Why agency leaders have gone back to the drawing board

VMLY&R London’s Justin Pahl asks if agency leadership reflects society evolving needs.

Justin Pahl

CEO, VMLY&R London VMLY&R London


The last two years have caused whiplash for our industry. 2020 slammed the breaks, and 2021 hit the accelerator. Within the turmoil, what businesses and people need has evolved and so have the structures, offerings and processes of the agencies that serve them.

These rapidly changing needs have left a question mark over more traditional agency leadership – do they reflect the type of person and values needed to grow business and lead people in today's landscape?

The relationships between clients, customers, and employees have experienced a seismic shift. Leaders must appreciate that we are entering an era where experience is king – for people as both consumers and employees – so it's time for agencies to find ways to bring value to their lives.

An agency leader's role has never been more challenging, but out of the struggle comes an exciting opportunity to transform how we work, what we create and how we deliver it for the better

Justin Pahl, CEO at VMLY&R London

With 73% of people citing customer experience (CX) as a leading factor when deciding where to make purchases, and 74% of the UK workforce having a preference for hybrid working, we are reaching the front that will determine which agencies are deemed cutting edge, and which are resigned to the past.

An agency leader's role has, therefore, never been more challenging, but out of the struggle comes an exciting opportunity to transform how we work, what we create and how we deliver it for the better.

Building a framework for success 

Siloed business models have never been a good thing but now they are finally being recognised as unfit for purpose. And the emergence of multi-discipline diverse teams has proven to be instrumental in growth, convincing leaders of the need to adjust their sights. So, unless agencies want to be left behind, structural changes must be implemented.

Autonomy lends itself well to productivity. These connected but independent teams will thrive in line with their increased level of responsibility - this is where leaders must learn to take a step back. Reducing the number of instructions teams receive, allowing them to remain self-governing, helps achieve greater agility and results across the business.

That’s not to say leaders shouldn’t be involved. Instead, they should focus on creating a positive framework, vision, and strategy that teams can feed off of and run with. Leaving the day to day operations in the hands of their people allows them to concentrate on the big picture: ending unfulfilling and wasteful ways of working and, most importantly, allowing individuals to grow.

The experienced are informing the experience

Moving beyond internal, we also need to factor consumers into the equation to head in the right direction. Too often, there is still a divide between the experiences people have come to expect, digital and physical, and those delivered by a brand. The answer lies in cultivating a new and improved customer experience to fill this gap between expectation and delivery.

Consumers are willing to spend 16% more on products and services if they enjoy positive CX. It is in the financial interests of agencies and their clients to move beyond blasting a message towards solving problems and adding value to people’s lives. And the commoditised advertising model is not the way forward.

Agency assignments remain too narrow. But I am seeing scopes widening. While a billboard or 30-second spot during Coronation Street will still remain important, we need to make them work harder as our clients are looking for more.

This is where leaders need to be stepping forward. The onus is on them to look beyond the brief. Businesses demand more personalised experiences and more unique expressions for their brands to cut through. They look to us to help orchestrate the confluence of channels and create frictionless experiences that bring people to the point of purchase.

And with the right depth and breadth of capabilities across Customer Experience, Brand Experience and Commerce, agencies are the right partner to guide the transformation businesses need and help them recognise white space and opportunities by being an enabler and a facilitator.

Leading from the front is vital - the business world of today calls for the servicing of customer and employee expectations alike.

The teachings are clear to see

Leaders have been taken back to school over the past two years. And as supply chain issues, the Great Resignation, and continually changing consumer expectations rage on, 2022 will be the year leaders show if they have learnt anything at all.

For me, at VMLY&R, it's time for what I call 'positive push'. And, before you raise an eyebrow, it's not about pushing people beyond their limits, but positive energy towards work and progress. Be tough on the work and kind to the people. Build a happy and healthy workforce by stripping away the crap and searching for the value our agency can offer our clients beyond traditional expectations.

And for our industry, the right leadership will be instrumental in building the teams, culture and offerings that can meet people and businesses expectations at every experience and touchpoint, truly future-proofing our own business.

Guest Author

Justin Pahl

CEO, VMLY&R London VMLY&R London


Justin is responsible for expanding VMLY&R’s footprint in the UK, focusing on growing capabilities to create connected brands. VMLY&R London is proud to serve some of the world's most recognised and respected brands and businesses, including Ford, Diageo, Danone, Wendy’s, and many more. Justin is passionate about developing talent, and building culture that can provide creative answers to the newest, toughest questions brands and businesses are facing. Throughout his career, he has worked with some of the most exciting local and global brands from BT, Aviva and Walkers, to Skoda, More Th>n, and Rexona. Before leading VMLY&R, Justin was at AMV BBDO, where he held various leadership positions over ten years, most recently serving as Group Chairman. Under his leadership, AMV BBDO was named the 2nd most awarded agency in the world at the Cannes Lions Festival in 2018.