Three things great agency managers don't waste their time on
A view from Nadine Young

Three things great agency managers don't waste their time on

I had no clue how to manage 86 people when I started my new job. But here's what I've learned two years on.

"You won’t enjoy it." "A management role won’t play to your strengths." "You’ll fail."

This is what I was told by peers when, after nearly 20 years as a media agency strategist, I was considering an opportunity to manage one of the largest agency teams in the industry.

Throughout my career, I had viewed people in management roles with a healthy dose of "better you than me" lurking in my subconscious. From where I was sitting in the strategist’s proverbial ivory tower, being a client lead and managing a big team seemed an endless source of hassle with little reward.

I imagined management roles to be defensive – jobs that were an unending litany of complaints, constantly putting out fires and endless ear-bashing from staff about their (lack of) pay rise, their (lack of) promotion and their (lack of) window seat.

It was definitely not for me. Only when I was presented with what I saw as a once-in-a-career opportunity did my scepticism waiver.

Which is how I found myself on day one in my new managing director role as client lead for Procter & Gamble in the UK, with 86 names to learn; 86 people to convince that I had some idea of how I planned to "manage" this team.

I hadn’t a clue, let alone a plan. This was clearly going to be awesome. 

Two years on, despite my early reservations, I have found this role to be the most rewarding, stimulating and inspiring that I have ever had.

One reason might be that I’ve learned to apply my love of strategy and creativity to the most operational of tasks. 

Or it might be because, well… I’ve got no interest in managing anyone. Or anything. Managing teams, managing clients, managing up, managing down, managing expectations. It sounds like a recipe for mediocrity to me.

But, I thought to myself, if I don’t want to do any of that, what kind of manager do I want to be? 

What has become clear to me is that the people who have most inspired me in management roles are those who don’t spend a whole lot of time "managing".

Instead, they create. They fight. They lead. They shape careers. They mentor. And they do it all fearlessly.

With that in mind, this is my management roadmap – by which I mean three things I definitely don’t want to waste my time managing. 

1. Great managers don’t 'manage the client'

"I love to feel like I’m being managed," said no client ever.

Trying to "manage the client" is a sure route to mediocrity and frustration.

If your goal is to manage your clients effectively, you will always be regarded as a supplier, never a partner – because everything will always spiral down to the most neutral, rational, logical common denominator.

It’s not physically possible to bring any amount of passion or vision to the party if you’re busy only being logical. 

But when you commit to building something, to lobbying inside both your organisation and the client organisation for the same goal, you know you are in it together and the dynamic shifts.

When there are tough conversations to be had, you know that both you and the client can keep focused by going back to the plan you built together.

Which is why great managers don’t manage their clients. They build with their clients. Great managers are actually architects – sometimes even artists.

They craft blueprints, they inspire through clarity of vision, they commit to a plan and to building something amazing, and they search fearlessly for ways to overcome any barriers that stand in their way.

2. Great managers don’t 'manage their teams' 

Within Publicis Groupe, we talk about interdependence – the notion that we all need each other to do our best work.

It’s a concept that really resonates with me. I know that having a brilliant team on my side is the only way to deliver my vision.

I’m inspired every day by the talented professionals around me – people whose ambition, energy and enjoyment of their jobs is so apparent; whose commitment to working hard and playing harder makes me forget that I’m surely supposed to be a bit of a cynic by now.

Instead, they remind me how much I enjoy being part of this complex, fascinating, challenging industry.

And because they raise my game, and because my vision isn’t worth much without them, they deserve much more than to be "managed" by me.

"Client first" is a popular agency mantra throughout the industry. I will argue hard for "my team first".

My team deserves my unspoken promise that I will work for them just as hard as they work for me. Which is why great managers don’t manage their teams. They push. They fight.

That is, great managers put effort into building high-performance teams, then fight to keep those teams motivated; fight for more training, for every promotion and pay rise that's been earned.

3. Great managers don’t 'manage expectations'

What we’re really talking about is leadership rather than management.

Within our team, we have reframed the "account management" team and called it "account leadership" – only one of many needed adjustments to thinking, language and behaviour that reinforces the idea that leadership doesn’t stop with the chief executive. It’s the responsibility of every single person on a team.

But it’s up to the leader to inspire our teams – and our clients – to know that, with enough focus and trust, a strong team can achieve anything.

Managing expectations around what can or can’t be done today is both patronising and limiting. Making it about the possibilities of what can be achieved tomorrow is a whole different ball game.

Which is why great managers don’t manage expectations. Great managers lead through empowerment; they look for the leaders of tomorrow and they show them that they can lead.

So that’s what I’ve learned so far about this whole management thing. Worry less about managing and focus more what really matters – to build, fight, create, empower. And, even more than that, to try to inspire belief in my team that they can do the same.

Because a team that believes in itself with that much conviction would be unstoppable.

Nadine Young is managing director and client lead for Procter & Gamble at Publicis Media