Mike Margolin, svp of audience strategy at agency RPA, has won Digiday’s first-ever Top Boss Award.
Digiday asked agencies to nominate a manager who goes above and beyond to deliver results, build a strong team dynamic and be mentors to their employees. Over the course of a month, entries poured in from agencies all over the United States. After in-house judging, a shortlist of five nominees from five agencies was created. Then, the nominations were opened to the public for three weeks, with Margolin coming out on top.
Margolin, who has worked at Los Angeles-based RPA for 15 years, co-manages a team of over 100 people across audience strategy and investment. Despite deep experience in managing teams, Margolin doesn’t like the term “boss”; instead he describes himself as a “servant leader” who tries to give his employees a bespoke management experience.
“Some people could use that [servant leadership] some more. They want bigger structure and greater partnerships.”
Digiday asked Margolin what makes for a good manager in an industry that’s always changing, the biggest management challenge he’s faced in the last year and how he eventually learned to accept a hard piece of advice.
Have you always thought of yourself as a leader?
Not really. Even today, I would say that I mostly feel a heightened sense of responsibility to the people around me. It’s probably different how most people view how leadership is. I don’t necessarily draw the line between “This person is a leader and this person isn’t.” We’re all just in a state of working together.
What makes for a good manager at an agency?
Agencies are really complex, especially when you provide a really broad range of services like we [RPA] do. Being able to manage complex work environments where there are different skill sets and different types of personalities is important. There are four traits that are particularly important, at least for me. The first is to respect everyone as a unique person with a deep well of potential. It’s everyone’s job to tap that potential. In an agency in particular, there’s so much change in our industry, so the second trait is a sense of curiosity. The third is to model confidence. Confidence helps instill resilience. Things don’t always go exactly as they are planned, so hold your head high and say “We’ll get through it.” It inspires others.
How do you hire?
The first thing is I want to make sure that they are qualified for the job. I want them to be set up for success and even if they have other traits, they should have the skills and experience. When I get to know them, I want to sense that they have a can-do attitude and that they love solving problems. Someone who embraces the change that’s happening in our business and sees it as an opportunity, not an acceptance of change. I look for optimism. I really like characters, people who have idiosyncrasies that when they laugh, you can tell it’s an honest laugh. I don’t want robots. Quirkiness actually helps.
What was the biggest management challenge you face?
It’s giving the right type of leadership to each person. Everyone deserves the right kind of leadership for them. There are so many people who have situational needs. I wish I could spend time with every person on my team and give them the exact support that they need. In the last few years, it’s really been a challenge.
What is one piece of management advice that you previously disregarded but now think is true?
Long ago, I had a sales job. I didn’t hit my sales goal one quarter and thought to myself, “I’ve been set up to fail.” The guy in charge said, “Just keep doing the right things, and good things will happen.” I just about reached through the phone and strangled the guy. But he was right, and it took me a while to accept. Sometimes you just need to have faith in yourself and the people around you. I bring up that quote from time to time, but always in the context of being pissed off at the guy. But when you apply yourself and take a step back, oftentimes we are building the foundations of something, and we just need to give it time.
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