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Publicis Groupe Agencies Agency Leadership

What do agency chairs actually do all day?


By Sam Bradley, Journalist

April 4, 2024 | 7 min read

As WPP continues its search for a new chair of its board, we unpack what chairs actually do in agency businesses.


The duties of a exec or non-exec chair might differ agency to agency / Unsplash

WPP is hunting for a new chair. Roberto Quarta, its long-time helmsman, is set to step down – at some point this year, when precisely WPP has declined to confirm – and so the holding company requires a replacement.

Corporate chairpersons carry out a crucial, but often little-understood, role for their businesses. Advertising has no shortage of chairs that serve as agency figureheads, including S4 Capital’s Sir Martin Sorrell, PJ Pereira of Pereira O’Dell or Maurice Lévy of Publicis Groupe. Each person plays a very different role in the running of those particular businesses.

Quarta, for example, was the de facto leader of the British ad giant for a short period seven years ago as it looked for a chief executive officer following the sudden departure of Sorrell, the firm’s founder. That was a less-than-typical brief for a chair to take on, though.

So, what do chairs actually do at their agencies?

“It varies massively from business to business, agency to agency,” says BraveBison’s Oliver Green. As executive chairman, his role is a full-time job that is entwined closely with the work of the agency’s executive team. He says it’s a “twofold” job that combines typical CEO responsibilities with his board duties, meaning he’s involved with “everything from thinking about our M&A roadmap to developing relationships with senior stakeholders at our biggest clients, recruitment is still a huge part of the job in terms of our exec team and where we need to bring on talent in different areas.”

At a publicly traded firm, the chair role might involve more public-facing work than at a private one. Green estimates that 10-20% of his year goes on “PLC-related activities,” such as working with a legal team around an acquisition (BraveBison bought Social Chain last year) or raising investment.

Though it might not always be visible as an employee, private and public companies split their leadership between a C-suite that is (in theory) focused on the day-to-day grind and a board appointed to keep them honest, typically on behalf of shareholders. Chairs lead that board and, in some cases, lend an ear to CEOs swithering between decisions.

Stuart Avery, non-executive chair of privately owned indie agency Great State, says chairs are also often drafted in to facilitate industry connections for leadership that might be younger and less experienced.

Chairs, he says, are often people “who’ve been seniors in big agencies, who can arrive with a book of contacts – people they can pick up the phone to – who can network with client leaders at a level you might not get to as an agency exec.”

Avery co-founded the agency and served as CEO until two years ago. “I had a non-exec chair and, for a long time, every time he came in, his first question to me was: ‘Are you working in the business, or on it?’”

It’s difficult for managing directors and CEOs to step away from the daily running of an agency and focus on the big picture, he says. Now, he aims to provide just that via counsel and advice to the agency’s current leaders. He says the role is “about looking ahead, keeping us on plan and looking one to three years ahead… keeping the leadership team honest.”

Though Avery and Green chair businesses they also helped establish, non-executive chairs are typically recruited from without. “It’s about finding the right sort of person, someone that can really add value,” says Green. “Think about Zillah Byng-Thorne, the current executive chair at M&C Saatchi – an absolute force. She’s unbelievably successful, unbelievably accredited, and if the business were much smaller, then maybe it wouldn’t have been able to attract someone of that caliber.”

“I see myself as a bit of a boardroom buddy,” says Nicky Unsworth, co-founder of creative agency BJL. “It’s about supporting the board but having a step further away from the day-to-day of the business.”

Unsworth was chair of Tribe Global, a corporate alliance of several independent agencies in the UK and Europe, while she was CEO at BJL. Since leaving that agency following its acquisition by Dentsu, she’s taken on non-executive chair roles at various agencies.

Essentially, she says, that means spending time working with the agency’s operational leaders, making sure they’re holding true to long-term plans for their organization. “I try very hard to make sure they can be held accountable, put some rhythms and rituals in place that allow us to focus on those important things, things that are more about working on the business rather than working in it.”

Sometimes, the role requires chairs to “challenge the assumptions that [leaders] are making, pushing a little bit on certain things or asking the things that they may not spot,” says Avery. “A lot of agency leaders talk about it being a very lonely role. You can’t talk to your partner at home about it – they don’t get it. You literally can’t talk to people within the business about it because there are things you’ll have on your mind that you wouldn’t necessarily want to share. It becomes quite a lonely, quite a stressful role.”

Though we’ve used the term ‘chair’ throughout this article, it’s worth noting that most businesses in the UK and the US don’t need to bother with the gender-neutral term – because most of them employ a chairman. There are only 48 female chairs in the FTSE 350 (the largest 350 public companies in Britain), though the number of firms with all-male boards has fallen in recent years.

That will likely accelerate as more women leading businesses or climbing the corporate ladder gain the type of expertise required for a chair – knowledge that can only be learned on the job.

Unsworth says: “One of the good things about having a few more gray hairs is, you’ve seen lots of things before. You’ve been through a recession, you’ve been through big client losses, through not winning a major pitch or winning one and having to staff up for it.”

It appears there is no one-size-fits-all approach to hiring and working with an agency chair, but the key objective for any ‘good’ chair is akin to that of a ‘good’ accountant – they will always make and save you more money than they cost you.

Publicis Groupe Agencies Agency Leadership

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