel movement. As career progression has been

accelerated but the number of jobs commanding real responsibility has

remained static, a timely elevation to the board can be a way of making

bright young things stick around. As one senior source puts it: ‘It’s a

great way of stopping junior people from moving. Over-promotion makes

the individual wary of being exposed at another agency. And because the

new board appointee is pretty starry-eyed about it, you don’t even have

to pay them much more.’

Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury has never had a board and, according to its

founding partner, Robin Aziz, never will. ‘Boards are simply used as a

reward and status,’ he says. ‘Occasionally, maybe, they’ll get round to

making a decision about the loo rolls. We are an open, collaborative,

non-departmentalised partnership. Most of the trappings associated with

boards at conventional agencies we would regard as barriers and defence

mechanisms. We find other, more constructive, ways of motivating our

people and running our business.’

But HHCL is unusual; most staff in agencies want a place on the board,

even if they’re not sure what it entails. There are anomalies everywhere

within agencies: the creatives who wouldn’t know what a ‘statement of

director’s responsibilities’ was if it took them to Tante Claire for a

long one; staff who hang around for so long it becomes an embarrassing

necessity to give them a leg up; account handlers who flounce out

because they haven’t been given it.

And it is in account handling departments that there is scope for most

confusion. It used to be that the board account director on a bit of

business was the person responsible for that business in the agency.

Now, though, it is not unusual for a large account to boast two account

handlers who call themselves ‘directors’. With the arrival of Kevin

Duncan at JWT, the Kellogg’s account there now has three. As Bury

remarks, it is no surprise that clients tend to respond with a degree of

scepticism: ‘Again, I think clients just see it as a sort of internal

status symbol. I don’t think they take it very seriously.’

The diminution of board power and status has been accelerated by the

emergence of ‘super boards’ of various descriptions at most top London

agencies. As Carter says: ‘Agencies that are run well tend to be run by

reasonably small teams of people with complementary skills.’

Interestingly, in this year’s Campaign Top 300 Agencies report, JWT

claims to have only one person in ‘company management’, which indeed is

a reasonably small team (if perhaps lacking in ‘complementary skills’).

So that longed-for board appointment doesn’t confer power,

responsibility or respect. After a while, you realise that the two or

three people who really run the show are in another room, perhaps

dreaming of joining another, more exalted, board elsewhere. Your clients

aren’t too bothered and colleagues in your peer group have all got one

too. But as you sit in the NCP in your new Cherokee there is still one

consolation. Your mum’s as pleased as Punch.




Rank*    Agency                           Number on London board

 1       Saatchi and Saatchi                        88

 2       J. Walter Thompson                         55

 3       Ogilvy and Mather                          48

 4       Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO                   74

 5       BMP DDB                                    68

 6       DMB&B                                      12

 7       Lowe Howard-Spink                     not supplied

 8       Bates Dorland                              35

 9       Grey Advertising                           31

10       Ammirati Puris Lintas                      33

11       McCann-Erickson                            56

12       Publicis                                   36

13       WCRS                                       26

14       Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper                      24

15       Bartle Bogle Hegarty                       39

16       Leo Burnett                                35

17       TBWA                                       17

18       Young and Rubicam                          27

19       GGT                                        15

20       M&C Saatchi                                 5

SOURCE: Campaign Top 300 Agencies 1996   *By Register-MEAL billings



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