Work & Wellbeing Agency Culture C-Suite

Adland CFOs on the friction, stress and long hours behind the balance sheets


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

November 14, 2022 | 9 min read

Agency responses to a recession will rest on the shoulders of their chief financial officers – a powerful but often misunderstood role. We catch up with CFOs at MSQ, Stagwell and St Luke’s to demystify the job.

People doing finance stuff at a desk

Three agency finance directors explain what the job actually involves / Unsplash

In a business of eccentrics and creative thinkers, perhaps the greatest villain isn’t an unappreciative client or an ignorant audience, but the colleague on the wrong side of an Excel spreadsheet.

Finance officers at agencies occupy one of the most powerful roles in the C-suite. At S4, for example, that position is held by Mary Basterfield, who is one of the highest-paid executives in that company and has taken a prominent role in its relationships with the wider market following the discovery that its financial governance teams weren’t keeping up with its commercial expansion.

When the Media.Monks owner presents its quarterly earnings reports to analysts and investors, Basterfield often speaks ahead of company founder and executive chairman Sir Martin Sorrell.

Despite the role’s importance, it is sometimes misunderstood and maligned. So with agencies cutting costs in preparedness for a recession, we thought we’d find out what they actually do all day and what it takes to balance the books.

Alternative perspectives

Most finance officers don’t come into agency life from an ad school or MBA track. Mike Law, the chief financial officer of Assembly and of the Stagwell Brand Performance Network, started his career as an auditor of ad agencies before crossing over to join the accounting team at BCom3, an agency later acquired by Publicis.

Virginia Henry, CFO at St Luke’s, meanwhile got her start at KPMG and later worked for Burberry during its late noughties renaissance. And Dan Yardley, a chartered accountant who’s now the CFO of MSQ, spent the first three years of his career on Deloitte’s banking and financial markets team before a career shift took him to a PR firm owned by Huntsworth and later to Maxis.

All this doesn’t mean they’re not passionate about advertising, however, and the experience of seeing the agency sector from the other side has been useful. Law tells The Drum that his time as an auditor gave him “a good understanding of the business,” which came in handy down the line.

In contrast to the size of their responsibilities, CFOs typically run small teams. At indie St Luke’s, Henry has the direct reports, while Yardley has a staff of two who handle the “heavy lifting” of the accounts work. Both Yardley and Law work with finance directors at their businesses’ respective subsidiaries too.

“The job of finance is to support the business,” says Yardley. “I always try to make sure, wherever I’ve been, that we’re set up in the best way to do that.”

As well as managing the financial reporting and day-to-day accounting work at an agency, CFOs also have to work with other company leaders. A key example is acquisitions. Both Stagwell and MSQ have expanded in recent years through M&A and making sure an organization has the funds and the infrastructure to bring a deal to fruition is a tricky task.

“Once it becomes something that we actively want to look at, that’s when I get involved,” explains Yardley. “To start with, it’s about how much we want to pay, how we structure that and where the money’s coming from. Then there’s the due diligence and managing the lawyers.”

Setting the terms of a deal, deciding on the best course towards corporate integration and monitoring the progress of newly acquired firms are all areas Yardley also works on, in close collaboration with the company’s chief exec Peter Reid.

Henry, who also manages her agency’s HR and office management teams, says that more organizations should bring finance teams into the fold in this way. “In a lot of businesses, finance can be considered just a back office function that perhaps isn’t really fully integrated into the rest of the business, which is a real shame because it’s such an integral part of the business.”

Financial friction

According to a recent Deloitte study, 91% of CFOs in Britain expect margins to be squeezed and 55% say that cost-cutting is a major priority. But businesses often play host to a range of opinions and colleagues don’t always share priorities. As the heralds of financial prudence, CFOs sometimes come up against internal friction.

Henry says that awkward conversations go with the territory. “You are kind of like a headmistress – someone saying: ‘Yes, you can do this, but no you can’t do that.’ You are backed up by the rest of the management team, however, so the burden is shared.”

Law, who says he has been “the face of difficult discussions” before, thinks that better coordination between finance teams and the rest of an agency can help them go smoother. “To do the job well, you need to know how it all comes together, from clients to media partners to your own organization. You need to be comfortable getting into those kinds of discussions.”

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Long hours

As well as playing the role of bad news bearer, the heavy responsibility of keeping the light on during tough times can weigh heavily on finance leaders.

When the first Covid lockdowns kicked off in the UK, Yardley found himself working long hours organizing MSQ’s reaction. “The world flipped on its head in a week and I spent 14 hours a day for four weeks in this room, talking to people on this laptop about how we’re going to deal with this. Furlough was announced and we had to coordinate a response and create an action plan. It was pretty much all I did for weeks.”

Henry says it is “always a stressful job”. She suggests that the economic uncertainty facing companies right now weighs heavier on finance teams than the pandemic did. “At least with the pandemic, you knew more or less what you were dealing with. Now, it’s a challenging environment... not knowing what’s going to happen next month or next year in the market can be very destabilizing for any business.”

For Law, taut moments come precisely every three months. As a public company, Stagwell reports its financial fortunes to investors and shareholders on a quarterly basis. Much of the work involved in satisfying analysts, investors and internal stakeholders comes back to Law and his colleagues.

“There’s a focus on making sure we’re doing things properly, delivering the best results we can,“ he says. “Everything from making sure you’re billing all your clients for revenue to collecting cash to being comfortable with account decisions being made. You need to know that everything is buttoned up.”

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