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Non-Executive Directors can really help marketing agencies – why are they under-utilised?

Clive Goldstein
Written by publishing team

Clive Goldstein, former managing director of The Union and current non-executive director at Brilliant, asks why more agencies aren’t taking advantage of a valuable resource open to all of them.

What do big companies, and many smaller companies, learn that the agency sector doesn’t seem to be?

With at least 6000 Non-Executive Directors (NEDs) on the boards of the UK’s largest 1000 UK companies, it is common for large companies to hire senior part-time employees to provide independent input to the company’s success, delivered at board level.

But it’s not just for big companies – it’s a routine for charities and many other small businesses, too.

Different companies cite different key benefits, but digging deeper into the internet will tell you that NEDs use their experience to offer a wide range of pros – from a fresh and objective strategic perspective, to independent oversight and commercial accuracy. All this is directed towards the effective operation and commercial success of the company.

The NED must provide appropriate challenges to the board of directors and corporate leadership, help with corporate strategy and direction, and serve as a valuable guide to key managers when they need a good, sound board on difficult issues.

Agencies, whatever their size, angle or output, are uniquely dependent on people and operate in an increasingly competitive market.

So once you hire the best team you can create the most appropriate systems within your agency and many other operational aspects, what more can the agency do to increase its chances of success? Where do you look for those marginal gains that will be vital to achieving what you want to do?

As a former Managing Director of The Union in Leeds and former Board Director of Poulters and The Leith Agency, I see huge benefits for owner-run independent agencies. I’ve set up and been a CEO for 19 years, so I haven’t found much I haven’t had in the kinds of problems and decisions that agency owners face—I’ve walked those hard miles.

Today’s agency owners may encounter some challenging problems – or opportunities – for the first time, and they may be unsure of how to proceed. As a NED, my experience allows me to be confident in my advice, providing an understanding, experienced, and discreet ear as a guide.

Often described as a helicopter view rather than a ground view, the effects of being able to see wood for trees can be significant.

Why aren’t more agencies hiring NEDs?

One of the most obvious reasons for not appointing a NED may be a lack of understanding of what the role of the NED could be and what they could bring to the table. Unhelpful by itself, this title is a potential misnomer, as “non-executive” potentially implies that NEDs don’t roll up their sleeves and get stuck. I’d rather be called an “independent director”, which is closer to reality.

Is it the cost? The agencies’ financial scale and often slim margins can make a NED decision seem like another cost to avoid. Those who view it as an investment really reap the rewards.

In my view, it’s an opportunity to gain the broad experience and expertise of someone that most agencies may not be able to afford – or need – full-time for a fraction of that, by designating them as a NED. A large amount of often game-changing contributions can be made on two days a month.

For most of my career at my agency, I’ve worked on major multi-million pound campaigns, and clients have typically felt that a small investment in research (such as pre-testing) – often around 1% of the budget – can help protect and make another 99% of spending more effective. I view agency investment in NED the same way.

How about time? There is no doubt that running any business, particularly an agency, requires huge time commitments especially from business leaders. So why add more people to interact with and more meetings?

Time is a precious commodity within any agency, so it is important to focus on clearly defined goals and outcomes of meetings and discussions. Agency leaders always have multiple things to do, but a good NED will help ensure that the company’s strategic matters and overall direction between operations and day-to-day issues are not forgotten.

One irony is that agencies can be so focused on delivering to clients and putting out internal fires, that they can forget about their business and their needs. As a freelance director, I don’t allow that to happen.

For me, I like to meet in person because I believe the harmony between myself and the agency board is important, but like all other meetings these days, remote work meetings and virtual meetings make working with NED very effective.

Someone once wondered if NEDs could get the right input if they didn’t know how much business leaders are – perhaps a reference to the ever-changing landscape of digital and social media.

They obviously need to have a proper understanding of what the company does, and how it’s done, but what matters is NED’s commercial, commercial and agency experience, and their independent and objective position is critical.

Since NEDs tend to have a range of multiple roles, everything is almost always 100% confidential, just like the agencies approach to handling critical client information.

Will it really help? I have to say yes, but what I can also say is that I wouldn’t have kept doing it if it didn’t really work out. It’s a big claim but I believe I will help make the agency run more efficiently, perform better, do a better job for its clients, be a better agency and be more successful in all respects.

And what is the view from NED’s perspective? I really love doing it – I’m a longtime agency professional and I still love it. I can’t think of a more fitting way to contribute to a career that I’ve enjoyed over the past 30 years.

I am right in expecting to add value, and I do. I see it in the same way that an agency is expected to make its largest and deepest contribution to the client – and this challenge motivates me to do so.

I love to inspire the agency and help it do what it does best, so everyone wins.

About the author

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