Sir Martin Sorrell's Tips for Agency Leaders

Sir Martin Sorrell

The Alliance of Independent Agencies was delighted to invite Sir Martin Sorrell, the Executive Chairman of S4 Capital and former CEO of WPP, to share his thoughts on what makes an outstanding agency leader as part of its Leadership Pathway Programme.

Interviewed by Clive Mishon, the Alliance's Co-Founder, he had clear advice for the audience of up-and-coming independent agency leaders.

Achieve the optimal balance between Career, Family & Society.

Sir Martin emphasised the importance of balance. Of focusing on success in three areas - Career, Family and Society - in equal measure. He added, however, that this equilibrium is very difficult to achieve.

The concept stemmed from Sir Martin's time at Harvard Business School where he was taught a module called "Business Policy" which contained a Venn diagram featuring three intersected circles each containing one of the three words.

"Life is about trying to balance those three things," said Sorrell. "I've been reasonably successful in maybe one or one-and-a half of those. But not all three. And there are very few individuals I've come across who have managed to balance effectively those three things."

"If their career is very successful that often causes family issues, if the family has primacy that often causes career issues. And then there are people who think that doing good, or whatever you want to call it, is not as important as financial considerations. When you think about it that very simple diagram has a lot of wisdom."

1. "Land and expand" is a better approach than pitching

Sir Martin had some interesting comments to make about the pitch process in light of the Alliance's own work to improve the situation through its working group on Agency Selection and Pitch Protection service.

"The pitch process is not a complete waste of time but any CMO should know which agencies they think they should be working with. You don't need a consultant to do the brief. If you're the CMO that's your job," he said.

"What I think is better is 'land and expand'. If you win a project and the client thinks you've done a brilliant job you win another project. From a quality point of view that's a far better way of building a business than flash presentations."

This emphasis on pitch pyrotechnics, he argued, is limiting for both clients and their agencies: "When you have a big pitch what do you discover about people, other than they're really good presenters? It becomes theatre and selling instead of what you really want - a day-by-day relationship where you're working together and figuring it out."

Sir Martin also added that clients should think of alternative ways of pitching business: "On the process, if you want to pitch it, you get the three agencies you think are good and you give them a project to work on for two or three months and let's see how good you are."

2. Get to grips with AI's impact

Answering a question from the audience, Sir Martin also offered his thoughts on where Artificial Intelligence will most change the agency business. He identified five main areas.

Reduction in Execution Time - Traditional tasks like visualisation and copywriting will see a dramatic decrease in time required for execution.

Personalisation at Scale - Agencies will be able to produce and potentially utilise hundreds of thousands of different pieces of content during a campaign.

Impact on Media Planning and Buying: - AI is transforming the media world. This shift is expected to challenge traditional agency roles and revenue streams.

Increased Efficiency - AI technologies are driving significant cost reductions and efficiency improvements.

Democratisation of Knowledge - AI facilitates greater access to information and collaborative opportunities among agency people. This democratisation could create new opportunities (and potentially more jobs) within agencies.

However, Sir Martin added: "The market can't make its mind up whether in our industry AI is a good thing or bad thing.... this is the year of use cases. Where can you demonstrate where AI has made a significant impact?"

3. Build a "unitary" agency structure

Sir Martin impressed upon the audience that the "power of the unitary" brand in the agency world is very strong. He cited McKinsey figures that show single branded companies perform better than those that are collections

In light of this, he said he believes that it's become harder for larger ad groups with multiple agency brands, and that independents with a "unitary" approach have an opportunity in the years ahead.

"Having one company as opposed to collections of companies is probably really, really important...but getting the unitary structure together is a really difficult job because of the egos in our business and the political stuff amongst clients and people."

Beyond these sharp insights on the evolving role of leadership in the agency world, Sir Martin concluded with a resolutely human response to a question from an audience member asking him to share his core values: "I think at the end of the day what I'm interested with is creating opportunities for people... I know it's not conventional, not what you want to hear, but I think that's really important."

"Integrity, respect, purpose - all that stuff - I think we over-intellectualise it. In our business it's about people - you're investing in people so think about it as a human capital investment.... that's where I'd focus my attention."

Contact Alliance of Independent Agencies to explore resources and training designed to help you thrive in the evolving marketing landscape.

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