Paul Frampton: advertising enters a new era of leadership

Paul Frampton is the former chief executive officer and UK country manager at Havas Media Group.

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We have entered a new era for marketing and advertising.

The grand old man of advertising, Sir Martin Sorrell is out and plotting with a blank piece of paper. Like Wenger at Arsenal and Ferguson at Man Utd, he perhaps stayed for one or two seasons too many, but few would dispute his remarkable achievements over three decades.

Conversely, with less fanfare, but more elegance, Maurice Levy, stepped back and welcomed a new captain to the helm. In March, the “Sprint to the Future” strategy (under-pinned by Sapient Nitro and Publicis People Cloud) `articulated in front of investors by Arthur Sadoun, is arguably the most honest and compelling of the holding groups.

Sorrell was the poster child for advertising meaning business. In the wake of Sorrell’s departure, there is much talk of a WPP break up and management buy-outs, with Kantar receiving most attention. A similar cloud looms large over all of the ad holding groups; an arms race towards simplifying their complex web of agency brands, disciplines and talent whilst simultaneously stretching towards credibility in business transformation to hold of the big consultancies.

As an industry that specialises in marketing and (self) promotion, any and every shift is poured over and over analysed, perhaps a tad excessively. The extreme disruption that the ad industry faces has bizarrely only recently received the same column inches. Too many businesses in the sector have taken the Blockbuster approach, putting their heads in the sand and telling themselves that competitive advantage is only about having the best talent.

As with so many other industries, technology promises both automation but also better, faster, more direct access to services and talent. This more on-demand, flexible access to expertise becomes an increasingly viable alternative to both agencies and consulting firms.

In times of radical change, it is strong leadership that counts in times of disruption. Stable and coherent leadership at Publicis is helping its cause. Marc Pritchard’s brave position on the media value chain changed the conversation around transparency. Mark Read’s alternative view on consulting firms, horizontality and digital disruption is also refreshing.

With this backdrop of radical disruption and uniform consensus that transformation is the antidote, is it not time that more companies in the ad sector embraced a new generation of leadership?

The advertising model has been re-invented several times over in just the last decade, yet most holding companies and the media owners they trade with, continue to be led by the mad-men generation. Experience and grey hair generally come hand in hand with managing intense pressure from shareholders and investors, but one could argue this leadership model has hindered the appetite for risk and experimentation.

As I write this, I am hyper conscious that all of the leadership examples I used above are men. Despite a much-needed dialling up on coverage and conversation around diversity within adland, there are still too few female role models at the top. As rumours swirl around a successor for Sorrell, I am sure many, like me, are hoping to see the two formidable female leaders of Karen Blackett or Lindsay Patterson be serious internal contenders. In the last year, we have seen a number of high profile female leaders such as Laura Desmond and Tracey de Groose closer to home, exit the industry to pursue other interests. This, at a time, when the industry needs brave leadership around more diverse, flexible and sustainable agency culture to stem the loss of talent to tech companies, startups and the freelance bug.

Mastering the effective balance between tech- led automation and creativity through remarkable talent is none too simple a challenge for an industry instinctively more comfortable doing the latter. Investment in to product and in R&D are a proven strategy to navigating disruption, but this requires builders as well as farmers plus an appetite to invest. Change also requires leaders to be skilled in engagement, communication and emotional intelligence and dare I say it these are more naturally feminine traits and there is a paucity of this influence around the board table.

The industry watches on eagerly to see where WPP divests, but perhaps more importantly, also where it invests to define its future as a partner for customer strategy and experience plus who it brings in as a successor to Sorrell. For the last couple of decades, WPP has been the go-to business school case study for dominance in advertising, but in a world where lean headcount and technology enabled scale equates to the punchiest valuations (see visual below), what is next ?

Bravery and experimentation are the order of the day. That in itself is easy to say, but tougher to execute; it necessitates both bold leadership and unconditional backing from the (lesser known) protagonists sat around the board tables governing these organisations. With the average board director today in their early sixties and more often than not a white male, it stands to reason that most boards still have a long way to go to create the necessary urgency for change in both business strategy and diversity of their workforce.

Both the holding groups and consulting worlds (which are hell bent on disrupting them) have one thing in common – they are professional services businesses defined by the breadth and quality of their human capital. As machine learning swallows up many human-led functions and disciplines, the big leadership question is how to adapt to find harmony between technology and talent ? Creativity becomes ever more important in this landscape but requires urgent re-invention itself to stay relevant in a world dominated by consumption on mobile devices and cross channel customer experience.

Creativity will continue to be the difference between those brands able to stay relevant or scale, but it needs to become much focused on driving outcomes.

As we see tech-tonic change hitting every part of the ad industry and irrefutable evidence that the tide is turning (WPP market cap decline, ad tech downturn, paucity of trust in agencies and rise of radical transparency through blockchain), it is high time that bravery to take a front seat. Agencies are well schooled in evolving fast to new trends for their clients but must now apply this creativity in planning and shifting perception closer to home. The agency community must seize the opportunity to re-build its own brand to demonstrate they are collectively best placed to navigate the future using communications as a driver of insight, innovation and growth.

As wise businessman, Peter Drucker said many years ago marketing plus innovation are the only functions that matter in business – agencies, as much as management consultants therefore have every right to stake a claim to the nirvana of owning customer strategy. In chasing quarterly earnings targets however, the fuel for innovation and R&D in agencies has been running on close to empty for too long. Ironically, as agency disciplines have fragmented and unrealistic growth targets have crippled cross-industry collaboration, the agency community has also lost sight of how to market its relevance to existing and future customers. Time to drink some of their own medicine ?

We are only at the very beginning of how technology will change every industry. Anything that can be automated, will be automated. What better time and conditions therefore, for making some big, long term bets on the model of the future. The brave will indeed inherit the earth, as GAFA has taught us, so the question is can the agency community with new brave leadership create the necessary culture of innovation and diversity to emerge like a phoenix from the burning woods that we see at every turn today?

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