We have reached a point where the maverick founding leaders are either leaving their media agencies or are considering their long-term future. But what happens to their agencies when they leave, asks Kim Novick in a story first published in The Media magazine.
It is not appropriate for leaders between the ages of 50 and 60 to still be actively involved in their media agency businesses. This is Starcom MD, Gordon Patterson’s opinion on the issue of succession, one not necessarily shared throughout this industry.
He stands firmly in believing: “The role of a senior person in the media industry needs to evolve and ideally one should become more of a figurehead as the years go by. It’s a sensitive subject, but you’re just not able to stay as in touch with developments as you may have been 20 years earlier.”
It’s a tricky topic indeed, but Patterson is not the only media leader who feels strongly about it. Josh Dovey, co-founder of OMD, says from his company’s perspective, this is not a valid perception. “I can’t speak for other agencies but my opinion is if you manage a business properly, regardless of the nature of that business, you have by default created a workable succession plan.” Dovey points out that it’s talented people that run accounts, not the guys running the business. “I’m pretty sure our clients would be more upset if their trusted media team left. They are the ones the clients have a primary relationship with,” he says. As to perhaps moving on, Dovey says there’s little chance of that happening in the near future. “Gary (Westwater) and I are still shareholders in OMD and we have lots of school fees to pay, so we are not going anywhere for a long time!” he says.
But Patterson says the industry has ‘fooled’ itself when it comes to succession planning. “Most media agency leaders are still the first generation leader/founders. This relationship with the company is profound but it is also a huge weakness because when that individual leaves, it creates a gap. In many cases I’m not sure there’s been enough investment into the character of the brand,” he says.
Jeremy Sampson, founder of Interbrand, says it is incumbent on the founder to ensure there is succession and continuity. “What Gordon Patterson is saying makes a lot of sense but then the challenge is to make sure the legacy that has been created carries on,” he says. Sampson cites Ford, founded by Henry Ford in 1903 as a global brand that has successfully continued the momentum. “It’s rather sad that a business should die with the founder. So good governance with any business is succession planning. McDonalds lost a few executives over a period but came out stronger because of good management. Sure, personality plays a huge role but there’s a whole lot more,” says Sampson.
Harry Herber, Group MD of The MediaShop says, “From my point of view, The MediaShop was around before me and will be around after me. There are many people in The MediaShop, all making invaluable contributions. I’m just one of many really. We’re a distinct group of people who share common norms and values. That takes success out of the hands of one individual and puts it in the hands of many.”
Herber believes when an established personality leaves any business there is a sniff of industry interest as to what will happen. “But I think it affects advertising and media agencies less than general industry as this is a fashion business: you’re hot today and ‘last season’ tomorrow. In advertising and media, size also counts. Come to think about it, size always counts! So the larger the company, the more stable the leadership has been, the less any one person will be missed.When I eventually slide out the door, I bet no one will notice. That said, you have to manage the process. It’s about evolution, not revolution,” he says.
But Patterson says leaders intuitively lead their companies for better or for worse, so when handing over to someone else, the risk lies with that person trying to emulate the founding approach. “Long term that’s not always possible because the brand itself, in this case the agency, needs to take on a life of its own,” he explains. But Herber says you don’t need to clone yourself or go into a holding pattern. “In truth,” Herber says, “you have to look to the future and gauge who the best person is to fulfil tomorrow’s challenges and choose accordingly. In the case of the MediaShop, if Chris (Botha) wasn’t that person and the team wasn’t as bulletproof as it is, I wouldn’t be here anymore!”
Maria Phillips, CEO of Mindshare South Africa believes the concept that a media agency starts flailing when its leader leaves is nonsense. “Perhaps in the past if you had a very entrepreneurial business that grew up around one person. Today however, many agencies are part of larger international companies; agency leaders are taking a global brand and making it work in South Africa,” she says.
However Patterson says the fact that a company is international may in itself present a problem as global partners don’t always appreciate the value of the personality. “In an emerging market such as South Africa, the founder of a business plays a crucial role,” he says. “We’re at a different stage in the life cycle. If a new chairman takes over the global company, their impact and contribution will be far less significant than if someone local or regional who created the entity left, because the momentum has already been established.” Patterson says the beauty of our market is that we have a flat structure and what holds that structure together is the leadership role. “When you have bureaucracy the brand personality is rooted more in the process than in the personality. Perhaps a company needs to start looking at the hierarchy before anyone departs.”
However Phillips believes there’s a far bigger picture than simply a personality. “Leaders of today are chosen for their ability to hit profit numbers and other sound business markers. Hence clients and prospective clients are buying on performance, not on a central personality. I would say what is very important is chemistry between clients and the team. Clients want to see those people that are going to work on the business. Overall, media is complex and to a large extent about figures and to a lesser extent about ideas. Ultimately I think it’s that combination that’s winning us business,” she says.