My Three Cents

Reaching #2 in An Agency

Believe it or not, once upon a time I was a Number Two in an agency – a position I left to start Makovsky in 1979.


As I recall, it took me 8 years at the agency I worked at to go from Account Supervisor to Deputy General Manager. It wasn’t a cake walk getting there.Number2image001

I was passed over for a promotion to vice president when I knew I was better than the guy who got it. Yet, I was a detail guy and managed to my eye-teeth. My boss and mentor, Phil Dorf, once said he so trusted me he stopped looking at any of my work. Finally, the promotion. I was managing one of their largest clients and still didn’t get the title I thought I should have. Then it finally happened. I beat out a rival for the Number Two position in the agency.

In the 35-plus years of Makovsky, we have grown from an office of 600 square feet to one of 20,000 square feet! On the way that has meant we have gained a lot of experience identifying senior management talent that fits in our culture, some people who grew up in our organization or many who have been hired from the outside. I came up with a personal list from my own experience as a CEO on what’s important to me in selecting a Number Two or other senior position such as Practice Leader in our company.

1. Treat the CEO as your client – you are a team.

When you are working with a client company, you need to immerse yourself to learn and understand as much as you possibly can about the client’s business. You listen carefully to what the client is saying, take initiative in studying the business and following news about the client’s industry. You strive to pick up nuances such as your client contact’s relationship with the CEO and other senior management, as well as priorities, pet peeves, and what success will look like. The more you know, the better you can deliver, provide honest counsel and insights, earn mutual respect, and give your best – even if you may not agree with the client all the time. In order to be a successful Number Two in an agency, why wouldn’t you work the same way with your own CEO, functioning together as partners in running the firm as his or her right hand?

And how do you convince the CEO you have the right qualifications when you are still only aspiring for the Number Two job? If you are already in the organization, you have a great opportunity to observe, observe, observe the CEO’s relationships with other senior people in order to understand his or her expectations, priorities, values, and areas for firm improvement. As an insider you also have opportunities to prove your loyalty and worthiness and visibility with the CEO — by volunteering on important projects or problems that no one else wants to do.

2. Knock your responsibilities out of the park.

While admittedly this is table stakes and not rocket science, a Harvard Business Review article quoted Amy Jen Su, an executive coach and contributing editor, who says the first step to getting ahead is “to deliver results in your day job. You always need to take care of today’s business so that nobody – peers, direct reports, or those above you – questions your performance.” That’s the first step to getting ahead, no matter how big your ambition.

3. Focus on the CEO’s priorities for the Number Two position.

Be they sales development, culture, corporate positioning, new services or other, if you are aspiring to the Number Two position, look for opportunities to gain more experience in them. If you are IN the Number Two position, make sure you have your focus in the right places.

4. Build your own relationships inside the organization and in the industry.

Remember what I said earlier about observing the CEO’s relationships. In the dynamics of an agency, the CEO will likely confirm his impressions with select others in the firm who may know about the work you’re doing, so don’t silo yourself. Participate in cross-team projects where possible (or visible pro bono work such as with the local PRSA chapter or a charity) to increase your visibility and reputation.

5. It may be corny, but don’t forget “there is no ‘I’ in team.”

I don’t think this requires much explanation – check your ego at the door and be humble. Don’t put yourself first.

thought leadership


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