Why Agency CEOs Are Chief People Officers

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Jeff Swystun
Jeff Swystun




I recently had lunch with an agency CEO. It was revealing because the content was raw and real. In short, he lamented the lack of hours in the day to deal with everything on his plate. There was little I could recommend short of cloning and ruthless prioritization.

If you are an agency CEO or if you marvel at the responsibility they take on, then you know that it is overwhelming. CEOs have to be a master of the balance sheet, superior in business development, aware of technological developments, substantive in interaction with clients, savvy in the press, excellent public speakers, tireless in the pursuit of growth and profit, and role models for the agency’s brand.

And all of this depends on people. Any variable in performance is due to the collective talent of the agency. What this proves is that the CEO is as much the Chief People Officer as anything. Every industry and business can claim, “Ours is a people business” or “Talent is our greatest asset” and that would be fair, but it is especially accurate and evidenced in the agency world. The loss of a key person can sink an entire office. The right person leading the right team can propel an entire agency to dazzling new heights.

This applies regardless if the agency is in one location and has a dozen employees or has a hundred offices around the world and is part of a gigantic holding company. In an industry where salaries are the biggest single expense, this should come as no surprise.

I know where CEOs spend their time having worked at agencies and consulted to more than a dozen in the past three years. I may have been called in to help brand the agency or improve business development, but invariably I find that the CEO wants to talk talent. When I say “talent," I'm not referring to "HR."

Talent is the strategy of an agency. It comprises the most creative recruitment and retention initiatives that achieve agency goals while fulfilling each individual and it is what fosters a culture of collaboration that makes great things happen. When I describe this to CEOs, it resonates. Big ideas, creativity, and results only happen if you have the best people, happy in their roles, and working together with all others (clients included).

In 2011, I had a conversation with Andrew Benett, then the CEO at Arnold Worldwide. He had just shared a study at a 4A’s conference. It showed that a Starbucks barista received more training than an ad agency staffer. This was a great headline grabber and ended up as a 2013 book, The Talent Mandate. Benett interviewed companies in other industries and found that by comparison, most agency CEOs were not as obsessed as they needed to be with talent management.

Fast-forward three years and I believe agency CEOs are cluing in but are struggling to figure out recruitment, retention, and collaboration. This reflects the reality that "talent" cannot be delegated. This is a rich subject and impossible to solve with a few, simple instructions. Still, here are few ideas to consider:

1) Do not hire for open agency positions. They are often out-of-date by the time you fill them. Instead, hire for where your clients' businesses are going. You will be far more relevant and valuable.

2) Don't assume you need rebels in your organization. This is not about making everyone assimilate; it's about building a shared direction that is far more powerful than disruption for disruption sake.

3) Redefine the word “diversity.” Make your definition synonymous with the broadest range of talent.

4) Prioritize agility and a willingness to learn new skills. There is no one model for a perfect agency so have your workforce help find what works for all.

5) Guide and lead but avoid trying to direct all levels of your organization. Command-and-control structures demand compliance and will eventually become creatively constipated.

6) Analyze how your team members work together. No one likes the term “team player,” yet the fact remains that if your talented stars cannot get it done within the organization, they are just a huge expense. No one remembers the specific person who came up with what campaign. That is because 999 times out of 1,000 it was a team effort and done through creative collaboration.

Underlying all of this is the core problem with agencies. They think it is all about them. They are worried about the agency name and legacy. As a result agency CEOs are worried about their own name and legacy. This thinking extends to Chief Creative Officers who are the most worried about their own name and legacy. That means the majority of decisions in the agency are not made in the best interest of the clients. This is a recipe for irrelevancy.

There is no easy fix. With agency clients, I stress culture as a long-term strategy along with tactics that can be changed quickly for immediate impact. I have found success in the formation of specific working group comprised of the CEO, the chief people officer, and the CMO or equivalents.

If talent is the linchpin for success, then these three who are responsible for leadership, positioning, and the employee experience have to figure it out. You may wonder why the chief creative officer is not in on the action. It is simple. That role should be laser-beam focused on client results. By all means, keep the CCO apprised. But to have efficient and effective recruitment, engaging retention, and the best possible collaboration, the CEO has to have the right people around the table.

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