A sideways-look at the agency managing director
Three of us at J44 have managed large and successful businesses in our time, so we think we’re fairly well qualified to present this essay on the MD’s role and how to perform it. Why? Well, to help you understand your agency a bit better and also to suggest that everything benefits from a sideways-look. So, what’s an agency managing director for? There are two answers to that.
1. So that there’s someone to blame.
2. So that there’s someone to follow.
Though we’ve expressed them rather flippantly, they’re both equally important and can help split the job description into two big parts:
Now and tomorrow
Let’s first talk about tomorrow.
Even though there’s no such thing, the most important tool in the MD’s kit is a crystal ball. She or he must be the one who knows most about the future, about what’s coming next and what we’re all going to do about it.
The MD is custodian of the vision for the business and of its goals. The MD owns the plan for achieving those goals and is responsible for setting the company’s direction so that they are achieved.
At the same time, the MD is also the one who must constantly re-assess those goals in the light of changing markets, competition, technology and consumer attitudes. He or she must make a habit of regularly taking a sideways-look at the business and its future.
As the one with the vision, the MD is also the one that everyone else must follow towards the sunlit uplands. And, of course, the MD is responsible for making sure that following actually occurs, and everyone points in the same direction with the same team spirit and enthusiasm.
But how do you know you’ve chosen the right direction? You don’t. But you must trust yourself and know that action is usually better than inaction. A business that’s speeding off in slightly the wrong direction will always achieve more than one that’s going nowhere.
Which leads us to the second part of the job – now.
Now is about managing the business as it exists today. The MD is ultimately responsible for all of it – the profit, the loss, the people, the product, the culture, the spirit, the fame and the failure. Hence the blame.
The most important thing to have a handle on is money. The MD must be right on top of every aspect of finances and must have a Financial Director he or she can trust. Making money isn’t the primary function of a business, but money is the lifeblood that makes the function possible.
(Incidentally, do you know what the primary function of a business is? It’s the acquisition and maintenance of customers.)
Although the MD is responsible for everything that gets done, other people actually do the operational tasks. Managing, motivating, guiding and growing these people is a huge part of the MD’s job. People skills are vital and nobody is born with them. You develop them over time by listening and through empathy. If you’re able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you’ll go a long way to understanding how to help them give their best to the business. Also, when you make a point of hearing what people say, you build a story from single sentences and start to really understand how the business is feeling.
But what if some of the people don’t fit? This is when you need to trust your judgment and accept that you can’t always be right, but you can always be clear and decisive. Replace people if they don’t enhance the team or support your vision – and this includes board members.
External people are also important. Value your suppliers and bankers and let them know that you appreciate their work and their support. Say ‘thank you’ a lot, to everyone including directors and cleaners. Let as many people as possible know that you appreciate their work and realise how much effort they put in.
When you’re unsure of something, go with your instincts – they’re probably right – so trust yourself and grow.
Nobody knows everything and even Robert Townsend, the iconic MD who took Avis Rentacar from obscurity to No 2 in the world, back in the sixties, used to plan on getting only 1 decision right out of 3.
Finally, no matter how successful you become, don’t believe your own PR or you will turn into the person you never wanted to be. Steal an idea from Julius Caesar who, it is said, would have a man sitting beside him during state processions whispering “You are only a man”.