Agency CEO churn calls for a return of creative leadership

Has the chief executive role become the most toxic job in advertising? It's certainly now one of the most precarious.

Agency CEOs have been arriving and departing with emetic speed, trailing confusion and instability at exactly the time when their agencies need adrenaline shots of confidence and clear direction.

A third of new agency chiefs who featured in a Campaign showcase less than 18 months ago have now quit/left to spend more time with their families/been promoted sideways.

Leo Rayman, never entirely comfortable as CEO of Grey over the past 24 months, is the latest to move on. He’s been gently shuffled to a new post as chief of Grey Consulting, where he’ll hope to be a David against the Goliaths of Accenture, Deloitte and the rest.

Earlier the same week, Charlie Rudd – installed in the CEO seat at Ogilvy also just two years ago – relinquished his chair after finding it had shrunk uncomfortably to chief-client-officer proportions.

Though both excellent senior lieutenants, neither Rayman nor Rudd was obviously strong CEO material: Rayman is a super smart strategist but an over-thinking CEO while Rudd, a great number two at Ogilvy when Annette King was group chief, seemed rather exposed once she left for Publicis Groupe.

The past year has also brought the departure of Victoria Fox from the CEO role at Lida; Dale Gall, group CEO at MullenLowe London; Jon Sharpe, former CEO of Y&R London, who was replaced by Paul Lawson, whose old job as CEO at Leo Burnett is now held by Gareth Collins; and Karen Buchanan, who was moved upstairs from CEO to chairman of Publicis London in spring last year before moving out altogether earlier this summer. And I can think of at least two more CEO changes I’ve been told to expect before the end of the year.

Sometimes the reason for such departures is poor hiring decisions in the first place. Too often UK CEOs are hired knee-jerk by a big cheese in America who’s making quick decisions based on little more than the soothing reassurances of a headhunter heady on the scent of high commissions. The nuances of ability, craft, reputation, personality and chemistry aren’t easy to read from three-and-a-half-thousand miles.

But the world’s moving so fast, who’s got time for nuance? Agencies are under threat, the business model’s creaking and local office CEOs are often little more than middle-managers – frontline cannon fodder in the battle for the future of the advertising industry.

Yet the churn in agency leadership also reflects a drying talent puddle. The early 1990s recession curbed the number of graduates entering the industry who would just now be ripe for taking on the top management positions. And of those that did enter in the early 1990s, many fell victim to the 2008 recession, by which time they were middle managers and deemed more expendable than those at the top or bottom of the agency ladder. 

The good news is that there’s a whole new generation coming up behind them who, because of the recessionary clear-out a decade ago, took on the middle-ranking jobs far earlier than they otherwise would have done. They have the experience and the battle scars without any sense of entitlement.

The other good news is that right here, right now, there’s a brilliant new breed of agency creative chief who comes equipped not only with alchemical creative skills but with the passion and personality to mould agency culture and to lead from the front. At a time when marketers have never been clearer that the one thing they value agencies for is brilliant work, it’s time to put creatives back at the fountainhead.

Claire Beale is the global editor-in-chief of Campaign. 

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