UK media agencies are facing a leadership crisis

For jobs promising high pay and work with some of the top brands in the world, you’d think top candidates would be barging down doors. Not so when it comes to top media agency jobs nowadays.

A recent exodus of senior talent from U.K. media agencies has left a raft of openings at agencies like Starcom, OMD and Havas. And the leadership vacuum will worsen before improving, with industry veterans in their peak earning years deciding to stay away until those businesses resolve their internal issues.

That reluctance is becoming widespread across the industry, according to recruitment consultants Ultimate Asset, The Lighthouse Company and Propel. All three companies have seen a rise in the number of senior executives looking to leave media agencies in recent months, and all expect this to continue. Agency bosses have known about this talent drain for some time but are hesitant to implement the needed radical changes.

For one industry source who left the agency world several years ago, there was always the possibility they might return if the right role materialized. But when that offer came recently, they politely declined. The source explained: “The opportunity to lead and scale an agile, entrepreneurial and tech-based business and to take the agencies on at their own game provided a far more exciting and inspiring challenge to take on.”

That decision was justified by sudden leadership vacuums created at some of the U.K.’s biggest media agencies last week. First, Pippa Glucklich, the U.K. CEO of Starcom, left. Then, there was Nikki Mendonça, the president of OMD’s business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Tracy De Groose, Dentsu Aegis Network’s CEO for the U.K. and Ireland, departed next, followed by Paul Frampton, the CEO for Havas Media Group’s U.K. and Ireland division. Each executive had personal reasons for leaving, yet it’s telling that they all exited when they, as leaders, were needed more than ever.

The relationship between agency and client has never been questioned more, and the transparency debate won’t go away. New, disruptive businesses are nipping at agencies’ heels. It’s a hard sell for any recruitment consultant, particularly if they’re trying to convince someone who has left a media agency to return.

Mary Keane-Dawson, the former managing director for Ogilvy’s media agency Neo@Ogilvy, declined “opportunities to turn the ship around” at other agencies following her exit in February. Instead, she joined The Marketing Group, an alternative to the traditional media groups. “I realized I wanted to jettison the legacy [model] and create something that solved the client and talent problem with media — not the bonus of the board,” she said. “There is no such thing as the good old days in media.”

Industry veterans seem more interested in newly created roles on the client side rather than joining other agencies. Matt Bolshaw, the CEO of Ultimate Asset’s Europe business, noted that applications from agency executives for a global head of media planning recently inundated a large travel brand, for instance. “If ever we are working on a client-side role, then we are normally inundated with requests from the agency side,” he said. “There’s also now more of an appetite from these individuals to also move to the ad tech side and look at roles at media owners.”

While media agencies have struggled to spark the same interest for their own roles, it is possible. Ultimate Asset is recruiting two president roles at a network agency. The difference between those roles and other vacancies, however, is that they have a mandate for “huge change” in “particular channels within those agencies,” Bolshaw said. If media agencies can promise executives they will be the “architects of change” within those businesses rather than “working the same jobs they have done for years, but for longer hours and slightly more money,” then it could encourage more executives to return, he added.

Finding that talent is hard; convincing them to join is harder. Executives need assurance that if they join another agency, they will have the autonomy to transform businesses and won’t have to hit unrealistic targets. “I think a lot of former CEOs, people who are genuinely great leaders, get frustrated at being told they have to deliver a certain profit ratio each year,” said Kathleen Saxton, the founder of The Lighthouse Company.

Recruitment has played a role in making those change-maker roles a rarity in agencies to date, said James Webb, managing director at Propel. Most agencies have in-house talent teams responsible for filling senior roles. That may be part of the issue, said Webb, who believes “agency culture and the eroding business model play even bigger parts” in whether an industry veteran will join an agency.

“Our own research shows us that more and more people will seek to change roles if the company culture is not right for them, especially in the younger age brackets,” Webb said. “Media is a pretty transient industry at the best of times, so agencies must work hard at creating the right environments, creating career paths.”

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