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Here's How the New Breed of Agency Leaders Will Stay on Top


We are living in what I call the Agility Era--a time when multitudes of people are discussing the importance of being lean and agile. And yes, this makes sense, but for any number of reasons, the leaders of our industry have not been able to make it happen.

Gone are the days of starting the year and being able to see the majority of your revenue on Jan. 1. The agency of record model is coming increasingly under threat. Even the largest, most established agencies in the world are being forced to fight for their revenue project by project, quarter by quarter, year by year. That is going to have a real impact on the structure of the agency business and also on the people who will lead our business in the future. The new breed of agency leaders will be hungry, curious, determined and committed.

In this time, the single most important thing in our industry is the ability to act quickly, decisively and intelligently. I speak to leaders from independent agencies and holding companies, and despite the differences, they all agree that the industry model is in a difficult position. The problem is that few are willing to spend the time, the energy or, most importantly, the money to change things. And to be clear, it's not a question of size--it's a question of attitude.

We are also an industry that runs on talent, and great talent is at the core of solving problems. But imparting change throughout the entire agency has to start at the leadership level. Assess how you work, how you think and how you interact with your employees. Agile leadership--in decision making, business models, strategic hires or creative work--is at the core of succeeding in the Agility Era.

My time working with agency leaders from around the world has allowed me to identify four key areas where the best of their attributes overlap. They are simple, yet key components to successful leadership in the Agility Era: Let's call them the four "Be's."

Be entrepreneurial. Clients are demanding entrepreneurialism, so this is your chance to increase your remit rather than see it shrink by becoming more involved in your clients' business. To achieve this, you all have one big asset: your millennials. Use your clients' increasing and changing demands as a reason to spearhead positive change throughout your company's ranks, including the new generation of talent, which is excited to dive in head first. And while you're busy getting them involved, you should be learning from them.

Be (more) creative. We all know that the advertising industry is by default creative, but recently we've stopped being creative enough. This has led to agency talent leaving for tech companies and other startups. Always remember to put creativity and creative thought at the heart of your business. Promote growth and improvement through embracing the creative values this business was built on. Ensure that the most talented graduates finishing school and the brightest team leaders in the world would want to work for you instead of heading to the "greener pastures" of Silicon Valley.

Be brave. Many of the leaders in our industry are, or at least historically have been, afraid of change. There's an element of "I'll leave the problem for the next generation," which has left us where we are today. It is much easier to do nothing, but it is always better to do something. Take action and make difficult decisions, and your business will move forward.

Be big picture. Never make a big decision without understanding the greater context for your business--this goes for acquiring a new company, selecting a vendor, entering a new business pitch or any other number of scenarios. Right now, that big-picture understanding is possibly most important when hiring for roles. When someone leaves an agency, it needs a replacement. But you should also greet each new hire as a chance to reframe the role you're filling and identify what it is that will make you most effective for the future. Don't just think about the future of your business; think about the future of the industry as a whole.

I know that it's daunting. Change always is. But without big, hairy difficult problems, you don't have the platform to make seismic shifts, and I believe we're on the verge of some of the biggest, most exciting change this business has ever seen.

Jay Haines (@jayhaines) is CEO of Grace Blue.

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