Opinion: Why a good chief executive is proving hard to find

Question: What do Paul Bainsfair, Toby Hoare, David Jones and Michael Bray have in common? Answer: They're all looking enviously at HHCL United, which has stolen a march on them in their respective searches for a chief executive.

Yes. In securing Jim Kelly as HHCL United's new chief executive (page 1), the agency has got the best available man for the job. And with Jim Kelly off the job market TBWA, JWT, Euro RSCG and DDB have even fewer candidates that could be captains of their London ships. Finding a new chief executive in the best of times is tricky; finding one when so many other major agencies are also looking is going to be a painful experience.

Hiring the right local chief executive is probably the most important decision a network head makes when building a future for his or her local agencies. The list of requisite attributes is a not really a long one - charisma, drive and business prowess figure highly - but finding someone with all three in acceptable measure is difficult.

Difficult, but not impossible. After all, the advertising industry is a magnet for people with those characteristics. The real problem for Bainsfair, Hoare, Jones and Bray is that so few candidates actually want to run large advertising agencies that are part of an international organisation.

And you only have to look at where the most dynamic chief executives are currently residing to understand why. Johnny Hornby, Mark Lund and now Paul Hammersley have founded their own agencies.

As owner-occupiers, their financial prospects are much better than most of their peers in network shops. Not only can they reap the kind of annual dividends that would make the chief executives of publicly quoted companies blush, but if they play their cards right, they can eventually sell their shops and bank a few million pounds.

If the holding companies want to attract the best chief executives, they are going to have to devise contracts that better compete with the financial potential of a start-up. Euro RSCG's David Jones has recognised this and is moving in the right direction by offering a profit-share scheme to candidates.

In addition there's the old succession management chestnut. Extensive - and expensive - training of future management is crucial. The holding companies should look at their biggest clients' attitudes towards management training for inspiration.

The global networks have the scale to groom chief executives, but too often don't appear to have the inclination.

So how will the four aforementioned agencies fill their respective vacancies?

Hopefully, at least one of them will appoint an internal candidate. This has worked well for Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/ Y&R, which put its faith in a relatively green James Murphy a year ago.

There is the option of appointing a candidate from overseas, though the longevity of a foreigner's tenure is an important consideration. Then there are the agencies that are hoarding candidates. Clemmow Hornby Inge has two chief executives, but Nick Howarth has only just joined. M&C Saatchi has a very top-heavy management structure. The loss of British Airways could persuade Tim Duffy, for instance, that there is greener grass to be had elsewhere.

John Webster leaves behind him an awesome legacy. He played a central role in building British advertising into the world-renowned business it is today and because of that we are all working in his slipstream.

The friendliness that was conveyed in his creative work became a winning commercial formula. As Chris Powell, the director of DDB London, writes on page 8, Webster's secret advertising ingredient was humanity. He made people like brands.

- Claire Beale is on maternity leave.