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The Rise Of The Chief Strategy Officer

Executive Search
London, UK
As agencies face a period of unprecedented business transformation, the Chief Strategy Officer is centre stage, writes The Talent Business' Gary Stolkin

The Talent Business has been responsible for the biggest Chief Strategy Officer (CSO) hires in both the US and UK in 2017. We place more senior strategists in communications agencies globally than any other executive search firm operating in this space. This global perspective provides us with clear evidence that CSO’s are increasingly assuming a pivotal role in agency leadership teams. This is reflected in salaries (with CSO salaries getting closer to CEO’s and CCO’s) and job descriptions that significantly broaden the CSO’s scope of work and responsibilities. We’re also seeing an increasing number of CSO’s moving into CEO roles (albeit with mixed success).

What’s behind the rise & rise of the CSO?


It starts with changes in client organisations and the knock on effect this is having on agencies. Every client organization is in some way transforming itself, adapting it’s business to the pace of change in a technology driven world. Transformation is required to create new products and services - even new business models. The ability to leverage innovation and creativity is now a prerequisite for brand owners who require business transformation to achieve sustainable growth and commercial success. Given the transformation agendas of client-side organisations, communications agencies are having to redefine their own offering to be credible partners for clients grappling with transformation.


For most agency groups, this redefining of who they are, what they do and how they do it, requires a strategic mind at the heart of the leadership team with a significantly more complex skillset than was previously required of an agency CSO. A skillset that can be applied to the challenges that both the agency and its clients face.


Historically, agency groups liked their strategy leads to focus on the strategy discipline (or worse, strategy silo), resourcing client business with the appropriate brand strategy skills. The CSO was also expected to impress the hell out of new business prospects in a pitch context and to deliver creative briefs that teed up a big idea. Historically, the CSO’s remit rarely included the strategy for the agency itself, and only a handful of agency CEO’s embraced the CSO as their strategic partner. Today, as agencies grapple with the transformation of their own business model, they increasingly need an exceptional CSO with the breadth and depth of understanding of creative, data, media and consultancy, to crystalize a strategy for the agency (or agency group) moving forward. This CSO needs to be capable of working out not only how to join up these assets and capabilities to create a value proposition, but also how one then operationalises this strategy to deliver a totally integrated offering bespoke to a client’s particular business needs. It’s the multiple strategic lenses through which the ‘Super CSO’ sees an increasingly more complicated communications landscape that equips him or her to devise a strategy for leveraging an agency group’s assets. The CSO, more than ever before, needs to be a strategist for the agency as well the person responsible for what the strategy discipline delivers within that agency (or group).


The Super CSO’s remit isn’t limited to strategy in the abstract. The Super CSO knows that you can’t separate strategic direction from the operationalising of that strategy. What the agency does and how it does it are inextricably linked. Strategy in a vacuum is of little value in a fast changing world and the Super CSO understands the operational side of both the agency and its clients’ business.


There are other traits that we’ve observed in the Super CSO. Whilst the previous generation of CSO’s might have exercised their huge intellect and exceptional technical skills by locking themselves in a room to solve a complex brand or communications challenge on their own, the Super CSO’s approach to problem solving is far more collaborative. They know who to talk to and how to bring a team together to crack a strategic problem. This is crucial, given the breadth of their scope of work. The Super CSO understands that he or she will never be the best data scientist, brand planner, digital comms strategist, innovation consultant or ideator, but they know enough to be dangerous in all of these specialisms, and how to draw on these skills to deliver creative solutions to business problems. And ultimately, that’s the business that agencies need to be in.


On top of all of this, as agency’s transform their offering, driving a homogeneous approach to strategy across a global network is the most effective way of getting that network to be more functional and culturally homogeneous. In a period of transformation, where an agency is redefining what it does and how it does it, strategy becomes the key discipline for driving this change across key markets. A Super CSO will develop the tools and drive them through the network in order to transform the offering and create a functional (as opposed to dysfunctional) organisation.


The CSO is now more important in a pitch context than ever before. My own experience of running international agency reviews is that what used to be called an initial chemistry meeting (the first meeting between the client and a potential agency partner) is actually a strategy tissue meeting. The CSO is the single most important individual in the agency team when it comes to getting out of the blocks quickly and establishing a head start in a competitive review. A Super CSO is capable of giving an agency a significant lead in a pitch situation because they’re better equipped to have a meaningful dialogue with clients grappling with transformation agendas.  Clients require more strategic input than ever before, and in an increasingly procurement driven world, strategy is a discipline that clients are prepared to invest in.

And finally, as agencies face an increased challenge from consultancy firms, it’s the CSO who is best equipped to lead the rearguard action against the consultancies.

It’s no wonder then, that CSO salaries have been increasing exponentially in key global markets as agency groups pursue the small number of strategy leads that can genuinely deliver against agency and client transformation agendas.


Gary Stolkin (@talentbusiness) is global chairman & CEO of The Talent Business.

The Talent Business

The Talent Business is the world leader in executive search for businesses fueled by innovation and creativity. The Talent Business’ global network delivers competitive advantage for its clients by building leadership teams and securing senior talent who are experts in leveraging innovation and creativity to drive successful business transformation. With eight offices worldwide, The Talent Business is the only global executive search firm specialising in transformational talent across all disciplines in marketing and communications. In the last year The Talent Business has successfully delivered over 450 business leaders and senior talent worldwide.

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