Joint CEOs for Australia's top media agency - but will it be the long term plan?

History suggests that the joint leadership of OMD from Laura Nice and Sian Whitnall is unlikely to last as a long term arrangement

Welcome to Unmade on a Tuesday morning, written while England gently trounced San Marino in the background. World Cup 2022 here we come…

Happy Have a Party With Your Bear Day.

This morning one of the biggest jobs in Australia’s media agency landscape will change hands.

Leadership of Australia’s biggest media agency, OMD, has been up for grabs since CEO Aimee Buchanan departed at the end of July to take charge of WPP’s GroupM.

Buchanan will be replaced by co-CEOs, with the internal promotions of Laura Nice and Sian Whitnall.

It’s a big role. The duo will join the ranks of the women and men who lead the 20 or so media agencies which influence most of Australia’s $13bn annual media spend.

OMD, part of Omnicom Media Group, is the biggest media agency player in the game. Its blue chip clients include Telstra, Qantas, McDonald’s, Apple, and the NSW and Victorian governments. Across the group, OMG’s spending power amounts to about $2 billion. Just before the pandemic, we selected OMD as Mumbrella’s media agency of the decade. No other agency has come close to being as consistently at the top of its game.

It’s only in recent years that gender for such a role has become unremarkable. When Katie Rigg-Smith was named CEO of WPP’s Mindshare in April 2013, she was the country’s only female media agency boss. She wasn’t the first - her predecessors had included Belinda Rowe at Zenith Optimedia, Anne Parsons at Mediacom and Tracey Michael at Initiative - but she was the only one at the time.

Now, we’re getting better representation at the top of media agencies, with other female media agency leaders including Melissa Fein at Initiative, Nickie Scriven at Publicis Media, Sue Squillace at Carat and Virginia Hyland at Havas Media.

But what will surprise me is if the joint leadership arrangement lasts the distance. It’s been tried in Australian agencies a number of times and has rarely become a long term arrangement.

Although not necessarily the case here, where joint CEOs or joint MDs have been appointed, it was often as a result of some sort of compromise, either to keep internal candidates onside, or to manage client expectations after mergers. I’m sure that when contractual obligations allow, Buchanan will be looking back at her old agency to bring across people that she rates.

There is perhaps a hint of that in today’s announcement: “The co-CEO appointment offers continued stability to OMD’s people, clients and partners.”

In general, there are more examples where co-CEOs of agencies have ended up as short term arrangements, rather than long.

During WPP AUNZ’s tumultuous restructuring, there were a number of forced - and brief - marriages.

They included the shotgun wedding of White Agency boss Miles Joyce and Grey boss Paul Worboys as co-CEOs in 2017 when WPP merged the agencies to create WhiteGrey. Both were gone within months.

Then there was the merger of WPP’s creative agency Y&R and digital agency VML to create VMLY&R. Y&R’s Pete Bosilkovski and VML’s Aden Hepburn were thrown together as joint CEOs. Bosilkovski lasted seven months and Hepburn went three months after that.

I once chatted to the survivor of such an arrangement at a major media agency in the UK. The duo had started the arrangement as friends, and their short run as co-CEOs sorely tested that friendship.

Indeed, I can only thing of one exception where such an arrangement has worked well.

It isn’t referenced in today’s press release, but the only time I can point to of a major media agency being successfully run with joint leaders was earlier in OMD’s own history.

Back in 2006, OMD was a different beast. The likes of Mitchells and Mindshare were the big dogs. But OMD had begun a turnaround under the leadership of James Greet (who these days is chief operating officer at Ben Lilley’s Hero).

Greet bequeathed the CEO reins to Mark Coad, who effectively ran OMD as a triumvirate with joint managing parters Leigh Terry and Peter Horgan. The three used to work out of a single office.

When Coad left for his misstep into the creative agency world at Clemenger Harvie Edge, Terry and Horgan then ran the joint together, just as OMD began its climb to becoming the country’s top media agency.

So in deciding to make today co-CEO appointment, Horgan - who is now himself boss of OMG and has been babysitting OMD since Buchanan’s departure - will have been aware that the arrangement can work. But he will also be aware that in his own case, it was for little more than a year, until Terry was promoted to CEO of the entire Omnicom Media Group.

The appointment may be a pragmatic one for an agency that is still on a winning run. But I’d be surprised if the joint CEO role remains in the long term.

Time to let you go about your day.

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Tim Burrowes

Proprietor - Unmade