Emma Ward, Managing Partner of The Talent Business' London Office, on what it takes to excel as MD
The role of Managing Director is one of the most multi-faceted and nuanced positions in creative marketing management. While the CEO wrestles with the budgets, targets and agency vision for tomorrow, the Managing Director must deliver on today, keeping the workforce feeling part of a shared enterprise and on track to deliver the financials. A lame duck MD creates a backlog of talented directors who won’t fulfil their management potential unless they leave, and ultimately forces the agency to hire a CEO externally when the time comes. For ambitious directors and wannabe CEOs, there are four central contradictory talents Managing Directors must master to be effective.
1. Engagement leadership. Don’t fall into the trap of confusing ego and machismo with strong leadership; emotional intelligence and self-awareness are probably the greatest strengths of a modern agency Managing Director. EQ is key to developing trust with colleagues and clients, helping to build an optimum team and ensure effective outcomes. MDs must be able to exude positivity and encouragement to galvanise a team behind a shared vision. Your team must be authentically engaged in the business to deliver results. MDs that succeed and retain longevity in their career have a combination of deep integrity, humility and people engagement skills. Talents that connect on a human and emotional level take time to build, but can unearth and nurture huge potential. Providing tough feedback while empowering someone to do better can either make people feel like failures or feel mentored. These so called ‘soft skills’ are the missing link to a successful CEO of tomorrow.
2. Commercial intellect. Business focus is the baseline of an effective Managing Director. The temptation to take the numbers from the CEO and not truly appreciate their intricacies can be overwhelming. Those that work through the figures themselves and wrestle with the implications are the ones that can communicate effectively with the team. Beware leaders that over intellectualise everything. An ideal MD is one that truly understands the business - that gets the financial realities, appreciates their team, acts decisively and makes challenging and quick decisions. Spending lazy days devising a single brand value for the agency are long gone, an MD’s mind is always on the bottom line.
3. Creative libido. A Managing Director needs a voracious appetite for all aspects of the creative process. From trawling the dry data with the strategists and getting goosebumps at the reveal to fighting for the powerful work that has social trending potential, an MD must be the champion for transformation and innovation. While creative mojo can easily be lost under the weight of responsibility, anyone looking to succeed in this role must never forget the lifeblood of the agency.
4. Strategic vision. All great creative should be anchored in solid strategic understanding of consumers’ wants and needs. An ability to analyse information and distil it into single organising principles is the difference between nice ideas and memorable campaigns. MDs need to apply rigorous forward thinking into all brand communications. The creative process can easily be assumptive, ideas need to pass through a framework of data and reality without crushing their spontaneity. These are often difficult journeys that reply on a highly directional mind.
Few people have the heart of Mother Theresa, the brain of Stephen Hawking, the passion of Da Vinci and the moves of Kasparov, but Managing Directors must be almost Olympian in their abilities.
Wherever you are in the management tier, question how you deliver on these skills. Everyone knows instinctively their hidden weaknesses and preferred strengths, an MD must be ultimately self-aware. Understand your motivations to feel fulfilled, empowered, engaged and effective. Assess how you add value as a leader, work on optimising your transferrable management skills to open up opportunities beyond your comfort zone and into an array of creative marketing organizations.
Ultimately maths can be taught, strategy studied, an appreciation of art acquired, but kindness and empathy, the bedrock of good management, are generally instinctive. For ambitious Managing Directors, emotional intelligence can transform a business and your career.