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Brandstand: How Partnership Leadership is damaging the agency brand

Leadership is a unique challenge deeply connected, yet way above operational objectives. Advertising has made a blunder by treating it like an emotional perquisite and not a raging responsibility. It does take two to tango but as rigorously learned, it takes only one to lead

Inspired perhaps by cinematic pairings, the advertising industry, especially in the global networks, has lovingly embraced ‘partnership leadership’ as its formula for growth. Typically, the merger of a business and a creative leader as the double-headed captain of the agency ship at the CXO as well as branch or key account levels. A useful concept in project management but a fallacy for the top management, duality defying the basic laws of organisational alignment; be it political, military, academic or corporate.

For the longest possible tenure, agencies were built on the vision and actions of a single leader, usually from the account management cadre as that was admirably attached to both relationships and business. The creative forces were the engineers of the piece, innovators responsible for compelling IP and thus the primary source of the company’s value. Like every other comparable industry, the monetisation and amplification of this value rested with the business folks, together adding up to sustainable corporate structures. Till one day when the holding company bosses ran out of ideas to retain their star creative talent, wider responsibilities made difficult by the limited scalability of their craft and greater remuneration made impossible due to shrinking margins. Wishfully emulating the rare successes of a few exceptional maestros, they chose to make creative heads at par with the CEO, adding emotional net worth that helped retain them in the fold. When handled maturely by the newly-elevated, rarely as is widely proven, it worked but in every other case it laid the foundation for a managerial disaster.


For starters, it accelerated the servicing-creative divide, initially purely as operational conflicts but subsequently and more dangerously as the reduced role of strategic processes in campaign development. When the creative head was saddled with inadequate maturity he encouraged the establishment of a parallel power structure, and glorious partnership rapidly reduced to petty politics. The hapless CEO rattled by increasing revenue pressures suddenly found himself accountable without being empowered, non-aligned operations leading to reduced control over key ammunition. Quite logically, it had its impact on client engagement, the smarter brand owners using this conflict to fulfil their personal agendas, individuals gaining more prominence than the united agency brand. Internally, the time-tested culture of collaboration between departments was increasingly threatened, most dangerously fostering a breakdown in the agency equilibrium – poorly-advised creative folks increasingly under a delusion that complementary departments were redundant.

As an obvious result, quality talent in management and strategy left for other shores, usually the client-side, while those left behind struggled to salvage sense of an increasing anarchy. Client relationships suffered considerably as the quality of association was invariably a management-bonding outcome, rendered difficult in the two-leader scenario with transactional agendas. The ultimate price to pay was the impact on business, the absence of a solitary focus leading to poor track records in retention and premiumisation; both valuable indicators for sustainability. Above every other logic is a basic understanding of human nature, which proves that in every organisation every stakeholder demands the patronage or censure of a single leader. It is proven in the battlefields of war, the playing fields of cricket, the minefield of politics and, indeed, the boardrooms of corporates. We seek a visible inspiration with commendable actions to keep us glued to our trajectory, contrary to the modern impression that the stronger the leadership the more united the workforce – however destructive or creative.


The way forward for agency systems is very clear and it begins with the urgent restoration of a single dominant leader, not in a double-role, with all functions reporting clearly to that person. Who may well be from the business, creative, strategy or even CFO cadres just as the leader of an automotive major can emanate from engineering, marketing or finance. Joint leadership as a default sop for top creative talent must be replaced with global mandates, greater share-holding, official moonlighting licenses or non-executive chairmanship, as is the pattern in certain cases. Just as soldiers are sent back to the barracks, fine creative talent should be summarily confined for breakthrough developmental work earning fame and fortune with account management restored to its business and relationship leadership functions. Once the internal rule-of-law is clearly established then the external stature affected by this aberration will be rapidly restored, leading to more cohesive outcomes for agency and client.

Leadership is a unique challenge deeply connected yet way above operational objectives, motivating and uniting people the greatest skill of all. Advertising has made a blunder by trivialising it undeservingly, treating it like an emotional perquisite and not a raging responsibility. As famously said it does take two to tango but as rigorously learned, it takes only one to lead.

(Shivaji Dasgupta is the Founder of INEXGRO Brand Advisory and can be reached at:

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of and we do not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)


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