Should CSOs become CEOs?


In the 1990s Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse performed an appallingly misogynist sketch series called ‘women know your limits’ in which mock mid-century public information films advised women not to mess with things like driving and intellectual debate. And I wonder if sometimes the same advice ought to be given to planners, especially when presented with the opportunity of becoming the CEO of the agency.

Without a doubt one of the triumphs of the planning community has been the number of strategists that are now occupying the top job in advertising agencies. Planners, once thought to lack commercial acumen and leadership qualities as well as having a reputation of being far too nice to run agencies, are now moving their prodigious book collections into corner offices like never before. In London alone Lidstone runs Havas, Kay runs Y&R and Dundas runs Droga 5 – all great strategists.

So you’d think I’d be chuffed about this recognition that we can run our businesses as well as direct our client’s brands. But I’m not so sure is great news. This is partly a self serving position because I know that I could and should never be the CEO of an ad agency – I started as a suit and I was an unparalleled disaster at all that stuff. But it’s also because I have come to question how healthy this departure is for planners and agencies alike.

You see call me old fashioned but I think that planners and account handlers are fundamentally different types of people. Sure both can turn their hands to the others’ job and make a decent fist of it but deep down the qualities of a really great suit and a really great planner are miles apart.

Brilliant and mercurial account handlers are the rainmakers of the agency the ones that can make back seem white and turn night into day. They are the people that effortlessly create the environment for the rest of the agency to focus on the really important stuff – making the work. And one of their greatest qualities is decisiveness. One of my favourite adland CEOs is fond of quoting Alex Ferguson by saying that the important thing is to “make a decision and then make it the right decision”. Notice the emphasis is on making a decision, any decision, not on making the right decision.  And its takes real skill to adopt this ready, fire, aim approach because you are never sure you are doing the right thing, only that a clear and unambiguous decision has to be made and you have to make it.

Great strategists work differently and think differently. They are by nature more contemplative and less impulsive as the emphasis for them is not on being decisive (though of course there is time when strategic decisiveness is required in order to give the agency direction, let’s say on a pitch) but on being right. Obviously we don’t always have all the information we need in order to give the right answer and obviously I have always tempered the need to be right with the need to be interesting but by and large we are on a search for the truth regardless of how uncomfortable this is for client, agency or brand. The eminent Guy Murphy once said to me when I asked about his style of planning that he considered the truth to be his client not the person across the boardroom table and I have always felt instinctively drawn to this idea.

But even if planners weren’t from Mars and suits from Venus I would still be suspicious of the flight from planning and that is because of the brain drain that we witness in planning when our peers start wearing a suit more than once a week. Planners may make for strategically minded CEOs but the reality is that their full strategic talent is lost to the agency and to its clients as they focus on a much more demanding agenda – the day to day running of the company. I think it instructive that the strategic leaders of an agency like BBH London from  Carrol to Gonsalves and Bottomley are all still knocking it out of the park on the planning side of the fence rather than queuing to take on the mantle of CEO. And the net result is that BBH remains ever so slightly tasty in the strategic thinking department.

So count me out of the Vogue for planner CEOs, though the pay looks tempting. Do this partly because of my woeful lack of talent for the job. But also because agencies need strategists that are proud to be strategists and are still striving to see how good they can be at the job and that’s something I’m still trying to find out.

Image courtesy of Chris O’Brien

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5 Replies to “Should CSOs become CEOs?”

  1. Totally agree, Richard. Don’t know whether you’ve ever done your Myers Briggs profile but many planners would be INFP (like me) or INTP, whereas the classic CEO profile is ENTJ. s you probably know, the P bit stands for Perceiving (contemplative) and the J for Judging (decisiveness). I think this is partly why planners enjoy using blogs and social media; they can take a bit of time away from the crowds to craft a witty riposte or an analytical comment. While we’re doing that the ENTJs are down the pub or at a dinner with colleagues and potential clients.

    Myers Briggs teaches you to respect all types and value the team. The problem in advertising is that planners rarely get top money or status, though creatives can do – and sometimes above the CEO. The only time they are valued equally is in a start-up (BBH, PHD) where the founding partners will have very complementary skills but be awarded equal status and rewards. Why can’t networks do the same?

    If you recognise your own skills and shortcomings you can build the right team around you. INFPs like me really shouldn’t be allowed to run anything so when I started Thinkbox I found myself the fab ENTJ that is Lindsey Clay to make sure things actually happened.

    1. Thanks Tess,

      Last time I did Myers Briggs I was ENTP – though the E is really borderline whereas the other stuff was way off the scale.
      And I think its a really interesting observation that planners like time to consider their response (hence the way blogging went down such a storm with planners), whereas account people like to be able to have a response there and then.

  2. I’m with you too. Look at the way the great Labour leadership psychodrama played itself out; sometimes, the very qualities that make someone a brilliant strategist actually come into conflict with what is required in the leadership role those skills can carry you up to.

    As an outgoing Merrill Lynch leader is alleged to have once said to a potential successor – ‘would you rather be right, or do you want to make it to the top?’

    Personally, I have always thought that the strategist’s answer should be the former – even if that limits quite how far they can go professionally.

    A lot of it comes down to primary motivation.

    For strategists, it’s usually mastery – the challenge is internal (am I up to the puzzle, can I crack it?)
    For leaders, it’s more often power – the challenge is interpersonal (can I assert my will over those of others?)

    Like Tess, I’d like to think that nothing beats a good combo.

  3. I grew up in ad agency account management. My career progressed by being sufficiently good at the job to be promoted to positions of increasing seniority within that discipline. The highest vocational level you can reach as an AD is head of department – Head or Director of Account Management or the equivalent. However, the next rung up from there is Managing Director. You are promoted to run an agency based on your skill at managing clients. There is actually no logic to this. Being good at the one does not necessarily make you good at the other. I was an agency MD for six years. It was what I had aimed for all my career but, with hindsight, I wasn’t very good at it. Be careful what you wish for. My last meaningful act was to help set up the digital agency for which I now work and recruit someone to set it up and run it. That person is now my boss and I reinvented myself as a digital agency planning director some seven years ago. I have much more to offer as a planner with grey hair, who has been around the block a few times, who has a few tricks of the trade up his sleeve and who gets less fearful of simplicity with each passing year. What talents I have would be horribly wasted in a position of general management. As it is I still bounce out of bed most mornings at the prospect of solving problems with creative thinking.

  4. I made the transition from CSO to CEO. I lasted precisely seven weeks before deciding to fire myself. I took away two things from the experience. The first was a magnificent Miele diswasher which I bought with my first inflated salary cheque. The second was the realisation that being an agency leader, especially in a network, requires the stamina of a marathon runner, the patience of a saint and the skin of a rhinoceros. As a planner, I have none of these (well, maybe a tiny bit of the first two). But I do have a very nice dishwasher.

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