As media agency leaders step back for the next generation to take up leadership positions, Melina Meletakso and Joanna Wright ask about succession planning.
When Ryan Williams started his career working in media agencies, he was schooled by media advertising stalwarts like Margie Le Roux, James Hier, Gordon Muller and Natalie Wilks.
And while his meteoric rise to Nota Bene’s managing director was not part of a planned development process, the environment he was in – and the people he was surrounded by – stimulated his maverick thinking.
“They were very savvy with regard to the technical components of media planning and deployment. They had a really good understanding of how the data fits together and what investment levels look like. That’s what forms an unbelievably good place to work at,” says Williams. He has since left media agencies to work at Primedia, first as the head of Cinemark, and most recently as the group executive for sales strategy and marketing.
As other great leaders in the industry – like former Starcom CEO Gordon Patterson and former group MD of The MediaShop Harry Herber, to name just two – have already stepped aside, the issue of grooming for succession has become very relevant.
Herber, who was at the helm of The MediaShop until he stepped down for Chris Botha to succeed him as group managing director, says he doesn’t believe the majority of agencies have a succession plan. “That’s understandable: there are not a lot of old people in media agencies. It’s hard to groom the next leader if you don’t know that there’s going to be a hole,” says Herber.
Patterson, now business director at Omnicom Group, on the other hand, says there are a lot of misconceptions about succession within media agencies.
“You can plan succession, but really leadership is forged through experience. It doesn’t come from shadowing someone. The other reality is that leadership has nothing to do with democracy. Real leaders don’t rule by consensus, but intuitively, drawing on their experience,” he says.
Patterson feels strongly about having a responsibility to encourage and give direction to young people entering the media industry in South Africa. “Since 1994 we have had talented, enthusiastic people who could take the media industry to great heights. But there is no middle management to lead the way,” he says.
Tanya Schreuder, joint managing director of Vizeum South Africa, says the cost of developing an industry novice is one of the reasons agencies have neglected forming comprehensive succession planning strategies.
“The unfortunate thing in media is that you can’t bring someone in and make them productive immediately,” she explains. “It takes time, money and mentorship. That’s why the industry doesn’t do it. You need so many resources to eventually be able to say: ‘Okay, go run with it’.”
Agencies are also reluctant to spend resources on bright, young talent when they can be snapped up easily by competitors, says Schreuder.
Williams agrees. “In many cases there aren’t clearly articulated succession plans because the talent is so mobile. How do you earmark an individual when you don’t know if you’re going to have that piece of business they are working on in six months time?” he asks.
Williams is concerned that the media industry has an inherent instability that has been created by this system. He says the consequences could potentially be dire. “The effect of this is the dumbing down of the talent pool, not because the people are stupid but because your ability to nurture and grow talent is increasingly dictated by extrinsic limitations.
“And that then in turns mean less valuable service to a client over the long term, which means they are willing to pay less for it and regard it as less of a value-adding business service, as opposed to just an execution or administrative function. The decrease of revenue leads inexorably to diminishing investment in the talent pool.”
While fostering new talent may be a challenge for media agencies, finding young, black talent is even more difficult.
Williams says this is because the media industry as a whole does not market itself well as an attractive career path so that it can appeal to a new crop of talent.
“If you’re a bright, young, talented black person interested in media communications, there is a perception that there are better jobs out there in the client landscape, on the marketing front, or in the media owner side of the sector,” he says.
Schreuder says media planning and strategy isn’t profiled well at schools and universities. As such, Vizeum has decided to look beyond traditional advertising schools like AAA and Vega, and approach tertiary institutions like Varsity College instead.
Schreuder says that having the potential to be successful in a media agency is about ensuring that you have the ability to mine data and to be accurate, because agencies deal with a lot of money.
“You also have to be a salesman, a number-cruncher and a business person, a strategist. It’s a hell of a lot of skills,” she says.
When media rookies first start out, Schreuder says she makes a point of emphasising the worst aspects of the job and then asking them two important questions: “Do you enjoy this?” and “Can you see yourself doing this for a really long time?” This is because you have to absolutely love what you do to be a good media person, Schreuder says.
Herber offers different advice, saying that it’s not about media knowledge and skills. “Your next MD doesn’t have to be a media planner. Knowing about media doesn’t make you a manager. You need to be a leader of men, a visionary, a messiah,” he says.
Media competence is taken for granted a lot of the time, says Herber, but soft skills become more important at a managerial level and that is what builds a good agency. “Talent you can buy, media skills you can buy. But there are not a lot of people out there who are good leaders. You need someone who understands creativity rather than media by numbers,” he says.
But this means little if proper structures are not in place to develop people who have both phenomenal media skills and the ability to be inspiring leaders.
Says Williams, “Without the mentorship and the training, what you’re effectively doing is throwing your dice on the table and saying: ‘Well, I hope somebody pops their head up.’
“That might or might not be worthwhile.”
This story was first published in the September 2014 issue of The Media magazine.