Who’s the world’s greatest advertising leader?

Yoly Villanueva-Ong
Is it at all possible to produce a Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi who can transform a cutthroat business into a social force?

If you pose this question to marketing and advertising practitioners, you will most likely get three kinds of answers.  

There will be those who will nominate Leo Burnett, David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach and Mary Wells – the classic icons credited for shaping the fledgling ad industry.

And this would be the right answer if the question were about the most creative luminaries of all time.

Some may opt for a more current list of the richest and most powerful kingpins in the business today. Jim Edwards from businessInsider.com ranked the highest paid advertising executives in terms of annual income with some interesting snippets.  

3. John Wren: Omnicom CEO

Compensation: US$14.8 million (down from $15.4 million)

Wren’s compensation includes personal use of a private jet ($132,841), and a car allowance ($9,120). His estate also receives an $8.6 million “golden coffin” if he dies. Wren’s compensation has been criticized as excessive.

2. Maurice Levy: Publicis Groupe CEO

Compensation: US$24.4 million (up from $4.5 million)

Most of his compensation is a massive deferred payment of 16 million euros ($21 million) he’s earned prior to his imminent (but oft-delayed) retirement. His annual gross for the year of 2.7 million euros was down from last year 3.6 million.

Levy is less well paid on an annual basis than Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts, even though he is Roberts’ boss.

1. Martin Sorrell: WPP group CEO

Compensation: US$27 million (up from $11.6 million last year).

In 2013, he took a pay cut after protests from shareholders.

WPP chairman Philip Lader wrote in the company’s annual report that Sorrell might soon retire: “Sir Martin, like all of us, is not immune from being hit by the proverbial bus. And someone having celebrated 68 birthdays, who has routinely worked 80+-hour weeks for 27 years, may one morning decide to start a new venture or even seek to discover what ‘weekends’ can be like. That ‘elephant’ has not been overlooked by your Board. Succession planning, we recognize, is one of our most fundamental duties.”

Still others might offer a different perspective of advertising titans. Who became instant multi-millionaires and reaped the megabucks of the merger-mania years in the eighties? 

In her book Emperors of Adland, Nancy Millman, a former Ad Age editor, exposed the power play during the era that essentially restructured the industry.

She revealed that Ted Bates Worldwide was acquired by the Saatchi brothers for half a billion dollars. A whopping $112 million went to the personal pocket of Robert Jacoby, the Chairman of Bates. 

The hostile takeover of J. Walter Thompson for $566 million was the stuff of Mad Men plots. The 123-year-old citadel of American advertising was gobbled up by the WPP Group, a company one-sixteenth its size in 1987. 

But the unrivalled crown jewel of acquisitions was in 2005, when the Grey Global Group, the 6th largest and last stand-alone ad agency in the US, was bought by the WPP Group for a jaw-dropping $1.75 billion. Chairman, president and CEO Ed Meyer’s payday amounted to $520 million. Many trade practitioners consider him the richest ad mogul in history.

Obviously leadership means many things to many people. Gurus have attempted to simplify the concept. 

Peter Drucker defines a leader “as someone who has followers.” But a military unit commander is not necessarily a leader, even if his orders are followed.

According to Warren Bennis, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” But he excludes “followers” in this definition.

Bill Gates said, “As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” Empowerment is good. But this description lacks a goal or vision.

John Maxwell states, “Leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.” But the source of influence must be clarified.

Social influence

A comprehensive definition is proposed by Kevin Kruse in forbes.com, “Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.” The crucial elements, he said, are:

  • Social influence, not authority or power
  • Others, who may not necessarily be “direct reports”
  • Maximizes efforts by empowering followers
  • Must have a goal shared by others, not influence without an intended outcome 
  • Not about personality traits, attributes, or titles

If this is what leadership means, then genius, wealth, and power do not make a leader. 

The advertising industry has been criticized as narcissistic, materialistic, and egocentric. Is it at all possible to produce a Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi who can transform a cutthroat business into a social force? A change agent who can harness creativity, affluence and influence to create transformative campaigns for a better world? 

Imagine if the millions spent in Super Bowl were used for clever and effective messages that help eradicate racial discrimination, foster peace, moderate greed or alleviate poverty. 

But in a business that confuses wealth and awards with the hallmarks of leadership, it might be a long time before we meet the world’s greatest advertising leader. – Rappler.com

Yoly Villanueva-Ong
, the founder of Campaigns & Grey, is currently Group Chairperson for the Campaigns Group of companies. She writes weekly for Rappler.

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