"Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm," said Publilius Syrus a couple of millennia ago. Well, the sea is raging and we’re finding out who our industry’s best leaders really are.
There’s an agency chief who makes a weekly video for his staff. Many of them watch it cramped up in studio flats where the silence can be torture or in flatshares where the braying of loud (and by now loathed) flatmates can be torture.
Every week the CEO looks a little more tanned, a little fuller-of-cheek, a little more relaxed. At first he was ashen, his staff even felt sorry for him carrying the burden of leading the company through lockdown. But seven weeks in – with furloughing and redundancies mostly done, extraneous costs slashed to virtually nil (with his remaining people picking up all the jobs previously done by axed freelancers or external suppliers) and his regular grocery delivery now happily secured – he’s starting to quite enjoy the country bolthole peace.
And, yes, he’s taken a hefty pay cut for a few months but he’ll still be making seven figures if things don’t get worse.
He’s proudly told shareholders how many of his staff have volunteered to take a salary reduction (or rather "voluntold" as his people describe it) as evidence not only of his skillful handling of cost reductions but of how committed the staff are to protecting the business. So "committed" that one of his senior people (a single parent) tells me that she’s just had to take out a loan to cover her usual monthly outgoings (mortgage, school fees, mum’s care home costs) because her "voluntary" 20% pay cut has plunged her cripplingly into the red.
Yes, having a mortgage on a nice house, kids at private schools and an elderly parent cared for in a private nursing home are all signs of privilege and, heck, she’s alive and well – but this idea that "we’re all in it together" to protect profits and shareholder returns isn’t quite the whole truth.
One local leader of an international network who I spoke to recently said they had never felt under greater pressure to lead but had never felt less in control of some of the key decisions that needed to be taken. Their parent company rulebook on what cuts to make and where savings must come has proved to be a blunt instrument, leaving very little room for local nuance and having no real respect for the challenges of individual offices and client/agency relationships. It was a message to shareholders and to analysts, not to staff and clients.
The holding company-isation of the advertising business over the past 30 years, and particularly in the last decade, has centralised decision-making, bureaucracy and, increasingly, agency culture. Too often local agency leaders are simply middle-managers with little jurisdiction over their own businesses.
There can be real advantages from this centralisation. But in this time of unprecedented crisis, this degree of concentrated power ensures that although all the necessary decisions on furloughing, four-day weeks and cost-cutting are easier to dictate, they take longer to make and are harder to manage at grass roots.
Too many leaders have failed to be transparent and decisive and have even issued dictats to staff insisting that they should not talk to anyone about the cuts at their agency, even though there’s never been a greater need to share our problems and pains with others and be able to ask for help and support.
So if you really want to know how well your company will emerge from this crisis, look at your leader. Are they transparent, open, decisive and empathetic? Are they really making the same degree of sacrifice and compromise they’re asking of their staff right now? And while they’re asking staff to share the pain of this crisis, are they prepared to think about how their staff can properly be rewarded by sharing in the gain when recovery comes?
An agency’s best staff are its only real assets and its best chance of coming through this pandemic in reasonable shape. The best leaders have always known that and are making sure they have their priorities straight.
Claire Beale is global editor-in-chief at Campaign.