The best leaders listen first

17 Jan 2022

As marketers, we know the importance of listening to customers and knowing what problems we solve for them. So, when clients tell us that agencies aren’t listening, one must be more than just a little concerned.

Who should do the listening and what should they be listening for?

We’ve spoken at length and delivered many seminars over recent years focussed on helping agencies to re-invent the client lead role and we are seeing signs that change is taking shape, but there is some way still to go if we are honest.

It’s certainly not been easy during a pandemic, and now a talent crunch, but out of adversity the road sometimes becomes easier to travel down.

Broken talent models

One of the first things you learn at AAR is that clients buy teams of people backed by an agency, not an agency full of teams of people. So, what we are really dealing with now is less about broken agency models but much more about broken ‘talent’ models, and its these that haven’t kept pace with how marketing has and is changing.

There is, of course, no silver bullet but clients are struggling to access the breadth of skills, experience and diversity of thinking needed to survive and thrive in today’s challenging world.

The CMO and agency client lead face the same challenges but the fundamentals still apply. Their focus is building teams that have the collective insight, strategic mindset, commercial knowledge and technical expertise centred around a customer-centric growth agenda.

Ability to build a team

The ability to build a team is a foundation stone of any leader. But where do we learn these skills?

In restaurants, for example, the team is known as a ‘Chef’s brigade’, but in an industry where talent is primarily judged on cooking ability and promotions are usually based on knife skills rather than management or business acumen, it can be hard for chefs to make the jump to becoming a head chef and being a leader.

Indeed, owing to limited management training opportunities offered to chefs, more often than not they are forced to simply learn on the job, inevitably making mistakes along the way. What's more, when young chefs are suddenly promoted to a position where they are expected to lead a brigade, they usually end up replicating the examples set by their mentors. (We could have a long list of chefs here!)

This sounds terribly familiar and I’m sure something that many of us can relate to. A team leader has a huge responsibility to set the tone for his or her team and needs to be able to communicate a clear philosophy to team members.

Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool FC manager, believes in “a playing philosophy that is very emotional, very fast and very strong. My teams must play at full throttle and take it to the limit every single game. It is important to have a playing philosophy that reflects your own mentality, reflects the club and gives you a clear direction to follow.”

For these leaders it’s about the team, not about them doing the work itself. Making sure the team stays healthy and strong is what they do. That’s not an easy skill. We go to restaurants and we watch our favourite sport teams because these leaders have achieved something special.

So it is with brands and agencies. There are those golden periods where the team clicks under a leader who has built a great team. Sometimes it can be relatively short lived, but others are masters at regenerating their teams as the problems change and they enjoy long term relationships as a result.

Struggling to adapt talent pools

In the past the problems to be solved were simpler and more straight forward and so the whole agency could be set up in such a way as to make that a repeatable process. Today, however, in an always on customer-centric world, brands and their agency partners are struggling to find ways to adapt their talent pools.

We need to free our client leads to be master team builders and support them with the right talent mix for them to be the Michelin Star Chef on this or that piece of business.

When you listen to clients, you hear that they need help to:

  • Achieve a better balance between the hamster wheel of short termism and a longer-term strategic view
  • Help them feel less overwhelmed and under resourced by helping everyone focus on what will make a difference to the client’s business
  • Bring in the right expertise to use the mountain of data now being created to identify why things are happening rather than what to speed up decision making
  • Remind everyone that marketing is more than just comms but about connecting a brand to its customers across all elements of the mix

As well as many others.

We need to start developing this sort of talent now otherwise we run the risk of losing an entire generation who have built their muscle memory in execution. Both sides need to create the environment for new leaders to learn (again) how to engage with the ‘why’ and the ‘how’, not just the ‘what’.

About The Author

TS #1

Tony Spong

Lead Consultant, Brand Strategy

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