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Managing agency succession: Walking the tightrope - Part II

By , agencyfaqs! | In | January 29, 2002
In the first part of the article we talked about the fact that Indian advertising has seen high-profile departures from agencies from time to time. Here we discuss why


(Continued from yesterday.)

There is no doubt that agencies can keep a check on internal strife by laying out well-articulated succession plans. Yet, even the best-laid plans can go awry when prime players in the plan make unexpected moves. "At times, plans and processes get vitiated when the chosen successor - the heir apparent - leaves the organization in a huff; and we have seen plenty of them in the recent past," says A.G. Krishnamurthy, chairman and managing director, Mudra Communications. Sam Balsara, chairman and managing director, Madison Communications, agrees. "Succession plans can go haywire because even senior people quit at the drop of a hat." Succession can also become an issue for nobody's fault - the late Anil Bhatia was always supposed to be Khanna's successor, till Fate intervened.

Why a senior person should quit what appears to be a plum job - with an assured CEO-hood - can be confounding. But that is easily answered with one word: impatience. A wannabe CEO, in his hurry, may be unwilling to wait for his senior's term to end, especially when the senior has many years to go for retirement. And job-hopping the way to the top is a tempting prospect. In this context, Colvyn J. Harris, president, Contract Advertising, makes a very interesting observation. "I know about agencies having succession plans, but I don't know whether there is enough succession opportunity in advertising. Most other industries are dynamic, and there is a lot of churning. With people constantly on the move, organizations may have three CEOs in five years. But in agencies, the same person might be at the top for 15 years. I might name a successor, but till I am here, he has no chance. For him, it's like being all dressed up and nowhere to go."

Assuming all agencies have succession plans, the biggest dilemma is whether to reveal or not reveal the plan to the key players. If an agency keeps its cards close to its chest, it manages retaining all the hopefuls till the succession is announced. But once the announcement has been made, the agency runs the risk of losing disheartened souls. "Unfortunately, once the succession is settled, the rest of the contenders are restless - and some depart," says Krishnamurthy. But taking all the contenders into confidence early on need not be the answer. Ambition being what it is, how many talented professionals would not seek greener pastures once they know they are not in the race? For the agency, it's lose-lose, either way.

This is where succession planning should be at its best, feels Rajiv Agarwal (currently managing director, Enterprise Nexus, and soon-to-be national chief, rmg david). "Succession is not only about ensuring that the organization is not left rudderless. It's also about finding a good career plan for the runner-up in the race, where he or she has a relevant and significant place in the organization, so that you don't lose talent."

Incidentally, neither Krishnamurthy nor Balsara disclose anything about the succession at Mudra and Madison, respectively. "Am I that old?," asks Balsara, adding, "each of our units is already headed and managed by a strong person at the top." And all that Krishnamurthy says is, "Suffice it to say, we are a professionally managed company with several checks and balances in place." Arvind Sharma, managing director, Leo Burnett India, is the only one who takes names. "At Leo Burnett, we have a strong management team to back me up. And as Deputy Managing Director, Rahul Kansal is as much of an identified likely successor as there can be in today's times - times that are full of change and full of possibilities or all of us. The bit of uncertainty that will always remain adds to our striving and excitement."

Understandably, today, the criterion for picking successors has shifted from loyalty and seniority to performance and merit. "The guiding principle for choosing a successor is clear - pick the man you believe will be a successful leader in tomorrow's environment," says Sharma. "I do not believe that many professionals in the industry today would argue for seniority. Track record as an indicator of leadership potential for tomorrow, may be. But seniority or past successes in themselves, no."

Performance, merit, seniority. Everything's fine, but nothing's carved in stone. "Agencies look for people who can carry the ambition of the company forward," Harris reasons. "Now when the job comes up, perhaps the need of the hour is a person with totally new skill sets. And nothing stops professional MNC companies from appointing a totally new person. And what's wrong in a company changing its mind? If individuals can look for better opportunities and leave, it should apply the other way too."

The idea of appointing a totally new successor - especially if the motive is to 'balance out' the power struggle is frowned upon by both Krishnamurthy and Agarwal. "That way, you are sidestepping the issue, and tying yourself in knots," says Agarwal. "Whether a successor is chosen from within or without, there are strong chances of a fall-out," Krishnamurthy adds. "So why choose an outsider when you have competent people within. It's an altogether different matter if you don't have competent probables within. Now that is a sad state of affairs in an organization that doesn't recruit and groom people to head it ultimately."

One thing is certain. Succession is not something that is going to go down quietly. As Sharma says, "There is room for a lot of heat, passion, disagreement. And the more critical are people to an organization's success, and the greater the need for change - as it is in agencies today - the more the debates and disagreements. So, the harder we must try to be clearer about our judgements, the more far-sighted we must be about succession planning."

All said and done, no amount of planning can ever gauge the full extent of ambition. Or disappointment. As Agarwal says pithily, "One person will not make it to the top. You will probably live with it. But can he?"
© 2002 agencyfaqs!

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