The route to the top

Agency chiefs may have different personalities and management styles but they got where they are by displaying certain specific skills. Larissa Bannister reveals what it takes to go all the way in advertising.

Do you see yourself as a future chief executive or managing director? Do you daydream about the money, the cars and the lifestyle that come with heading a top advertising or media agency?

If the answer is yes, you are not alone. Advertising tends to attract people with ambition and drive but it's not easy to reach the top, especially in an industry where who you know (and whether they like you) can have as great an impact on your career as your skills and experience.

Agency chiefs differ greatly when it comes to management style: some favour building an atmosphere of conflict to encourage creativity, others think a less intimidating environment will bring out the best in people.

Nevertheless, there are certain characteristics and skills that most successful business leaders share, Gay Haines, the chairman of Kendall Tarrant, who has recruited many of London's top agency chiefs, says.

"The first characteristic you look for in a prospective chief executive is courage," she says. "They need the strength to take decisions, to demonstrate they are an effective leader and to be able to think on their feet."

Salesmanship is another key skill. Winning new business is obviously of paramount importance but a good chief executive must also be able to sell ideas to staff, clients and shareholders. That is why, according to Haines, account managers make the best business leaders. "Account management needs a diverse range of skills and a big degree of humility as well as salesmanship," she says. Indeed, the majority of agency chiefs have an account management background, often moving on to new business, client services or marketing.

Grant Duncan, the Publicis chief executive, who was a client services director at CDP in the early 90s, agrees that, as a rule, creatives do not make great chief executives. "There are obvious exceptions, such as Mark Wnek, but there are also attributes that most chief executives share, such as a clear focus on the endgame and not being distracted. Creatives don't tend to think in a linear way, they think laterally and tend to go off on a tangent."

Duncan says self-confidence and self-belief are the most important attributes of a business leader. "You will come across pressurised situations that constantly test your resolve and vision," he says. "Although it's inevitable that you will not be 100 per cent right all of the time, you must do what you think is right and stick to it, rather than listen to others too much and be wagged by the tail."

A good agency chief executive must also be able to cultivate deep relationships with clients. For Farah Ramzan Golant, the chief executive of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, developing such relationships is a big part of the job. "It goes beyond the day-to-day relationship where they know you are loyal to them, to where they are just as loyal to you," she says.

People skills are a prerequisite - and that means shamelessly cultivating the people around you and managing downwards and sideways as well as upwards. Having the support of your peers and staff will mean you have strong backing when you are in line for an important promotion.

Haines also recommends cultivating headhunters and journalists - most companies want a "name" to fill their most important and high-profile position. "Don't move around too much, though," she warns. "It's always worrying if a candidate has done 18 months here, a year there. Too many moves may boost your salary but they are not good for your CV."

The average agency employee is unlikely to be called on to read a balance sheet before he or she reaches senior management level so gaining financial skills can seem daunting at the start.

"For me, going on finance courses and learning how to deal with numbers was a crucial factor in boosting my confidence," Duncan says. "You must be able to deal with profit and loss and talk to clients about their business and financial issues."

Ramzan Golant adds that prospective chief executives should go on as many relevant courses as possible because "you can learn incredible amounts from your peer group".

The main personality traits that any good chief executive needs, Duncan says, are stamina and perseverance. "It's a draining job, every day there are opportunities or problems to sort out - most often they are problems," he says. "You need to enjoy the fact that you had no idea two-thirds of the things you had to deal with that day even existed when you got up that morning." He advises building a casebook of experiences that you can refer to when the unexpected happens again. "They say there are only seven jokes in the world but there are only about seven problems as well, you just have to learn how to deal with them."

It goes without saying that the ability to inspire and motivate, spot problems quickly, communicate and lead is part of what makes an effective chief executive. But even if you flatter yourself that you have all these qualities, there is one more you need - and it's a lot less prevalent now than it used to be, Neil Christie, the Wieden & Kennedy managing director, says.

"Between the ages of 25 and 35, I was ambitious and determined to be promoted," he says. "I was absolutely focused on it and I had a clear plan of exactly where I wanted to be at different stages of my career. I don't think people feel like that any longer and, to an extent, fierce ambition is discouraged now because we no longer breed cultures in which antagonistic behaviour is rewarded."

Still reckon you have the skills for the job? Have a go at our quiz, mark your answers and find out what sort of an agency chief you would make.


1. You have been given the unenviable task of overseeing the merger of your agency with another, and there is one role that is of particular concern. It is a key position in the new company and there are two candidates, one from each agency. One of them is a guy you have worked with for years, whom you like, trust and count as a close personal friend. The other is marginally better qualified for the job, on paper and in terms of personality.

What do you do?

a) Look closely at all the skills and attributes required, focus on the right candidate and, regretfully, decide you will have to make your friend redundant.

b) Employ your mate - there is no way you could betray a close friendship and, in any case, it's important to surround yourself with people you trust.

c) Appoint the best candidate but create another position to give your friend - after all, you are bound to need someone with his skills sooner or later.

2. One of your long-term clients has started to disagree fundamentally with your creative department about the direction her brand should be taking. Your team is passionate that what it thinks is right but the client is getting increasingly pissed off and things are about to come to a head.

What do you do?

a) Tell the creative team to get its act together and start doing what the client wants - it is the client's brand, after all.

b) After much deliberation, you decide you have to back up your team and resign the account. Once a relationship is broken, you are just postponing the inevitable.

c) Dedicate all your waking hours to convincing both parties to reach some sort of agreement. Have a meeting with the client, make the most of the length of your relationship and convince the creative department to give a bit - you never know, the relationship may start to work again.

3. You are looking for a senior manager in a key role and, after a long and exhausting search, you find the ideal person. You are about to make an offer when your network chief - a man with a notoriously short fuse - suddenly decides to take an interest and objects to the salary the candidate is demanding on the grounds it is too high.

What do you do?

a) Offer the reduced salary, it's not something you are going to be able to do anything about.

b) Pacify your boss by agreeing to reduce the base salary but shift budgets around so you can offer a bonus to make up the deficit - your boss will have forgotten about it by the end of the year anyway.

c) Stand your ground and argue - it's your agency and, in any case, this guy is too good to lose for the sake of a few thousand pounds.

4. You are right in the middle of a big growth period for the agency. Everything is going well when yet another big client approaches you to pitch for its business. The problem is that if you win it, the extra workload will seriously overstretch your staff and resources, not to mention threaten the service you provide on existing accounts.

What is your reasoning?

a) Easy, you pitch anyway - it's more important to keep the momentum going and you can always find some new staff if you need to.

b) Turn it down, with regret. It's more important over the long term to keep up your standards and avoid overworking your people.

c) Go for it (after a lot of soul-searching). You need to deliver significant quarterly growth and that's only going to come from new clients.

5. An employee you have marked out as one of the agency's rising stars tells you she has been offered a job at another agency. The position involves a hefty salary increase and a "promotion" that is, in your opinion, a sop to encourage her to leave.

What do you do?

a) Don't stand in her way - once a member of staff has decided to leave, there is no point trying to change her mind. Statistics show that someone who resigns and is then convinced to stay is likely to leave with 12 months.

b) Take your time deciding how to respond and don't even mention the cash. Ask her what she would change if she could redesign her career with you and offer something new based on what she says.

c) Refuse to accept her resignation, offering to beat her new salary and give her an equivalent title if she stays. MOSTLY As - THE OPPORTUNIST

You have just the right level of self-confidence and are good at assessing difficult situations, taking decisions and acting quickly. You are not afraid to make tough calls, which means your employees know where they stand and can be confident that you will treat them fairly. But your tendency to get bored easily means you can be impatient with people who are more measured in their approach.


Measured and intelligent, you know the value of thinking things through clearly before taking any action. You are a brilliant manager of people, whatever their position at the agency, so you get on well with your boss, who respects you, and man-management is one of your great strengths. Your staff are very loyal. But remember what your mother used to say - there is always a danger that by trying to please too many people, you end up pleasing no-one.


Always on hand if required to sell ice to Eskimos, you have great client relationships because of your communication and negotiation skills, which are vital in today's procurement-driven landscape. You can motivate your staff to do almost anything for you and you're stubborn enough to be used to getting your own way. However, try to remember that just because you can convince everyone that what you are doing is right doesn't necessarily mean it is.


Good chief executives need to have a broad array of skills so the wider your range, the better suited you are likely to be to the role. Remember, however, that no-one is perfect - even the most rounded individual is better at some things than others, so make sure you surround yourself with people who complement your set of skills.