Opinion: Perspective - BBH recognises value of succession management

You are a young account executive. You step into the lift. The doors glide open and reveal that your chief executive is already in there. What do you do? If you are in most big agencies you stare, deeply embarrassed, at your shoes. You barely know this very, very focused businessperson, after all. They are likely to be new to the place and to have come in from another agency or another country. They will have a car parking space and possibly a chauffeur to go with it. They will be able to say without fear of punishment: "I'm not going to be able to make it to the 4.30 this afternoon.

I've got to see my coach." Stuck in the lift with such a demigod, you might just be brave enough to make some daft pleasantry. Above all, you aim to get out quickly.

If you are at Bartle Bogle Hegarty you would be less embarrassed. Your chief executive, after all, used to be you. Gwyn Jones, who was promoted from managing director to chief executive at BBH last week, joined BBH as its first graduate trainee in 1987. Jim Carroll, who joined in 1990, rose from deputy chairman to chairman as part of the same reshuffle.

A new management tier moved up as part of the rejig.

Hang on, this business is supposed to be characterised by high staff turnover, rapacious headhunters and rising stars who have an irritating habit of leaving agencies, starting their own and buggering up the most carefully laid plans. Managers in advertising usually hire to avoid any threat to themselves. Encouraging virulent sibling rivalry in the ranks is their preferred route. Who cares that when senior managers leave these agencies it takes ages to find replacements and costs a king's ransom?

BBH obviously does. Its preferred route is management by Darwinian evolution.

Although their departure is years hence, we assume that BBH's remaining two founders will sooner or later fade gently into the background to be replaced by the people they have hired and trained. All the signs are there, after all.

BBH has recognised that creating an orderly managerial transition that ensures a qualified team is in place at all times is essential to the long-term cultural stability and business growth of an agency. Timing is critical. It's not something you can leave for the 11th hour.

Over at the publicly traded advertising groups, the succession question is just as important. Interpublic's former head Phil Geier took years to name John Dooner as his successor and look where Dooner and Interpublic are today. In contrast Omnicom's Bruce Crawford named his heir, John Wren, with years to spare. Ed Meyer, Grey Advertising's 77-year-old head, continues to keep his own counsel on naming a successor. WPP's chief executive, Sir Martin Sorrell, despite some overheated speculation in the newspapers about Toby Hoare's likely career trajectory following last week's HSBC win, has no successor in place.

So, wherever you look in the ad industry, examples of smooth succession management are rare. Yet anyone can tell you that agencies such as BBH and groups such as Omnicom are not only models of succession management but are also regarded as the best in the world. For BBH this policy has led to a seemingly endless parade of business wins and a sparkling reel. In the case of Omnicom this translates to the group that good start-ups most want to sell out to.

Is the correlation between smooth succession management and world-class performance an accident?


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