Tom George knows a thing or two about what can go awry when you have joint managing directors - so you can bet he thought long and hard about the announcement he made last week. Because, in his first major decision since being promoted to chief executive of Mediaedge:cia, he has decided to fill the gap he leaves from his old job by appointing not one, but (count 'em) two managing directors: Toby Jenner and Steve Hatch.
It's a particularly brave move given George's experience at ZenithOptimedia, where he witnessed at first hand the disintegrating relationship between the agency's then joint managing directors, Tim Greatrex and Greg Turzynski.
Happily, though, there are more promising examples of teamwork at the very top. Fans of media agency double acts will point in particular to the recently established and seemingly successful (so far, at any rate) partnership of Matt Andrews and Grant Millar at Vizeum; or, further back, Jane Ratcliffe and Nick Lawson at MediaCom. Casting their minds back ever further, they might even bring up the joint media director structure filled by Derek Morris and Paul Taylor at BMP, or Simon Mathews and Mark Cross at Young & Rubicam.
Jenner would go further than that. He says the notion of management partnership is the rule rather than the exception in the advertising business: "It's about partnership. It was ever thus. Look at an agency with the founders' names above the door. A partnership of complementary skills is the only way to run a business. It's about ensuring you have the best combination of qualities, and a partnership delivers that. I don't see joint managing directors as in any way a problem."
Jenner has the more commercially oriented skill-set, having worked on the airtime sales side at Granada in the early 90s, before embarking on a media agency career that took him via the Grey media department and Media Insight to Mediaedge:cia. Hatch has a classic strategic planning pedigree, having worked at Initiative, BMP, PHD and Y&R in the past.
Hatch argues that, in an increasingly sophisticated market, where an already complex strategic landscape is being further complicated by growing digital options, it's ever more important to have strategists present at the top table of agency management. Once you've accepted that principle, it's just down to finding the right structures to accommodate them.
He adds: "We'll be equal but different. I think everyone within the agency can see where our skills are complementary. For this to work, you need to have shared values and we certainly have that - there's mutual respect and trust."
1. At the time, observers argued that the Greatrex-Turzynski joint managing directorship at ZenithOptimedia was an accident waiting to happen because it was a compromise designed to appease two corporate cultures merged in undue haste, as Zenith Media was knocked into Optimedia in 2002. Before Antony Young was brought in as the chief executive, battle lines were drawn up as the two tribes maintained barely concealed hostility towards each other. The pain was shortlived, however - Greatrex departed in March 2003, shortly after Young was hired, while Turzynski left seven months later.
2. But the two tribes theory doesn't always work. Ratcliffe, who had been a senior executive at MediaCom, and Lawson, her counterpart at The Media Business, formed a dynamic joint managing director duo after their agencies merged to form MediaCom TMB in 1998. The partnership was broken only by Lawson's elevation to chief executive last year.
3. A less happy example is the joint managing directorship of Tim Neligan and Andy Martin at CIA Medianetwork, established in 2000 under its then chief executive, David Wheldon. Although the arrangement lasted a little over a year, these seemed less than happy days for the agency and the individuals concerned.
4. Universal McCann has been down this road on two occasions. In December 2003, Andy Jones and Damian Blackden were appointed as joint managing directors, and the partnership survived until March 2006 when Jones became the sole chief executive of the agency, while Blackden moved on to a new strategic role across Universal's whole European network. In September 1997, Fiona Smedley and Chris Shaw were named as joint managing directors. Shaw continued as sole boss when Smedley decided not to return from maternity leave in June 2000.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ... MEDIAEDGE:CIA
- In a word: risk. The management textbooks say you shouldn't even think about it. With the buck stopping nowhere in particular, indecisiveness creeps in, and employees can start acting like the children of divorced parents, playing one boss off against the other to get what they want.
- The textbooks say that joint management appointments are usually the results of indecision of one sort of another - and that this in itself tends to be symptomatic of corporate weakness. Commonly, the indecision stems from a desire to appease two rising stars, both of whom are demanding that they move to the next stage of their careers. If you snub one, the other will leave - and some companies will tie themselves in knots in their attempts to keep both happy. Often, neither will end up wholly satisfied.
- But there are many examples of the structure working in practice, despite these theoretical reservations. It requires the participants not just to offer complementary skill-sets, but compatible personality types. Even though both bosses have the best of intentions, there will be times when one or the other will have to swallow their pride - or there will be tears.
- And they have a hard act to follow - after all, under the managing directorship of Tom George, the agency has had a phenomenally successful 2006. Wins have included Nintendo, The Famous Grouse, Coca-Cola Enterprises and, most recently, the £28 million Danone account.