Distill Ventures’ Shilen Patel: ‘Marketing leadership needs to go from ancient to agile’

Even though marketing is supposed to be one of the most creative and innovative industries there is, leadership tends to be very static and traditional. Change is needed to save our industry.

We are living through a period of seismic change and getting used to seeing highly disruptive and innovative new entrants destroy incumbent businesses and turn whole categories upside down. In the midst of all this, I believe we are also witnessing a sea change in what constitutes great leadership. By comparison, leadership in the marketing services looks very static and traditional. Odd, given that ours is supposed to be one of the most creative and innovative industries there is.

So, what’s changed? Our current view of great leadership was forged in the furnaces of the industrial revolution and refined in the centuries since. It is leadership executed through power hierarchies, rigid factory-like processes and top-down management where ‘command and control’ is the end game and people are treated like a resource to be milked. Leadership for a world that is stable and predictable. You lead ‘top down’, because when given enough information you can set a strategy based on a normative model that was intact. You could have confidence in asking people to follow through on it because it was unlikely to change. You just can’t do that now.

The ‘Digital Revolution’ is re-writing the rules of business, fundamentally altering our behaviours and challenging our sense of workplace success and fulfilment. This is a world in constant flux and organisations have to be agile, open, collaborative and highly networked to be successful (e.g. Amazon). So why would we expect great leadership to stay the same?

Embracing the complex new world

We need leadership that embraces this highly ambiguous and complex new world. ‘Bottom up’ leadership that supports flexible and highly adaptable teams where processes are always evolving. Leadership that is comfortable with ceding control to the most junior employees who might just be the best people to make some decisions as they have the best insight into this new world.

Ten years ago, when we founded Independents United, we believed that the agency leadership model was broken. We decided to stake our future on a very different leadership model with no hierarchy, no departments, no job titles, few rigid processes and as close to zero management as possible. Even our youngest team members have access to all company information and are involved in all our major decisions such as pay rises and recruitment.

Today, I’m very proud of this decision as it has given us a disruptive edge and allowed us to thrive as a highly networked company of co-owners. We’ve dropped pointless processes, taken much of the politics out, distributed responsibility and ultimately helped our clients make some seriously big and successful revolutions happen in their own industries.

I believe more of us need to explore and embrace new styles of leadership. It may just save our industry.

Shilen Patel will be speaking on a panel called “Is leadership really changing?” at the Marketing Academy’s Inspire event on 14 April.

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  • Sadi 20 Jun 2017 at 9:39 am

    A friend of mine has had personal experience with Distill Ventures who started a micro distillery as a hobby not knowing its potential as a business or where to start. They helped him immensely with business advice i.e the licensing and operations on a bigger scale as well as funding and he’s making great progress with launching his brand.

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