Succession planning for the agency of the future

Five questions all CEOs should be answering about succession planning

Succession is on my mind. Edelman's leadership shuffle last week was a sign of managing for the future. There is more than one CEO out there that is moving the chess pieces around, even if only in their heads.

Agency leadership has never faced greater pressures, or a more vibrant array of opportunities. There used to be clear-cut divisions between advertising, direct, and PR - but no more. CEOs of holding company agencies must stave off the encroachment of other marketing disciplines. They have the job of marshalling both internal and external stakeholders around the rightful place of communications, particularly on the digital front lines. Independent and smaller firms are no less challenged, wrangling for pieces of larger budgetary pies, pushing for growth without losing focus.  

All agency CEOs, large and small, must be talent-centric. There is a direct correlation between an agency's success and the CEO's unofficial role of Chief Recruitment Officer. The digital whiz kids everyone is looking for are also craving more than just a job. Even in a tough job market, emerging stars want to be inspired by a dynamic vision of their firm's place in the future.

The next CEO class will face these issues and others yet to discover. In preparation for the inevitable, here are five questions every agency CEO should be asking themselves:

1. Is my current bench adequate to the challenges ahead? Succession may have been clear-cut five years ago, but some choices may not be relevant to today's environment. Planning requires constant review.

2. Am I factoring non-US-based leadership into the equation? No need to assume the next CEO of a major US agency will be based in North America. In fact, it could be a strategic advantage to develop succession strategy through the prism of a developing market. At the very least, the next CEOs will need to be global strategists with real-market experience.

3. Have I done enough to promote diversity in my firm's leadership? Most agencies have not managed to populate their top-levels with a diverse array of talent. Succession planning highlights these vulnerabilities, and puts limits choices and innovation. Virtually every agency needs to do a better job.

4. Have I given agency leaders enough scope to develop their own brand, and to create thought leadership and initiatives that match their passion? Agencies fear talent poaching more than churn on the client side. That can lead to a conservative approach to thought leadership. This is shortsighted, and may drive away stars more quickly than incentives dangled by other firms. More importantly, the future CEO should be seen as having a stimulating vision for the profession, not just a good revenue strategy.

5. When will I step aside? An integral part of succession planning is having a clear view of the timetable, even if it's only a private decision.

Senior-level hires and strategic acquisitions will accelerate as more agencies make transition plans. With so much at stake, this promises to be a dynamic period in the agency business.

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