Recently, I’ve become intrigued by momentum, an interest I can assure you is unrelated to the increasing success of the eponymous Corbyn fan club.
Arguably, momentum is the most powerful force you can ever hope for, whether in business, politics, sport, or life in general. Momentum creates a sense of inevitability that all other forces, however rational or powerful, seem unable to resist.
We have witnessed it in elections all over the globe, in sport where an aura of invincibility builds around teams even when their performance drops, and in business. Momentum is the most precious equity every tech start-up yearning to be the next Facebook is searching for.
Closer to home, it’s well-known that the same is the case for agencies with momentum. It is the fuel for agencies we as leaders all long to ignite. We have all witnessed the eras of dominant agencies across the years – those whose creative and new business success became almost boringly predictable, so great has their momentum been. The unstoppable eras of HHCL, of AMV, of BBH and of course, most recently, Adam&Eve/DDB.
Once you have momentum, everything in an agency begins to accelerate, and with an ease that once seemed idealistic in harder times. You expect to win pitches when you walk into the room, you develop and present far better and braver work to your clients, and your most valued currency, your talent are suddenly attracted to you in a way they weren’t just a few months ago.
The virtuous circle starts to turn, and your attention is then directed to doing everything you can to stop this cycle going into reverse.
Given the potency of momentum I wonder if we, as leaders, spend enough time thinking about it as an objective? With the right momentum in an agency, anything is possible. Serial pitch-losers become pitch winners, average creative output improves with every execution, stronger, more trusting client-agency relationships form, and talent starts to develop and grow in a way that hitherto was unimaginable.
But how do you create momentum when there’s no wind in the sails and you’re just... drifting? I believe it starts with creating a fresh agency culture – the clear priority and responsibility of any leadership team.
It’s incumbent on those at the top of the business to align around a view on the culture they want to build in the agency. It needs to be authentic to those who lead it as it will need to be lived every minute of every day. Culture cannot be an affectation, it will be tested in the most challenging situations, and in every interaction with management. In my experience this is perhaps every leader’s greatest challenge. To build a new faith but with no followers – and without any obvious means of performing outrageous miracles to win over non-believers.
Eighteen months into the construction of our own fresh agency culture, we’ve uncovered a few pointers that have helped us.
Understanding gang culture
As Kevin Chesters taught us, we all know at its best, an agency is just a brilliant gang – of which everyone wants to be a member. Kevin uncovered several characteristics we needed to adopt – the codes we live by – where we derive our pride, our explicit signals of loyalty to each other, through to our swagger in being part of the gang.
Realising within your big gang, there exists many generational gangs. Building and leading a successful agency in 2017 requires a totally different approach to leadership from a decade ago. The nature and ambitions of the talented employees in agencies today is a world apart from those that joined in my cohort. And hopefully, with more diverse recruitment, this will change even more.
Most of us joined the industry, "soaked it up" and hoped, in time, we would work our way up the industry ladder. I believe the majority of people coming into the industry are here for the experiences and the knowledge they can gain right now from being in advertising.
As a result, gone are the days when a "command and control" approach can be the dependable management style. The new generation rightly aren’t going to sit around "doing their time" in the hope that one day, they might be given the responsibility to help produce a trade ad. They want to be active contributors now – and frankly we need them to be.
It’s my firm belief that the more authority and responsibility we can push down to the younger generation in this industry, the better the answers we will arrive at. And this in turn helps build a palpable new energy in an agency.
Leaders must consciously create the conditions to allow this to happen – they need to be more informal, approachable and accessible. Most agencies have long since broken down office walls to improve accessibility and collaboration, leaders also have to think proactively about breaking down the less tangible walls of seniority to get the most from the talents in the agency.
Momentum comes from agencies where the mood is positive, encouraging and ambitious, not fearful, anxious and hierarchical. We desperately need agencies where everyone wants to contribute, speak up and challenge.
But even with all the above, irritatingly, momentum isn’t a given. You create all the right conditions but momentum stubbornly refuses to appear. But oddly, almost from nowhere, like the propellers on a boat, traction takes hold and little by little you start to move forward – and, soon, you know all will be good (until it stops).