Agency Models Business Leadership Business

Business developers have the transferable superpowers to become agency leaders

By Jody Osman, Group Director of Growth

Propeller Group


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March 6, 2023 | 7 min read

Business development people have the foundational skills for leadership and know the ins and outs of all business processes, naturally – explains Propeller Group’s Jody Osman.

Lego superheroes sat enjoying some ice cream

What makes new business specialists so well suited to leadership? / Yulia Matvienko

New business is the beating heart of any agency pumping growth throughout the organization, but Business Development (BD) is also the West Point training academy for producing capable, resilient and empathetic future agency leaders.

A close look at the UK agency scene will surface a number of amazing agency leaders who all have experience as business developers. These include current IPA president, international chief exec and vice-chairman of VCCP, Julian Douglas; Mother London’s managing director (MD) Katie Elliott; Iris co-founder and CEO at Cheil Connec+ Ian Millner; and BBD Perfect Storm CEO, Jason Foo.

But what lies in the DNA of new business specialists that makes them so suited to leadership positions?

Jemima Monies, who has recently been appointed chief operating officer role at McCann London and previously chief marketing and operations officer at Adam&EveDDB is in no doubt.

She says, “leaders in this space embody all the characteristics and possess all the skills you find behind an agency’s walls: creative, strategic, efficient, entrepreneurial and commercial. And, given their ample exposure to senior leadership compared to other departments, they learn to think like a leader – from the very get-go.”

Relationship builders par excellence

Business developers are plugged into all aspects of agency operations and processes; they are in the trenches running the operations, liaising with all departments across the business, reporting directly to senior leadership, and hopefully steering the agency to victory in the process.

They must build and maintain networks of relationships both internally and externally and bring people and departments into alignment – essential for any leader who wants to achieve their goals of building sustainable business growth.

Due to their training, and exposure to all areas of the agency, business developers hold skills aligned with agency leaders – only CEOs or MDs operate across the breadth of the business in a similar way.

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Gareth Evans, group managing director at Cogent, believes that “the business development training ground also means BD folk become adept at distilling – and articulating – the value of what we do, our ambition as a business, and what that means for a wide range of audiences: clients, partners, our teams, candidates, etc – another important leadership quality”.

They are also finely honed multi-taskers and amazingly adaptive. They have to respond quickly to changing circumstances, be that to seize an unexpected business opportunity, to suddenly surface a different set of agency capabilities than originally demanded by a potential client or to pivot to helping a team present virtually rather than face-to-face.

Pitches are high-intensity and require business development folk to steer a team of experts to produce excellent work while juggling priorities to make sure the team stays on track, motivated and remains focused.

Always ready to take on the world

Agencies face new challenges and are operating in changing circumstances - but the fundamentals of a service-led business remain the same. Good leaders are not distracted by external factors but see them as opportunities to adjust their offerings and dealings with clients – skills that BDs have already honed.

Ultimately, new business specialists have resilience and the ability to inspire – possibly the most important qualities of a leader. They can bounce back quickly from a setback and make sure others are energized and ready for the next go-round.

Bianca McLeish, content director, global business development at Publicis Groupe, says, “a great leader is someone who pushes boundaries, sets new heights, inspires their team, all coupled with a humble and relatable personality. Someone who displays compassion and humility for others but knows how to balance this with a growth mindset for the future of the agency. All of which you see within the very best of business development leaders today – transferrable superpowers every business developer holds”.

It’s no surprise to see many new business stars rise up the ladder to either run an agency or set up their own. It’s important to honor this talent at whatever stage of the journey they are on.

Agency Models Business Leadership Business

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Propeller Group

Propeller delivers a joined-up approach to PR, Content and Business Development.

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