Network agency CEOs - just like football managers

06 Nov 2017  |  Dominic Mills 
Network agency CEOs - just like football managers

The attrition rate of agency bosses is on par with the Premier League, writes Dominic Mills - and the parallels don't stop there

There’s been much interesting comment on the spate of senior network media agency CEOs deciding they’ve had enough - four in October alone - and moving on or out from OMD, Havas, Carat and Publicis Media.

You can read Gideon Spanier’s views here and those of Brian Jacobs, who writes as a senior ex-network player himself, here.

It’s an attrition rate on a par with football managers. In the English Premier League (EPL) three have lost their jobs in the last six weeks. This morning, West Ham's Slaven Bilic went, and Swansea's manager could go soon.

Last week we saw the appointment by Dentsu Aegis of former Mother co-founder Stef Calcraft to head its UK operations.

Cue surprise and puzzlement. He does creative, what does he know about media? He’s come from Mother, what does he know about networks? Won’t network rules stifle his entrepreneurial bent? It’s just so corporate, how can he bear it after Mother?

Football fans understand this kind of talk. It’s exactly what they say when the chairman plucks an unknown manager from, say, Spain or Germany.

And the parallels between network agency CEOs and football managers get closer.

In football, there are three archetype manager hires: #one, a grizzled veteran of the EPL, on his fifth job in six years (fired from the previous four); #two, a fresh-faced continental wizard, triumphant in Germany or Spain, bringing new ideas and new tactics to his first EPL job; #three, a long-serving assistant manager or coach who really makes the team tick while others do high-profile front-of-house stuff.

Looked at through this prism, the questions asked about Calcraft are exactly those fans will ask about the next continental superstar manager appointed by an EPL club. What does he know about the EPL? How can he understand our game?

The fact that Calcraft supposedly knows nothing about the EPL - er, sorry, little about media agencies - is, as far as I can see, a strength. He’s bringing another perspective. Too much knowledge sometimes means you can’t see the wood for the trees.

(In fact, according to those who know him, he does understand media in the broadest sense; and he has experience from inside a media business as a former non-exec of Naked. It’s also a mistake to think of Dentsu Aegis solely as a media agency - don’t forget data (Merkle) and creative (Isobar, McGarry Bowen).

Sue Frogley, by way of contrast, who takes over as Publicis Media UK CEO, is manager archetype #3: the low-profile veteran insider whose skill is that she understands exactly how the business ticks. Her background is money and operations - a former CFO of Aegis, Carat and Isobar, for example. And well before she was appointed, a Publicis insider told me she was marked out for higher things.

The read-across with football doesn’t end there. As a former network CEO said to me last month, we’ve moved to a time when network CEOs have a natural shelf life. The days when those jobs lasted indefinitely are over; it could be four years, it could be three, maybe even less.

Whatever, there will come a point when they have to go - often this will be of their own volition, but sometimes because the holding company CEO just fancies making a change.

It’ll be just like football, where anyone who last more than three seasons is regarded as a freak. But just as football managers are easily disposed of, so they recycle themselves easily. That’s why the same old suspects get touted for every vacancy.

The same, I think, will be true of network CEOs. Easily disposed of - no shame attached, let’s be clear - and easily re-employed by another network if they choose.

My suspicion is that they won’t, however, choose that route. They’ll choose instead to move - as Nikki Mendoca has from OMD - to the likes of Accenture or to a tech outfit like, say, Stewart Easterbrook at MediaIQ.

This is the equivalent of going to manage in, say, China or the Middle East. The money is great, you persuade yourself it’s the future. But your peers think you’ve sold out.

There’s another way in which, I think, the network business will become more like football.

Businesses, not just in adland but generally, value stability and consistency.

Football clubs don’t. They fire managers because they want change, particularly the impetus and freshness it brings (in fact, just like tech companies).

This will affect network agencies in two ways: one, the CEO job cycle will speed up; and two, as technology - indeed, the whole eco-system of advertising - changes rapidly, so agencies will constantly seek CEOs with new skills and fresh perspectives.

They may be like Calcraft, with creative agency backgrounds; they may be from tech, data, consulting or client-side. The point is that they’re new.

Occasionally, this will go disastrously wrong, as those who remember Zenith’s appointment of Tim Hipperson as UK CEO in 2013 remember. For those who don’t recall, Zenith brought in data guy Hipperson with a mandate to change the agency’s buying-shop reputation. It was an appointment that was both forward-thinking and courageous. Naturally he hardly made it past pre-season training.

But that was a whole four years ago. Today, things are very different.

BBC runs a 60-minute ad

Graham Norton is in a spot of bother after his BBC show last week. Apparently his crime was to make a joke about Kevin Spacey and then host Johnny Depp, a man who has also been accused of abuse.

Personally, I’m really annoyed with the BBC for pulling a fast one on me. If they’d warned me that that show would be a 60-minute ad for a Hollywood film (and a naff one at that), I’d have turned off after the intro.

If you missed it, last week’s show featured only members of the ‘all-star’ cast of Murder on the Orient Express. Five of them, to be precise: J Depp, J Dench, M Pfeiffer, K Branagh and A Unknown.

Was there no other celeb available doing something interesting like releasing a new album/stage appearance/comedy tour?

Cue much brown-nosing and really tough questions like: “Tell me why the film is so wonderful?” “What a fabulous cast. You must be a genius to have directed them.”

The BBC is a schizoid organisation sometimes, at once implacably opposed to any form of commercialism and yet a happy to puff the luvvies for free.

This contrast is revealed by a conversation I once had with a BBC radio producer. I had been lined up to talk about some row about alcohol advertising. Pre-interview, I mentioned some ads I thought were relevant.

“Oh, you can’t name any of the brands,” she said.

Me: “Why TF not?”

BBC producer: “It would be like giving them a commercial plug. Just call it a beer ad, or a lager one.”

Me: “You mean the stout ad featuring some horses and some surfers and that cool music?”

BBC producer: “Just don’t say it’s for Guinness.”

Pause...

BBC producer: “By the way, why do drinks companies spend so much on advertising?”

Me: “Because it works.”

BBC producer: “Oh, ok. I see. Better not mention that either.”

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VicDavies, Course Leader and Senior Lecturer, Bucks New University on 6 Nov 2017
“I think it is a bit harsh to say that these people 'lost their jobs'. I would also say that if you want to use football then a better analogy might be when England played Hungary in 1953, when the FA still thought that we were the masters of the universe, but discovered, rather brutally, that the game had moved on.”
AlanBrydon, Consultant, AB Consultancy on 6 Nov 2017
“As ever a great article today. I think that there are two elements in medialand that don't happen the same as in football - although this doesn’t in any way negate your analogy, it might be interesting to see what would happen they did.

First, nobody brings their ‘right hand people’ with them when they move. I wonder if a new CEO might work better, quicker, if they had eg their CFO, MD etc move with them. I think they normally take their PA along but nobody else.

Also, it seems to me that agencies nowadays aren’t strong enough culturally, process, behaviour, systems wise etc to easily accept change at the top without at least several weeks of insecurity and probably inefficiency and less than full effectiveness.

Although I’m a WFC fan and biased, this is an interesting read:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/41710640

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