Aspire to Agency Leadership? Start Your Prep Now.

Contributed by Mark Strong, CEO, Mark Strong Coaching & Training | April 4, 2018 

When you first start out in your career, you might fall back on a mental habit from your early educational experience: distinguishing between days to work hard and learn, and days to relax and have fun. But if you want to get ahead in the advertising world, you’ll quickly discover that the only way to hone your skills and stand out is to approach every day—and every stage of your career—as a school day.

You must continuously stay on your toes and in learning mode, taking advantage of opportunities to get smarter, if you want to develop your leadership potential and be prepared to move up in an agency. That’s because advertising agency leadership requires a unique set of critical skills and fundamental competencies that are unique to this industry.

The Core Four
In today’s complex, competitive, and digitally oriented marketplace, agency leadership has become more challenging than at any other time in history. Today’s agency leadership—from creative directors to CEOs—must strategize and tap into their emotional intelligence and juggle an ever-expanding range of responsibilities and deliverables for their teams, clients, and shareholders. With this in mind, effective agency leaders must hone their abilities in four key areas:
  • Leading employees. The first level of agency management involves developing critical people skills. These include coaching others to help them achieve better results, setting meaningful performance goals for team members, and figuring out best practices for collaboration among individuals in a group. Agency leaders must also be prepared to communicate and listen to others through the lens of EQ, provide teams with effective feedback, and know how to handle conflict—particularly when dealing with difficult people.
  • Leading clients. Just as important as providing leadership to direct reports, agency leaders must also prioritize understanding clients, in order to effectively direct their teams to reach a client’s marketing goals. This involves becoming an expert in building and expanding relationships with existing clients, as well as identifying and cultivating relationships with potential new customer bases and revenue streams. Another aspect of client leadership is becoming comfortable with selling creative and transformational ideas to clients to help them grow their business, as well as the agency’s business.
  • Leading growth. An agency can’t flourish without a constant pipeline of new business opportunities. Agency leaders must understand organic, reactive, and prospective new business strategies. They must also know how to pursue growth by recruiting and hiring world-class talent to build high-performance teams of deeply engaged employees who have long-term potential at the agency.
  • Leading the business. The above competencies can’t flourish long-term under a leader who doesn’t know how to drive agency profit. Beyond simply understanding the roles and responsibilities of effective leadership, agency management must also develop a broad perspective that includes establishing and executing strategic priorities across the entire organization. Effective leaders must know how to both generate positive financial results, as well as create a motivating agency culture where the work environment supports the development of innovative creative solutions.

Leaders Are Made
In light of these realities, old-school “managing” is clearly no longer enough to succeed in an agency environment. True leaders are needed who can motivate and inspire others to bring out their full creative potential. Agencies need leaders who can create cultures that maximize team synergy and productivity, while respecting the whole person and helping employees avoid burnout from intense client demands.

And knowing the extensive demands on agency leaders, it becomes clearer why you must embrace a commitment to continual learning if you hope to one day join their ranks. Even if you already know enough to get your current job done well, you can’t become complacent if you expect to grow in your career. Yes it’s more work to keep learning when you don’t technically “have to,” but it’s important to push yourself to do so. For one thing, learning makes you smarter. Research has shown that there is a correlation between learning and new neurons surviving in the brain region used for learning and memory. This boost in neuron generation occurs with tasks that push us past our comfort zone.

The other reason to commit to a path of career-long learning if you hope to advance and excel is that contrary to popular belief, this approach is what creates leaders. The old saying that leaders are born and not made has been widely debunked as a myth. As JMW Consultants points out, “Leaders are made”, noting that “effective leadership is much more the product of circumstances—and how they commit to dealing with those circumstances—than it is about any characteristics that they may have naturally possessed.”

More Than Before
Part of how high-potential employees commit to dealing with circumstances is by embracing a commitment to continual learning about what it takes to be a strong leader. The fact that leaders are made means that even if you don’t feel that you are ready to take the helm today, you can still take steps over time to inch you closer to that worthy goal. As Erika Andersen writes in Forbes: “most folks who start out with a modicum of innate leadership capability can actually become very good, even great leaders.” [Andersen’s emphasis.]

To morph from your current capabilities into a powerful leader, though, you need to be prepared to do what it takes to grow and improve. You must understand how your actions and decisions impact others, and develop acute listening skills so that you can incorporate a wide range of viewpoints beyond your own. You also need to gain insight into who you are, what strengths you bring to the table, and which areas need improvement. As Andersen stated: “The single most powerful way to grow as a leader: Become truly self-aware.”

Since self-awareness is a big piece of the puzzle that helps separate mediocre leaders from memorable ones, part of your commitment to agency leadership might include taking a personality assessment like DiSC for Leaders, which can help you develop a clear understanding of your personal strengths and growth areas in relation to your leadership capability. Learning what’s behind your own leadership style is key to effectively adapting to the styles of others as well.

Stepping Stones
One way to prepare yourself to lead in the future involves being proactive as a student of your own career: not only going the extra mile in every task you take on, but also seeking ways to increase your value to your company and colleagues even if it’s not part of your current job description. This means doing more than what’s expected—and figuring out what that “more” is in your current agency.

Even if you’ve been with your agency for several years, there’s always more that you can absorb about the business. You can focus on ferreting out the details behind your agency’s processes, and suggesting how teams can do things better, faster, and more efficiently. For example, you might focus on researching how things work in other departments, and offer ideas for improving intra-departmental communication. You could also dig down deeper into the heart of your own department, seeking ways for people to collaborate more efficiently. Every strategic suggestion you make helps the current agency heads see your leadership potential.

The fact is that it takes a career’s worth of effort to learn how to successfully lead an agency—and the right time to get started on this mission is now. Are you ready to prepare for the next stage in your agency career and gain expertise in the four key areas of leading people, leading clients, leading growth, and leading the business? You can learn more about how to do it and create a personalized action plan with the 4A’s and Launch for Leaders, where you’ll discover what great agency leaders do and how to become one of them.


Explore the 4A's Launch for Leaders workshop led by Mark Strong: 4A's Launch for Leaders 



Mark-StrongMARK STRONG | A highly engaging trainer with more than 25 years of experience in the advertising world. He’s worked with blue-chip brands such as MasterCard, BMW, Starbucks and Levi’s at agencies such as Fallon and McCann. Within these organizations, he’s held roles such as Director of Account Management, Chief of Staff, Director of New Business and Head of Learning & Development. In addition to training professionals in advertising and other creative industries, Mark has more than a decade of experience as an Executive Coach, strategic facilitator and team building expert.  He is accredited through the International Coach Federation and has significant credentials from Coach U, The Landmark Forum, DiSC, Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate, and The Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching.