Do You Work In A “Relatively Frivolous” Industry?

David Gianatasio of Adweek explores the rare art of moving from an agency leadership role to CEO on the client side.

Ironically, agency executives tend to suffer from, of all things, ‘a branding problem,’ according to Renée Richardson Gosline, assistant marketing professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. She says recruiters and corporate boards have long perceived agencies as second-tier organizations—useful and interesting enterprises but relatively frivolous and not on par with producers of durable goods and global services. By extension, agency heads are sometimes perceived—fairly or not—as lacking the gravitas and business skills to run a large corporation.

Agency heads are sometimes perceived as lacking the gravitas and business skills? That’s a little harsh, don’t you think?

By the way, “Gravitas was one of the Roman virtues, along with pietas, dignitas and virtus. It may be translated variously as weight, seriousness and dignity, also importance, and connotes a certain substance or depth of personality.”


Personally, I tire of the “advertising is bullshit” framework. I know we earned it by piling mounds of crapvertising into every conceivable public and private space. Yet, there is another reality to advertising, one where what we do is a fundamental driver of economic growth. And the more we advocate for customers’ best interests while meeting client objectives, the more brand value and economic growth we will help create.

I work with a fair number of CEOs of small to medium-sized businesses, and I have also worked closely with agency owners and CEOs. Whatever business you’re in, you have to lead from a place of operational strength where number crunching, product engineering, hiring and talent development are all required. But to truly excel and take your company to a higher place, a CEO also needs to be a visionary planner and exceptional communicator of the vision. She needs buy-in from the team, and all the soft skills to acquire it. That’s where marketers get the job done over “engineers” or operators.

So, do you want an engineer/builder or a storyteller to lead your company? You want both. You want the poet to write the code, and the chef to wait on tables. We demand a lot from our leaders.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.