Why agency leaders should do an MBA
A view from Neil Davidson

Why agency leaders should do an MBA

Studying gives you a fresh view of how you're running your business and helps you see your agency practices in a different light.

Why are there so few people over the age of 40 in adland? There’s an ongoing discussion on ageism but, whatever your age, perhaps some of us aren’t doing enough to stay relevant. At the start of the new year, maybe we need to take time out of the business to do things we feel passionate about instead.  

As we enter 2020, when we face myriad threats - from management consultants, in-housing and the FANGs, as well as the general shitstorm that comes with political uncertainty – more of us should be investing in our continual learning and development.

But that’s a problem. Because as humans, we’re all naturally lazy. At a certain age, most of us think: "I’m done with education now."

It’s one of the worst things we can do.

I’m half-way through an executive MBA at Warwick Business School. The 200-plus people I’ve met on the course come from retail, finance, IT, manufacturing and so on., But it’s just me from adland.

It’s a shame, because the experience has already given me so many eureka moments – stuff I wish I’d known earlier that would have made me a much better agency leader. Like looking for solutions outside our industry.

We all fear change and disruption. It can be hard to shift from the agency model we’re all familiar with. And, if I’m honest, I’m not sure we have the right skills to do these things properly.

Studying for an MBA gives you an alternative view of how well you’re running your business. It exposes you to out-of-industry thinking, knowledge and mindsets. It also forces you to go deeper into your business than you’ve ever done before. You also meet people from a range of industries and roles who see things in a completely different light.   

You notch up some sobering experiences. More than once, I’ve found myself explaining how agencies are structured to people from other areas of business; I’ve been faced with a variety of bewildered, astonished reactions when people realise how creative agencies often have legacy ways of working that are far more hierarchical and restrictive than their own.

There are plenty of learnings from running other businesses that can help us improve these models and processes. For instance, it’s got me thinking about how the "lean" philosophy (seen in the likes of the Toyota production system but extended to other business and service sectors since then) could actually be a stimulus to new models and ways of working. It sounds like a terrible idea at first but time and deeper thinking reveal that intelligent application could make a difference.

At its core, lean philosophy is about removing waste that doesn’t add value for customers, and introducing elements of transparency and standardisation to ways of working. It’s about bringing consistency to the grunt work involved in the creative process (standardising briefs, creative responses) so that people’s time can be freed to focus on the work itself. Sometimes this means making small, significant changes to existing practices but it can also involve inventing whole new systems. From there, you deliver better value for clients.

When you’re running a business, there’s a real danger of becoming so immersed in the day-to-day that you lose the ability to go deeper and see factors that will affect how you and your clients will do business in the near future. 

An MBA has revealed newer and better tools that deal with the two massive challenges all businesses encounter differently: change and growth. It helps you get under the skin of your clients’ business challenges in new ways; it gives you the knowledge and confidence to speak to them on an equal footing and to challenge them to think about how they face up to their own issues.

It’s also made me more confident to walk away from certain pitches, especially the "creative bake-off" variety that just aren’t good fits for the business.

And, honestly, I’ve found that clients appreciate working with someone who’s prepared to invest in learning to do their job better. It’s provided common ground – more of my clients have MBAs than I previously realised and quite a few more want to do one.

Ultimately, we should invest in ourselves for the good of the industry. Studying an MBA also means you get to invest time in understanding more about yourself, why you behave in certain ways, and how you can use this knowledge to manage yourself better.

For most of my career, like most people, I’ve sometimes been over-reliant on my gut and have wanted immediate responses. Now I’m equipped with much more rigorous frameworks that have given me a better approach to decision making and analysis.

My experience has also changed how I think about failure. A week of the MBA was spent in Silicon Valley, looking at the world of venture capital and entrepreneurial finance, where it’s vital to quickly identify investments that will do well – eight out of 10 will fail. What’s important is to shut them down fast. Culturally, it’s a very different world to ours; if you haven’t failed at something and learned the lessons, you’ll be seen as less attractive to investors and companies.

Studying has hammered home the importance of investing in one’s own career and looking beyond the short-term pressures of running an agency. Self-awareness, clarity and foresight are crucial in both anticipating and planning beyond the rough patches that every business faces. 

An MBA is obviously just one strategy you can use to achieve that, but it’s more about investing in time out and opening up to new thinking and challenging hard-set beliefs.

If we can’t invest time in self-improvement for the good of our industry, then how can we be trusted to lead other people or provide real value for clients in these turbulent times?

Neil Davidson is the chief executive of behavioural communications agency HeyHuman