Close-Up: Live issue - Do planners make successful heads?

Strategists who have made it to the top disprove their outdated stereotype, Noel Bussey writes.

The perception of the archetypal planner is the big-thinking, slightly obscure, left-field theoriser who is not all that comfortable with the commercial aspects of agency life - or, to put it simply, a bit of a geek.

However, if you ask one who runs an agency (either solo, or as part of a management group), or has founded an agency, they will very probably provide a similar answer to Fallon's newly named London chairman, Laurence Green, when propositioned with that particular stereotype.

"There's a little bit of that in me, but I hope I'm a bit more pragmatic," Green says.

Whether the stereotype is based on truth or not, there is a general perception that a planner's make-up means they are not necessarily cut out for the top job; that role has traditionally been the bastion of the suit.

Russ Lidstone, the chief strategy officer at Euro RSCG London, says: "In the past, agency heads had to be 'relationship' people, and planners were not 'rounded' enough to cope with the multi- faceted role that the suits are perceived to have."

Neil Dawson, the founding partner at Hurrell and Dawson, says this is because planners were historically kept away from the financial side of the business and were less involved in the minutiae of running an agency, which hampers them in the long run.

He also makes an observation. "There is a wider question here. Do account handlers make good chief executives? On the evidence of the challenges agencies are facing in filling the plethora of vacant roles at the minute, it would appear not."

Certainly, there are planners who have made the move to the top role. The WCRS chief executive, Debbie Klein, started agency life as a strategist, and she has proved the discipline in which an agency chief began is less important than the right combination of skills.

Peter Scott, a founding partner and joint chairman of WCRS, promoted Klein to the head of the agency. He says: "It comes down to the talents of the person, not their background. Klein is one of the best chief execs in the ad landscape, and we knew this would be the case when she moved into the role."

Green adds: "The studious planner is as tiresome a stereotype as the reckless creative or the gladhanding suit. The best people in our industry have more hybrid skills these days."

There is also a consensus that the best agencies are run with a senior management group covering all three disciplines, or a "holy trinity" as Lidstone calls it, with a suit, a creative and a planner working in unison, with no real emphasis on who has the chief executive title.

This will be very similar to the set-up at Fallon, where, despite having the official title of chairman, Green is at pains to point out that he will work closely with his co-founder Richard Flintham, the managing director, Karina Wilshire, the director of strategy, Mark Sinnock, and the creative director, Juan Cabral.

He concludes: "It's bogus to force the spotlight on an individual and what they can or can't do. Our industry is a team business. Success hinges on the teams you build agency-side and the teams they in turn build with clients.

"The best agencies are managed collectively, making them less prone to the tyranny of an individual or 'command and control'."

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AGENCY CHAIRMAN - Peter Scott, founding partner and joint chairman, WCRS

"It comes down to the individual and how they fit into the role in the context of the company. An entrepreneurial and democratic agency needs someone who fits that bill, but it doesn't matter what discipline they come from.

"If the WCRS chief executive Debbie Klein had been a group account director, she'd have made it into the same role because she has the required skills to do the job.

"You can't generalise about the roles, such as planner or suit, in this situation, because it's all about the person."

PLANNER - Russ Lidstone, chief strategy officer, Euro RSCG

"Ultimately, at chief executive level, the criteria for success is less about the discipline a person comes from and more about their leadership qualities.

"There's no reason why a planner shouldn't be capable of heading up an agency if they have ability, leadership qualities and the desire to run a business.

"The key thing, irrespective of who has the title of chief executive, is that great agencies are led by teams that cover the core creative, account handling and planning disciplines. This provides balance and demonstrates the value of all those competencies in achieving great creative work. Often, when the balance is lost, agencies become dysfunctional."

AGENCY FOUNDER - Neil Dawson, founder, Hurrell and Dawson

"Successful agency heads have vision, leadership skills, commercial nous and charisma. So planners can obviously be good agency heads if they have the right blend of the above.

"However, they tend to have two factors working against them. First, they tend not to have been directly exposed to the commercial aspects of running an agency. Second, their skills and experiences generally make them more conceptual- than delivery-focused.

"Obviously, this is a stereotypical view, but as we well know in advertising, stereotyping is based on truths. These barriers are easily surmountable with the right team in place around the individual."

PLANNER - David Golding, planning director, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

"These days, good planners aren't simply backroom research specialists. They tend to be at the forefront of accounts, holding important client relationships alongside the senior account directors.

"As a result, planners have had to develop many of the people skills needed to run an agency.

"Add that to their more typical roles of setting the strategic direction of the agency, partnering with creative directors to ensure high-quality creative output, and ensuring that the work delivered is effective against clients' objectives, and the question should be: 'who better to lead an agency'?"