Agency CEO confessions: Reflections on four years in the role
In 2019, I made the leap from strategy to agency leadership, and it felt like an instant punch to the face: First the socio-political unrest in Hong Kong, then COVID-19.
I wrote about my first-year experience on Campaign Asia, embracing the blows I endured, and bracing myself for whatever lay ahead. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t prepared. Now, with some semblance of “normalcy” restored, I wanted to write a follow-up piece – how “Yeah, I’ve made a few more mistakes, but hey, I’ve learned so much from them.”
However, as I was writing, I couldn’t shake a sense of unease. Truth be told, more often than teaching me an invaluable leadership lesson, my mistakes keep me up at night, make me question my competency, and amplify a sense of uncertainty.
So, let’s toss out the potentially patronising list of leadership tips, and get real. Despite what my LinkedIn feed displays, life isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Not every setback yields a profound lesson, and not every challenge nurtures a better version of myself. Sometimes, when it smells like sh** and looks like sh**, well, it’s probably just that.
This might seem valueless, but at least it’s honest. And perhaps, it can reassure others in similar positions that they’re not alone. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s another list masquerading as a heartfelt article—I’ll leave that judgment to you.
I seldom feel confident:
As a planner, I exuded confidence. I thought I had it all figured out—the what and the how. Difficult challenges excited me; even tight timelines served as motivation. But as CEO, my confidence wavers. The varying scope can make me feel like I never truly know what I’m doing. The challenges can appear insurmountable, unfair, and downright frustrating. Finding motivation from within requires a mental push—not on all days, but most days.
I find myself pissing on my principles:
Before leading the agency, when I attended leadership courses, I was 100% sure: I’d stick to my principles, no matter what: People before profit, don’t let anything or anyone get in the way of good work. Now, looking back at the past four years however, I’d be lucky to say I stood by my principles 40% of the time. Bill Bernbach once said, “It’s not a principle until it costs you money,” and sadly, when it meant agency losses, I often chose the “safe” route because “We so desperately needed the revenue.” The irony stings—I used to get frustrated with clients playing it safe, and now at times I’m my own frustration.
I often do a lot without really doing much:
Each day ends with sheer exhaustion, but not necessarily the fulfilling kind that follows hard work on a meaningful project. No, it’s the kind where I reflect on a blur of meetings with often unclear purposes, endless forms and approvals I don’t fully comprehend, a bunch of corporate email chains that can expect you to say a lot without really saying anything at all. A whirlwind of tasks that likely yield minimal impact on the actual work.
I question my leadership style:
Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed various leadership styles: the Egotistical Megalomaniac, the Buddy, the Drill Instructor, the Micro Manager, the Empath, the Confucian Hierarchy Fanatic, and anything else in between. I always wanted to remain the nice guy, emphasise a flat organisational structure, be approachable, yet maintain a certain distance so as not to slip into the Buddy CEO territory. But reality hits hard. I too often manage by consensus, and struggle with difficult conversations with my direct reports. It irritates me and leaves me questioning my own personality.
I hide from problems:
I literally do. I know it’s important to be there, and to always have an open door and ear for listening to people’s problems. Sometimes, however, I simply don’t want to hear any bad news. So, I go to the washroom and hide – I just sit there in a stall quietly and listen to a podcast. Not very glamorous, I know, but believe it or not, it gives me a little much-needed peace and quiet.
At the end of the day, as Theodore Sturgeon said, “90% of everything is crap.” But that also means the remaining 10% is worth the f*****g effort (I wish I could take credit for this quote, but I read it somewhere a while ago, and its origin escapes me).
Thankfully, the writer was right. The remaining 10% makes enduring the 90% of crap worthwhile. I still love my job, I love to see when people succeed. I love to see when they take initiative and ownership.
I love to see when they just click with each other, when you can feel the creative spark in the room, when you fall in love with an idea, when you can’t wait to go and present it to your client, when you pour your heart into a project and finally see it come to life.
When you’re in the trenches and burn the midnight oil with your colleagues, when you get the call that you won the pitch (though these days this also doesn’t seem that straightforward anymore), when you celebrate that win (and get to expense it), when you meet a client that treats you as a partner, when a client is willing to pay the agency properly, when you get to go up on stage at an award show.
When you bond by venting about your client or your boss, when you argue to make the work better, when you go out for a beer after that argument and develop an even stronger idea, when you see that the work actually worked, when peers from other agencies congratulate you while actually being envious, when they are genuinely happy for you, when you envy others’ work and get motivated by that feeling, and when you get to connect with and learn from people from the network, other markets, cultures, and backgrounds.
So, despite how this article might initially read, I’m not the self-pitying, crying CEO who thinks life is harder for them. Yes, the past four years have brought some really low lows, but the highs still outweigh them. If not in quantity, in quality, for sure. I just wanted to express a less cookie-cutter side of what upon some reflection, seems like a very curated stream of sterile, self-promotional, and self-congratulatory content on my end…which, nevertheless I likely will continue very soon after writing this.
To bring it all together, here’s my advice to anyone else out there who, like me, gets in their own head a little too often (I turned it into an advice piece after all): Remember to find your 10% that will get you through the remaining 90.
P.S. Some of this was written while hiding in the washroom.
This article was originally published on Campaign Asia.