When people first start in PR, they’re encouraged to work collaboratively in teams. After all, sharing tasks and responsibilities is the foundation of how good agencies work.
The snag is, the higher up the agency ladder you go the rarer power-sharing partnerships become. And that’s especially true at managing director level.
That said, having joint MDs is becoming increasingly common in agencies. Which is exactly what’s happened at Wildfire with the appointment of myself and Louise Palmer as joint MDs.
The elephant in the room
Before I get into the weeds of this blog, I should acknowledge that yes, I’ve only been a joint MD at Wildfire for five minutes — well, since 4th May 2023 to be exact. And I’m well aware that we’re at the beginning of our journey.
My aim with this blog is to share some context regarding how we arrived at this decision and what I’ve learned so far.
The first thing you need to know is that this wasn’t something that we decided to do on a whim. We didn’t jump into this without any thought, due diligence, or research. That’s not my style. And it’s certainly not Louise’s either.
This has been a well-planned journey over the last 18 months or more.
How we got here
One of the first things I encountered when I started looking into joint MD roles was the notion that some people think it’s a cop-out. In other words, business owners — unable to pick a favourite — bottle the decision and appoint two candidates so as not to ruffle any feathers.
Maybe that’s true in some instances. But it’s definitely not the case with us.
The fact is, neither Louise nor I wanted to run Wildfire on our own. We’re self-aware enough to recognise our strengths and our limitations. We work incredibly well together — and have done for 12 years now. We are a great combo.
The alternative to the ‘joint MD’ route would have been to hire an outsider, which would have been an expensive and time-consuming exercise. Admittedly, it is a tried and tested approach but, had it gone wrong, it could have been a potential atomic bomb in terms of our culture and the dynamics across the entire agency.
So, after very careful consideration, joint MDs felt right — and the best for everyone — in our situation.
But not everyone is comfortable with this approach. One blog I read warned people to avoid appointing joint MDs “like the plague!”. In essence, it argued that splitting the role of the ultimate decision maker — whatever the rationale — was a recipe for indecision throughout the business.
The author made a valid point touching on areas such as indecisiveness and fuzzy communication. But it was also clear that their views were tainted by bitter personal experiences.
I think those dangers are absolutely the root cause of why some people have been badly burned by this sort of arrangement. Poor communication and natural competition can sour what was meant to be harmonious co-operation, which can quickly descend into tantrums and one-upmanship.
How to avoid the pitfalls
One way to avoid that, of course, is to make sure you have good role models. Which is why the first thing we did was speak to a lot of people who were working as or had worked as joint MDs.
We’re lucky that one of our close UK partners in the international PR trade body PROI had a very successful joint MD-ship set up for many years.
We got lots of tips and advice from them on making it work. There were also several people in and outside of our contact network who had valuable experiences and insights to share.
All this gave a really rounded view of all the pros and cons. It also meant we had our eyes completely wide open.
So, after lots of reading and talking to people in the know, I’m now in the position to share my top five observations about appointing joint MDs.
1. Divide up roles in as clear a way as possible. This means we have clear ownership and know who gets to make the final call if we’re ever in a situation where we disagree. This division of roles also gives the team clarity on who is accountable for what. But to be completely honest, total clarity is hard and some duplication is inevitable.
2. Be a united front for everyone else. If the team is talking to me – or Louise – they must know they are talking to both of us. It’s important that we never undermine each other, and our comms and mutual understanding are key to that.
3. Be different from each other but with complementary skills. Louise and I overlap a lot in terms of mentality and approach, but we also have very different and complementary strengths that blend really well together.
4. Make sure you get on exceptionally well. Louise and I are at a point where we’ve given each other permission to privately call each other out for being a dick without repercussion. Trust and mutual respect are vital. I’ve worked with Lou for more than 12 years. I would support her through thick and thin. I also regard her as having one of the sharpest brains I have ever encountered.
5. We faked it before we made it. By that I mean, when the promotion was finally announced on 4thMay, Louise and I had already been living in the role for a good six months — if not longer. We already had a handle on how it was going to work. We aimed to make what was a big deal for us, a no-brainer for the team.
By following these key rules, I believe our partnership can set the tone for the agency. What’s more, it’s a shining example of putting ambition into action and the value of collaboration and teamwork.
Almost 10 years ago, Campaign wrote an article Can joint-leadership structures work? In it, the then CEO of Leo Burnett London had this choice soundbite: “If the stars align, and one can find two genuinely complementary people (from a personality, skillset and experience perspective), then the sum of the whole can be greater than the parts. Quite a rare occurrence, though.”
I really think that’s us.
So, to summarise the first 30 days…so far, so good. I’ll report back when I have something new to say.