Creative agencies: Sharing power or diluting power?

Will creative agencies adopting a dual leadership model today for CCO position lead to less towering creative personalities and further dilution of their powers, or has it become a necessity?

e4m by Neeta Nair
Updated: Oct 1, 2020 9:28 AM

What do Ogilvy (earlier Ogilvy & Mather), BBH (Bartle Bogle Hegarty), DDB (Doyle Dane Bernbach) have in common? Each of the agency groups are/were known by the names of their founders. For decades, we have had some legendary partnerships successfully leading entire firms even as name partners. So sharing the top role, is not exactly an alien concept in advertising. But after a generation of ad agencies resting their powers in a single ‘Chief Creative Officer’ be it Piyush Pandey, Balki or Prasoon Joshi, of late we are seeing a partnership being struck even at the highest level of creative leadership at the big agencies. The examples are plenty, be it Ogilvy’s trio Kainaz Karmakar, Harshad Rajadhyaksha and Sukesh Nayak, Lowe Lintas’ Joint CCOs Sagar Kapoor and Prateek Bhardwaj, Mullen Lintas’ Azazul Haque and Garima Khandelwal or L&K Saatchi and Saatchi’s Joint NCDs Rohit Malkani and Kartik Smetacek and most recently the elevation of Vikash Chemjong and Basabjit Mazumdar as joint NCDs of Publicis WW after Ajay Gahlaut’s exit. But what led to the sudden change in the leadership pattern? And will it lead to a dilution of creative powers, and will the trend hold true for all agencies in the near future?

Division of work
While the sudden exit of a celebrated creative like Sonal Dabral raised many eyebrows, the elevation of Kainaz, Harshad and Sukesh was greeted with as much cheer in the industry circles. Talking about the need for a new model with three CCOs, Kunal Jeswani, CEO, Ogilvy India says, “We have always had strong creative leadership. Piyush is a fantastic talent magnet and, over the years, has attracted and nurtured an incredible width of creative leadership talent. The balance we have managed to strike now is having strong creative leaders in every city we operate in and strong national creative leaders. This has many advantages. Every city team is self-sufficient, with city office leadership teams, including strong creative leaders, driving their brands, client relationships and creative work. And Sukesh, Harshad and Kainaz have the opportunity to dive deep where they need to, knowing they have enough support from their creative leaders in every market, and can lean on each other when they need to. They still have a lot of pressure but that pressure is shared amongst three extremely talented creative leaders. And that makes it sustainable.”

Rohit Ohri, Group CEO & Chairman, FCB India counters that, “With two-three heads, decision making becomes quite a challenge. Also then the creative team gets confused as to whether to follow this style of working or that, unless of course there is an art copy team leading it. A CCO’s job is to guide, for e.g. Swati Bhattacharya, FCB Ulka’s CCO may not be involved in every campaign from the beginning to end, but she does a review, she guides creative and gives her point of view. Also, having two people historically has always shown that there is indecisiveness in the management to choose one. So, then you make both to keep the peace. And then generally, I think there are issues.”

Industry experts also argue that it is not always the problems related to handling the breadth of work that creates these dual designations. An industry insider on the condition of anonymity says, “Recently after a very high profile exit of a CCO at a top agency, multiple positions were created in the agency at the top level, the deal there was focusing more on retention of good talent and giving them their due by offering them plum posts. It also helps in the power games.”

Builds strong client relationships
Another agency which has invested in a power sharing model at the top is L&K Saatchi and Saatchi. While the model was put in place before he took over as CEO of the agency, Paritosh Srivastava, MD, L&K Saatchi and Saatchi says it has worked wonders for them, “In the past I have often heard clients say, ‘I hope this pitch team here will be the one I would be seeing regularly working on my business. We all have in that moment paused and said, “Yes, of course” but when an agency can’t realistically make that happen, clients start cribbing. Because of this dual leadership model we are able to spread the senior resources across the agency in a far more fruitful fashion, impact businesses with better people and build relationships at the top level with clients and hold on to them. When your CCOs or your NCDs are that hands-on, on a business, the ECDs are much more hands-on and so is the agency overall, which is very important. Versus the times when, the senior lot could have the flexibility of being slightly off hand and then the teams are running the business.”

While a hands-on approach from top leaders is something that a client expects from an agency, why limit it then to the CCO role alone? Sharing his perspective on that is Tarun Rai, CEO, Wunderman Thompson, South Asia, who works with a single CCO across all the Group’s agencies says, “We have one CCO for Wunderman Thompson, one for Contract and one for Mirum. It’s simple, it’s effective and it’s working very well. It is true that clients want senior level involvement. And, therefore, the CCO has to lead from the front. He or she has to be hands-on. This requires an amazing amount of energy. But that’s not limited to Creative. It is the same for Strategy Planning where the CSO has to be involved with their key clients’ businesses. The same for the CEO. All of us have to lead from the front.” 

Another agency that was early to adopt this power sharing model was the MullenLowe Lintas Group. Talking about the logic behind having joint CCOs at the agency level and yet keeping a single CCO at the Group level, Amer Jaleel, Chairman and Group CCO, MullenLowe Lintas Group says, “Earlier both Arun Iyer and I were jointly heading Creative at Lowe Lintas. Having been trained by Balki, both of us enjoyed working hands-on, on the businesses. The greatest sort of successes and the best years in terms of brand building, fame and awards came to Lowe Lintas at that point. So when I had to move on and take more responsibility, I wanted to duplicate that model in both our agencies.” Elaborating on why it is almost a necessity today, he says, “It is not possible for one person to handle the amount of work that clients expect agencies to do today. Today we are a digital forward agency, we’re thinking of voice engagement, content, etc. and to be doing so much work you need more than one person at the top, otherwise the person will get disengaged from that work. Years ago when I was doing half of that job I felt burdened so I couldn’t possibly ask anyone to take that one up all alone.”

Affordability, an issue?
Most of the agencies with twin CCOs have divided work on the basis of geographies to also save on travel time between cities. But by that logic does it mean as the number of clients grows, more offices are launched and scope of work with it goes up, further divisions can happen, instead of two, four CCOs may be heading a big agency. Also what happens to remuneration in such a case? Does having two instead of one put further pressure on agency revenue or vice versa? Paritosh Srivastava explains, “There are enough and more examples where a single high profile creative head might cost you a lot more than two people. Or the two people might be more, but it depends. I mean, there is no fixed rule. I can only say that what we have currently at LKSS is working for us just fine.”

Rohit Ohri, whose Group has one CCO each for two of FCB agencies Ulka and Interface, says, “Financially even if it makes sense to get two instead of one I would take the brilliant one over two mediocre ones any day.”

Imbalance of power

The agencies that have embraced the power sharing model say that it is impossible for a single person to keep an eye on all the businesses and having a twin leadership model is very important for quality control and yet there are cases where it hasn’t worked at all. An industry insider who didn’t wish to be named said, “Around 2007, a talented creative leader joined a WPP agency from Brand David as the NCD while another leader who is now heading the Creative at another network agency was elevated to the same role. Their partnership as NCDs of the agency was a complete disaster. And now they are both heading two different very successful agency set ups in the country.”

Rohit Ohri says, “Why have Ogilvy, McCann and Lintas been successful historically, primarily because Piyush, Prasoon and Balki had all the power, they called the shots and created their own creative stamp, growing these agencies into powerhouses on their own. What happens usually is when you have two CCOs, their power gets divided and the CEO becomes more powerful than the CCOs. And that creates an imbalance of power. If you are talking about increasing size of business, then it is also logical to have two CEOs to handle that, but in which agency have you seen two CEOs? The bottom line is you have to empower the creative heads and give them complete freedom because at the end of the day you are a creative agency.”

It has to be a fine balance. While some agencies may consider it important to have two CCOs more from a sharing of responsibility angle, superior client engagement, etc., it can clearly be counter-productive to the teams and the agency as a whole if there are ego wars and a lack of collaboration between the two leaders. But perhaps this new crop of co-leaders will show the way.

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