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Nick Brien heads for McCann exit. But who would wish to step into his shoes?

Word reaches me that Nick Brien, chief executive officer of Interpublic Group’s troubled leviathan McCann Worldgroup, will be stepping down very shortly. Possibly within a few weeks.

The size of Brien’s no doubt handsome severance package is likely to remain a mystery, the reason for his departure less so.

McCann has, in recent years, been a slow-motion accident gradually picking up speed. The traditional banker of Interpublic, accounting for 30% of group revenue (according to the Wall Street Journal), it was once a licence to print money on account of 5 foundation global clients. These were: Unilever, Exxon Mobil, Nestlé, L’Oréal and General Motors. More recently it has come to rely upon Microsoft as well. Here’s the recent tally:

Unilever (mostly Walls) has long gone, and the souring of the relationship can hardly be blamed upon Brien (even though the last bit of media did leave in 2011). Less excusably, his 2-year tenure has coincided with serious difficulties afflicting the other five.

Nestlé? McCann lost the crown-jewels global Nescafé creative account (worth about $25m income annually) to Publicis Groupe. McCann had handled the vast majority of the business for several decades.

Exxon? Lost the $200m creative account (which went back to 1912) to BBDO after a year-long review completed late last year. Universal McCann, MRM and Momentum have, however, managed to cling on to media.

General Motors? McCann lost out in the recent contest for GM’s $3bn global media business (of which Universal McCann had a substantial chunk), and is still on tenterhooks over whether it has won, lost or drawn in a creative review of the worldwide Chevrolet business, which accounts for the bulk of GM adspend.

Did I mention the Microsoft débâcle? About a year ago, UM and Mediabrands lost more than half Microsoft’s global media business after a review which saw the $615m US business pass to Publicis’ Starcom MediaVest.

And so to L’Oréal – perhaps the single most important McCann relationship, accounting (I’m told) for about 20% of its operating profit. Brien made a fundamental wrong turn last year when he sought to shoehorn Maybelline into a standalone shop, Beauty Village, which was also to house L’Oréal’s main brands. Characteristically (for a former media man), he had spotted the cost benefits of ruthlessly streamlining the business. Equally characteristically, his critics would say, he showed almost zero client empathy in setting about the task. When L’Oréal’s ‘C Suite’ finally tumbled to what he was doing, they were apoplectic and nixed the whole project.

Worse, it would appear, is on the way for McCann. L’Oréal now seems poised to take a considerable amount of its creative work in house. From what I hear, it will drop one of its two global agencies. And given that Publicis is the Paris-based home team, currently rejoices in a better brand name and – in Digitas – a superior digital operation, who do you think that unlucky agency might be? Driving L’Oréal’s thinking, sources say, are potential cost savings of $50m a year.

An indication of the way the wind is blowing may be detected in the recent defection of McCann’s L’Oréal worldwide account director Aude Gandon, who joined Publicis Worldwide last month. Gandon was a Brien protegé. She was formerly managing director of Leo Burnett’s beauty, fashion and luxury division, Atelier-lb, and was brought into McCann shortly after Brien got the top job.

Hers is not the only departure. Note that Garry Neel, the GM brand leader at McCann is quitting (although he will stay on as a consultant). As is Matt Freeman, who was hired as chief global chief innovation officer and vice-chairman less than a year ago. Only last week, Cathy Saidiner, president of McCann LA since 2008 – and a key Nestlé contact – also quit, according to an AdWeek report which also carried a denial that Brien is about to step down.

Against all these losses, McCann under Brien has yet to nail a significant new business win. Sense a pattern, anyone?

Equally interesting, while on the subject of Brien’s imminent departure, is who might replace him. Who, now that Brett Gosper has quit, has sufficient stature within McCann? And if an external candidate, which first-rate suits would be prepared to risk their reputation in taking on such a vertiginous challenge? The ideal candidate might well be Andrew Robertson, BBDO Worldwide CEO (who has not so far landed that top Omnicom job he was rumoured to be angling for). But why would he want to go to McCann? Surely not for the money.

UPDATE 19/3/12: Another top level casualty: this time Tom Gruhler, global managing partner at McCann Worldgroup, who is heading off to Microsoft as vice-president of phone marketing. Gruhler, who joined McCann in 2003, oversaw a specialist technology and telecoms unit the agency was developing. Previously, he was point man on the Verizon account, but much of that defected to agency-of-the-moment McGarryBowen in 2010. There’s now an inescapable whiff of the Führer Bunker, April 1945, in the air.

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One Response to Nick Brien heads for McCann exit. But who would wish to step into his shoes?

  1. BrendaKilgour says:

    I wouldn’t take Garry Neel’s leaving as significant of anything other than the fact that McCann’s cigar bills will be reduced. They can no longer afford to keep on guys like him whose salary was paid by clients who left the building years ago.

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