So, it looks like Keith Weed could be Unilever’s last chief marketing officer.
Weed has always provided an accessible public face for the global consumer goods giant, speaking tirelessly at events, passionately pushing his sustainability agenda, campaigning for media transparency, and all while overseeing an $8bn advertising budget.
Is he too tough an act to follow? At a time when the industry is in rapid change, leaders like Weed are needed more than ever. We need people with the brains and the charisma to keep business on track and employees on side; figureheads who maintain a company’s visibility and prevent churn.
The marketing and advertising industries have always thrived on charismatic leaders. We may have lost a few lately, but in many cases, the replacements are matching up to their predecessors: Arthur Sadoun for Maurice Lévy as chief executive at Publicis Groupe and Yannick Bolloré for David Jones in the same role at Havas have both shown they can keep people on side in times of change.
Sir Martin Sorrell’s leadership credentials are so impressive that he’s hanging on to his gravitas, even though he no longer runs the world’s biggest communications group. His change of status hasn’t kept him off Sky News or Radio 4, because people will still listen to what he has to say.
I’ve worked with some extremely charismatic leaders, among them David Abraham, founder of Wonderhood Studios, when he was chief exec at UKTV. He steamed in and told us all we had to work a lot harder, which was tough, but he had a charm and intellect that galvanized people.
When I sat next to him at an awards night, I thought I’d better not drink as he was the boss. I was wrong – it turned out to be a riotous night.
Abraham’s charisma has helped him to hire some of the top talent from the best agencies in the industry – including Adam&Eve/DDB, Wieden+Kennedy, BBH and 4 Creative – to work with him at Wonderhood.
Likewise, Adam&Eve/DDB founders James Murphy and David Golding will inevitably be inundated with people wanting to be part of their new venture, and Nils Leonard, who is at the top of his game, seems to have no trouble attracting clients and talent to Uncommon Creative Studio.
Annette King, now chief executive of Publicis Groupe UK, is another influential leader who combines intellect with personal appeal. She has brought a number of colleagues over from WPP with her, including Emma de la Fosse (chief creative officer at Digitas), Jo Coombs (chief operating officer at Publicis Groupe UK), and the popular Charlie Rudd, who replaced the “quiet man of advertising” (thanks Jeremy Lee), Gareth Collins, as chief executive of Leo Burnett.
Being quiet clearly doesn’t pay in advertising, but charm on its own isn’t enough – it must always be backed up by talent and skill. We should never let ourselves be blindsided by this charisma which, if unchecked, can easily tip over into megalomania.
Our penchant for charisma has become all too evident in politics, and it’s not just reality TV star Donald Trump who’s benefited. Liberia’s president George Weah was a professional footballer for Chelsea and Manchester City; Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan was captain of the national cricket team and an international playboy; and Ukrainian comedian Vladimir Zelensky will go head-to-head with the country’s sitting president in a few weeks’ time.
And, though his policies may be abhorrent to me, Boris Johnson has survived endless professional and personal gaffes thanks to his charisma.
On the flip side, look what happens when there’s a charisma bypass. Theresa May’s 'Maybot' shortcomings and Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of grace have together made room for the “charms” of Johnson to gain support.
We need voices like Weed’s – principled, confident and connected – to see the industry through changing times.
Strong, intelligent, forward-thinking leaders with vision and spark give the creative industries an edge and a unifying force that is needed now more than ever.
Sally Quick, is a partner at talent and leadership consultancy Mission Bay