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CEO clubs are proving essential for marketing agency leaders – here’s why

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By Niki McMorrough | Director of memberships

October 19, 2023 | 12 min read

With only 8% of CEOs believing their business model will survive current levels of digital disruption, demand for chief executive peer groups has skyrocketed, says The Drum’s own Niki McMorrough. But when it comes to marketing agency leaders, not all CEO clubs are created equal.

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Modern climbers of Mount Everest, held up in a human traffic jam at 29,000 feet, would probably spit their soup out in disbelief if they heard you mutter the old cliché ‘it’s lonely at the top.’ But in business, clichés have an annoying habit of being true. According to Harvard Business Review, over half of all chief executive officers (CEOs) report experiencing loneliness in their role – with 60% of those saying that this has a negative impact on their performance (for first-time CEOs, this grows to a whopping 70%).

But what does ‘loneliness’ really mean for a CEO? On one level, you might sense that your colleagues see you as ‘other’, seeking online advice on how to do something as simple as celebrating your birthday (as if cards and cake would make you spontaneously combust). Or you might feel a little hurt that, statistically, 25% of staff don’t know your name.

More often than not, however, it’s not just about feeling left out of the gang. A lot of the CEOs I speak to in The Drum’s CEO Club understand that leadership comes with sacrifice; that the power dynamics between boss and employee make egalitarian relationships almost impossible. Yes, you might have had a pleasant chat with Sophie the social media executive in the elevator, but she didn’t invite you to crazy golf for her birthday – and that’s OK.

Instead, from the conversations I’ve had with CEOs, loneliness is better understood in the context of support and understanding (or lack thereof). Most of your organization may not understand what exactly you do (or else may assume it’s first-class flights and business dinners ad infinitum), or the difficult challenges you face as a leader. That often means few people can fully support, guide, or – gulp – help you. You’re the CEO. You must know everything, right? Feeling like you can’t ever say, ‘I don’t know’ to a problem (an increasingly prevalent issue for CEOs) is an incredibly lonely position to be in.

Luckily, there’s now much more awareness of this issue, and solutions are at hand. CEO peer networks (AKA CEO clubs) have skyrocketed in the last decade or so, creating hubs for learning, networking, and – crucially – sharing common experiences.

But with so many of these CEO networks to choose from, which one is right for a marketing agency leader? Here I’ll explain what to look for (and what to avoid) in a CEO club program, which ones are actually worth your time, and what outcomes you can expect from a good agency leader network.

The top 5 benefits to look for in a CEO club program

1. CEO peer group coaching sessions

In recent years, cognitive research has revealed the problem-solving advantages of peer-to-peer learning. CEO club programs should therefore provide you with a platform for peer-to-peer coaching and support. They should be places of reciprocal learning, allowing you to share experiences and insights with peers, while benefiting from theirs. Think skill-share meetings, private online community boards, and organized discussions around specific topics.

A group of marketing agency ceos and leaders at a ceo club
Pictured: The Drum CEO Club members Chris Jones (Space and Time CEO), Steve Bell (Iris Global CEO), Hannah Kimuyu (MD performance, Brave Bison)

You want to be surrounded by fellow agency leaders facing similar challenges, where you can learn to overcome them together.

2. Highly relevant topics and personal connections

Look for clubs that focus on highly relevant topics such as mergers and acquisitions, investments, new business strategies, talent management, and client relationship management. These discussions should address your specific industry needs.

Similarly, ensure that the club can match you with peers who share your goals and are at a similar growth stage. Meaningful and relevant connections are essential for productive discussions and collaborations.

3. Latest agency business thinking

With the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), we may be about to live through another, AI-fueled, industrial revolution. It’s crucial that your CEO club has sound resources, data, and discussions that can keep you updated with the latest trends and insights in the agency business. Only 8% of CEOs believe their business model will survive current levels of digital disruption, so seek clubs that provide access to learning content that is specifically tailored to marketing agency CEOs, ensuring you can always adapt your business model to survive the changing winds.

Peer-to-peer CEO networking and learning at The Drum's CEO club for marketing agency leaders
Pictured: London CEO club agency leaders meet as part of The Drum's CEO Club to discuss profitability at The Drum Labs, November 2022

For example, a valuable leadership network may offer access to events and sessions with leading marketing and agency business experts, allowing you to learn from the best in the field and significantly enhance your leadership skills.

4. Personal profiling and content opportunities

Personal branding and profiling have never been more important for agency leaders (especially founders). A good CEO club will help you to access content resources (appearing on podcasts, giving media interviews, and writing op-eds and thought leadership for established publications) that help you reach and showcase your expertise to a relevant audience (i.e. brand CMOs).

5. CEO club accreditation

Finally, look for clubs that offer recognizable accreditation within the industry. Just as you wouldn’t care about a competitor winning an award from an unknown events company, the credibility and value of your CEO club membership will rest on how familiar your peers are with the club. And if the club isn’t recognizable? This may suggest that you’re unlikely to make relevant connections as a member.

Pictured, Andrea Glenn, CEO of Ledger Bennet
Pictured: Andrea Glenn, CEO of Ledger Bennet, at an event for The Drum's CEO Club

3 key things to avoid in a CEO club for marketing agency leaders

1. Irrelevant peers and superficial networking

Avoid clubs that match you with peers from different industries, levels of knowledge, or seniority. These clubs could, for example, offer ‘leadership networking,’ without a clear definition of which roles fall under the category of ‘leadership.’ Your group should be tailored to your specific needs.

Likewise, the networking itself should also meet your specific needs. While they might be attractive, CEO clubs aren’t about fancy drinks and sleepovers (although these are fun too). They’re about timely, quality conversations to help you and your business benchmark in real time, stay on track, and help reach your target CMO audience.

2. Clubs that are too easy to join or gain access to

Groucho Marx famously quipped, “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” But it’s not the clubs that want you that you should be wary of; it’s those that want everyone. A good CEO club is exclusive and selective. You’ll be bringing serious value to whichever club you join, and you should expect that other members will do the same. If this means your club is smaller, so be it.

Strategic networking is key; prioritize a few high-quality connections over a multitude of random ones. Depth and relevance matter more than quantity.

Similarly, you want to ensure that there’s zero point of entry for random individuals to be in meetings. This can erode the trust and cohesion within your group – which is key to effective networking and learning.

3. Lack of confidentiality

Finally (and this is a biggy), if the club doesn’t have a confidentiality agreement or Chatham House Rule, then you should scratch it from your list immediately. Without these in place, there’s no way to ensure open and honest discussions.

What kinds of CEO clubs can marketing agency leaders join? 

Local CEO clubs

You can opt to join a local club and meet entrepreneurs near you. Local options include your chambers of commerce, trade bodies, and regional business clubs. 

However, this option can result in a lack of diversity and a lack of relevance to your industry. In an increasingly interconnected world, local CEO clubs may not necessarily provide the breadth of experience needed to tackle some of the larger problems the industry faces today.

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Relevant CEO clubs

Alternatively, you can opt to join a highly tailored global CEO club to meet other agency CEOs. This will provide you with a truly global leadership network, where you will be surrounded by those who are experiencing the same growth curve (albeit in different regions than you).

Some great CEO clubs include The Drum's CEO Club, Vistage, Helm and Forbes CEO council. However, not all will provide laser focus on running a marketing agency that you will most likely need from your peer group, as it’s such a specialized industry and skill set. 

For marketing agency leaders who want to connect with other agency CEOs on a global scale, I recommend The Drum’s CEO Club, where members meet in small, regular peer groups to help confidentially steer each other through uncharted territories. The CEO club comes with the option to reach CMOs and marketing budget holders through personal branding and profile-building opportunities such as the CEO Matters podcast, and Leader Debates.

“The Drum Network is hugely valuable for me as an agency leader,” says Chris Jones (CEO, Space & Time). “The peer connections, the thought-provoking conversations with other CEOs, and the implementable advice are massively appreciated.”

If you’re interested in joining The Drum’s CEO Club, book a consultation with my team now.

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