Madhvi Pahwa
Nov 25, 2013

The forces shaping tomorrow's agency leaders

A changing industry will generate a new breed of agency heads.

Madhvi Pahwa
Madhvi Pahwa

Now is an interesting moment to examine the factors that have influenced today’s agency leadership—and those that are shaping Asia-Pacific’s leaders of 2018. Importantly, what will these differences mean for styles of leadership?

1. Where they started their careers

A significant difference between today and tomorrow’s agency heads will be their cradle. Those at the helm in media today by and large began their careers in full service agencies, where they were exposed to and absorbed creative processes. Conversely, the agency heads of 2018 will have started out in media or digital shops, even content agencies, and perhaps dabbled in a startup or two along the way.

Today’s leaders have an instinctive understanding of brands and creative, having, in all likelihood, grown up in a creative agency. Tomorrow’s leaders will operate in a context where content will be getting generated all the time everywhere. Leveraging this will require an even deeper understanding of the brand essence.

The upside of this for tomorrow’s leaders is, of course, a fundamentally stronger role of media in the marketing mix. Traditionally, media departments in creative agencies were the last link in the chain, the last two slides of the grand creative presentation. No more. As the focus on effectiveness and ROI intensifies, tomorrow’s agency leaders will be able to achieve a greater levelling of the client-agency relationship.

2. Leading people with diverse skill sets

Another interesting issue for tomorrow’s agency leaders is that they won’t have the same subject-matter expertise as those they are leading. Traditionally, management structures are based on leaders having worked their way up through an organisation, gaining the requisite skills and experience on the way up to manage those coming in below.

As the industry continues to diversify and specialise, agency chiefs will have an analytics person, a digital person, a creative person, social and mobile specialists, content creators and so on all under their wing.

What will help of course is that crowdsourcing will come more naturally to the next generation of leaders.

Managing this incredibly diverse work force will require a far more facilitative approach. When leaders don’t have the solution to a problem, they have to work skilfully to harness the expertise of their people. Often, this boils down to asking just the right question that draws out a team’s existing skill sets and knowledge.

In Asia, this will require an attitude shift given the more hierarchical society. The idea that the boss may not always know best will take some getting used to—for both the boss and the subordinates.

In an industry becoming increasingly dependent on the tech behind the ideas, tomorrow’s agency leader has a clear head start, but also a far more volatile environment to navigate. As I see it, the greatest challenge for those assuming charge in five years will be to foster a culture that nurtures the hugely diverse skill sets in the room. Crucially, it will involve learning to be comfortable with not having all the answers themselves.

All in all, I think we can look forward to a more facilitative, whole-brained leadership at the helm in incredibly exciting times. 

Madhvi Pahwa is global talent director for Maxus.

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