The changing role of Non-Executive Directors

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The changing role of Non-Executive Directors

It’s no secret that the advertising industry is going through a period of change and disruption as profound as those of the clients that it represents.

In order to keep up with the powerful forces of change that digital transformation has unleashed, agencies have needed to evolve their offering and services – and fast – or they’re in danger of going the same way that clients that fail to adapt might go.

For some agencies, shackled by tradition, silos, inflexible ways of working and old-fashioned management structures, this change is slow in coming. But others have realised that they need to look outside their traditional internal spheres of influence to get ahead of the game, rather than just play catch up. In this brave – yet sometimes turbulent world – new world, the role of external advisers and non-executive directors has become crucial.

Think of a non-executive directorship and the chances are you’ll think of a post-retirement reward; a pat on the back and an opportunity to use your little black book of contacts built up over years to earn some useful cash to top up the superannuated pension, in between the rounds of golf.

Technology has changed all this and far from being a dusty post for fusty old men, the role is now more relevant than ever. It’s why it’s now far from uncommon to find people in their 40s and even 30s lending skills that they’ve learned building their own businesses up to agencies that might have previously been looking at sexagenarians.

This new generation of entrepreneurs may have built their own companies in niches that previously never existed. When I was building my agency Fortune Cookie, which was later bought by WPP and became POSSIBLE, the reality was that I often found myself in a situation where I didn’t know what I didn’t know – it was the world of the famous ‘unknown unknowns’.

As established agencies look to the future and their own ‘unknowns’, having someone on call who had been there and done it (and ‘knows’) to offer advice or bounce ideas off is becoming a business imperative.

It’s also mutually beneficial – not just financially. Entrepreneurs and game changers have successfully navigated a period of disruption and accepting a NED gives them an outlet to continue with this.

Like all roles and relationships the fit between agency and NED has to be right. So what should a NED look for in a new opportunity? I am lucky enough to work with a variety of organisations in an advisory and NED role, including 1 billion Euro tech venture VC Northzone, The British Museum, FutureLearn, Number 10’s GREAT campaign and most recently as a NED at the Hakuhodo-owned creative company, Southpaw, detecting a vibe of creative energy is key for me.

Equally, with business no longer being done once a week on the links, the need to adopt an ‘always on’ approach. The days of a NED turning up for a bi-monthly board meeting, having scanned the Minutes in an Uber are over. The contemporary NED needs to apply agility and flexibility and remain far more active than beyond the 19th hole.

A successful NED will see opportunities that are relevant to their portfolio, whereas before their predecessors would have only seen threats. To remain relevant you need to remain current, rather than rely on what glories you had from the past. It’s why it’s important to take an active role, to keep growing your network and to seek what’s new around the corner.

For those companies looking to diversify their non-exec boards, embrace change and innovate they should look at people who acknowledge the value and the power that creativity can provide to a bottom line. After all, there are more people with a creative background now leading successful businesses from yesterday’s Disney and Jobs to today’s Bezos, Branson, Christopher Bailey, Jamal Edwards and Anya Hindmarsh. To give them a competitive edge in an era of price parity the importance of creativity and the need for people who are more attuned to new ideas and new thinking is crucial.

Executive power might lie in the hands of an executive committee, and the C-suite itself has had to change with the introduction of roles previously unimaginable such as chief customer officer, but NEDs are the ones who are increasingly being lent on to help guide this process.

Southpaw Communications Ltd


Advertising Agency
The Warehouse, Hill Street,
Tunbridge Wells,