Wendy Clark, chief executive of Dentsu International, recently revealed to Campaign that the group was cutting a quarter of its top 1,000 leaders as part of a restructuring that has involved a move from 160 agency brands to six globally.
“Having been so acquisitive over the last five or six years, we just had too many executives,” she said, noting the group had 250 people with the title of chief executive and that hampered the smooth running of the business – “you can’t run an organisation like this”.
Leaders want a “span of control and responsibility” to drive changes and deliver growth, she said. “We had such a density of population [with so many agencies and CEOs] that your span of control and your ability to make change and your ability to do what we want leaders to do was really limited because we had too many.”
The rise of the CEO as job title also reflects how companies have been handing inflated roles to senior executives, especially at big groups, where sometimes the leaders of each subsidiary have received a grander title to aid career progression and assuage their egos.
Managing directors have become chief executives, heads of buying have become chief investment officers, strategy directors have become chief strategy officers and so on in the so-called C-Suite.
So, do agency groups employ too many people with the job title CEO?
President UK & Europe, McCann Worldgroup
The pandemic has been a catalyst for change and an acceleration for new thinking about models, skills and ways of working. Transformation is under way and we now have a unique opportunity to look at the role talent plays irrespective of title. Leadership is a team sport and traditional title structures overall can be an issue among senior talent – in terms of both growth and retention – especially when people get caught up more in reporting lines versus focusing on driving engagement and growth for clients.
If we want to recruit the best and most diverse talent, we need leaders that inspire and trust their teams to drive transformative cultures, break down "job segregation" through a commitment to conscious inclusion, and balance IQ and EQ in equal measure to fully embrace the platform for positive change that being a leader affords. As an industry that delivers value through differentiation, continuing to embed and empower diverse talent who challenge the clichéd normality – including titles – can perhaps mean that one day we do away with the CEO title all together.
It must be a challenge to start a new role and discover 250 CEOs reporting to you, especially when most of your customers run much bigger organisations and survive with only one. Personally, I've never liked job titles and I'd welcome a world with fewer labels, especially those that signify status and power within an organisation. By giving someone a job title you effectively put them in their box, and you risk restricting the potential impact that person could have on your business.
Career fulfilment today is about autonomy, making a difference, purpose, leadership, responsibility, and so much more – but it’s definitely not about labels and levels. All credit, though, to Wendy Clark for calling it out. Maybe Dentsu's future will be less about internal hierarchies and more about structuring high-performing teams around clients' needs.
Head of media, Odgers Berndtson
Stripping out complexity and giving leadership to one or a few people who really embed around that client’s holistic marketing needs makes sense, versus each CEO running their fiefdom, jostling for space around clients declaring: "This bit of what we do is the answer, now what’s the question?"
At the same time, CEOs are critical for driving new business, culture and organic client development in their specialist areas, keeping their business innovating in their specific expertise. Losing great leadership is risky. Good remuneration structures which fiscally reward client-led group collaboration, rather than a "grab your space" mentality, is worth its weight in gold, and not always considered in practice.
Executive vice-president & managing director EMEA, MediaLink
Is it any wonder the number one trait I am continually asked for in boardroom talent briefings is entrepreneurialism (combined with an evolved mindset and a hybrid skillset)? The pandemic fundamentally forced permanent behavioural and purchasing change in consumers, while continued acceleration of automation and digital transition demanded greater agility, simplicity and purpose, and all at service to financial efficiency and effectiveness.
As both global headhunter and organisational advisor, it has been clear to me for some time that many individuals were being given the CEO title, when it fact it was rather an MD with bells on (with middle office calling the shots). So I welcome this defined sense of really offering CEOs the ability to truly lead multi-faceted businesses, charged with actually making decisions and running their business like an entrepreneur. After all, that is how you persuade good leadership talent to stay and not stray towards opening their own shop.
Agencies very much need to simplify and power up the solutions for clients in a way that makes clear business sense and that may wound a few egos. However, with the potential of fewer fragmented agency brands we see a horizon of clearer vision, focus, responsibility and accountability – and funnily enough – what follows is a driven business with singleminded ambitions for its clients.
Group chief executive, The Beyond Collective
Yes. Networks are rich with agencies and discipline splinters, each with a CEO, struggling to reconfigure around the mandate for convergence in our digital age. Groups such as Dentsu are set to resolve this, but it will take more time than clients have. We are also set to see significant political struggle and fallout.
There is a cultural issue at play here – the title of CEO is an expected career destination for the very ambitious, and it satisfies the egoism that our industry breeds. While CEO of a London network agency, I was informed by a journalist that "CEOs of local offices are actually just group company middle management". Ouch. But perhaps this realism is needed. With ego comes silo, and there is no silo that is relevant to the audience’s experience of brands these days.
Every business needs a CEO, or a leader. So the fundamental question here is whether there is a real business to lead or not? To a lesser or greater extent, all agency groups have grown by acquiring businesses – some for scale and some to bring in a skill set or capability that was missing.
In either case, it’s up to the group to decide whether they want that business to be an operation that stands on its own two feet or whether the power sits at the centre. The worst scenario is pretending it’s the former and paying for a leader not to lead.