Will digital people ever run the advertising business?

Its funny, back in 2000 when digital took off, the sector was really sidelined in terms of importance, no one really took it seriously, there was no scale, it was specialist. Nearly 12 years later and the world has changed dramatically. Spend has moved from £150m in 2000 to £4billion. Internet has overtaken every media channel, recently overtaking TV. Share of overall spend has increased year on year at a huge rate.

Agency life has been dominated by digital, teams of search, display experts, planners, buyers, mobile experts, Heads of Digital, Digital Strategy Directors, API specialist, and on and on. Its been a revolution. The major agency holding groups are judged amongst other things by the percentage of their revenues derived from digital. Digital is the key battle ground in terms of services.

And yet..take a look at the CVs of all those people leading media agencies and creative agencies in the UK, have a look at Managing Directors and CEOs, COOs and what do they all have in common? None of them come from a background in digital. It’s an interesting fact I think. There is the odd exception, the most notable being Rob Horler and Mark Creighton. Again even there, Rob is in the Group and Mark is COO rather than CEO / MD roles but nevertheless at least they are influencing direction. Of course digital leads are influencing at a board level, its not that they are not heard, but they cant seem to make the next move.

Lets then look at clients – I can’t pretend to know the whole market place but I am pretty sure again that most CMOs and Marketing Directors don’t come from a purist digital background. What implications does this have for digital growth? Should anyone care, it will happen eventually, wont it? Well I think part of the problem is that digital media has always been so implementational – more important to know how to get something to appear on a page than think strategically about whether or not its the right thing for the brief. The generalist, the planner approach is more likely to think more holistically and therefore talk the language of the client. Who owns the client, gets on in most agencies.

I believe that the Head of Digital roles and careers will ultimately always hit a career ceiling until they start to become more generalist and strategic, and get less bogged down in tech and implementation. There are a number of Heads of Digital across the industry – lets see how many progress to MD or CEO of a mainstream agency vs moving out to find their next role. I guess eventually the boundaries will fall and everyone will be digital but that is still some way off.

2 thoughts on “Will digital people ever run the advertising business?

  1. Interesting thoughts Marco. I actually think that few planning/ buying or middle management roles in agencies (regardless of whether they are digital or not) really prepare people for an MD or CEO role. The reality is that MD roles are actually very operationally focused and CEO roles more strategically focused. Being good at both of those things is not easy and not something that everyone is cut out for, regardless of how good their ‘craft’ skills are.

    Actually one could argue that the level of logistical detail required to do digital properly is better prep for the operational aspects of running a business than an offline or planning focused role.

    I think the fact that Rob and Mark both came from digitally focused roles was a bonus, rather than the ‘reason’ they were chosen for their current roles. First and foremost they are experienced business leaders with track records that speak for themselves. The fact they understand digital is a good thing too 😉

  2. There may be some, but I have never known a really talented creative who could be an effective MD for exactly the reasons Andy puts above. CEO maybe, but not MD. So I guess we will see ‘digital’ folk being MDs more often thanks to their skills rather than necessarily their digital knowledge. The competition among real strategic thinkers comes from all areas, so there will likely be a broader spectrum at the head of the table.

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