Can Chris MacDonald hack it at McCann New York?

April 26, 2013

Chris MacdonaldHaving, a while back, complimented Chris Macdonald on the improved quality of his tailoring, it would be churlish not to congratulate London’s sharpest suit on landing the hot seat at McCann New York, where he will soon become president.

Macdonald, who combines the position of McCann London group chairman with agency chief executive, is one of several senior executives to be reshuffled in the first significant management changes to be made by Harris Diamond, Nick Brien’s replacement as Worldgroup chief executive. In effect, Macdonald is to take up a position that has been – inexplicably in a creative agency –  left vacant for over a year. His predecessor, Thom Gruhler, quit for Microsoft after – like many around him – coming to blows with Brien over his shoot-from-the-hip management style. The seat had in the interim been kept warm by Hank Summy – a Brien hiring with no traditional agency experience – who has now been elegantly side-shifted to the bafflingly esoteric role of president, commerce at Worldgroup’s digital and direct arm, MRM.

Diamond is evidently throwing away the fairy-cycle stabiliser wheels and proving his own man earlier than expected (or perhaps, more accurately, than I had expected).  When he was picked as McCann Worldgroup CEO last November, McCann’s parent Interpublic hit upon the curious expedient of appointing two “handlers” – hemispheric presidents, Luca Lindner and Gustavo Martinez – to babysit the new boy while he learned the ropes. That was wholly understandable, given that Diamond was a former PR man with no experience of creative advertising. But might have sent out the wrong signal to clients: does McCann trust this man to do the job properly, or not?

In the event, the gamble involved in appointing him – he is well-regarded for his EQ – appears to be paying off. Six months into Diamond’s tenure, McCann has seen off Goodby Silverstein, recaptured the front-end of the General Motors pantomime pony; and won US domestic business as well. Quite a reversal of the negative business spiral that had dogged his predecessor’s two-and-a half-year reign.

It’s easy to see why Diamond might have called upon the services of Macdonald. Where his predecessor loved technical complexity, Diamond is all for human simplicity. “This is a straightforward business,” he told AdWeek recently. “If you can come up with great ideas and make an impact on your clients’ business you do well.”

The great idea, so far as Macdonald is concerned, is threefold. First, his London group role since 2008 has given him invaluable experience of breaking down silo walls and making the various parts of the marketing services machine interoperable. Second, Macdonald is very good with big clients, who these past few years have been feeling a bit bruised and under-loved. Third, London has had a good new business record under his stewardship, in contrast to certain other parts of the McCann empire.

But will the Macdonald pixie dust be enough to salvage McCann’s battered global reputation? That is the question observers are asking. Twenty-five years ago, or so, it was relatively easy for a smooth-talking, self-possessed Brit to make it “Over There” after making it over here. Britain’s reputation for advertising creativity and big brand marketing was second to none in the world. And, if that were not recommendation enough, we could also play the consumer and strategic planning card.

That was then. Now, our effortless superiority in those disciplines should not be taken for granted. And besides, the world has moved on in other ways. It’s a grimmer, greyer place. Post-crash, clients are challenged and risk-averse. As one source of mine puts it: “The need to meet quarterly numbers is more important than waving a magic wand of creativity. This is a low- to no-growth environment.” Add to that the complications of procurement, the massive disruption of traditional channels caused by social media, and the fiendish complexity of planning and measuring campaigns these days, and it becomes triply more difficult for any individual, however talented, to achieve cut-through.

McCann has many weaknesses as a creative agency brand, but one of its great strengths over the years has been its knowledge-in-depth of client businesses. That reputation took a knock under Brien. We have yet to find out whether Macdonald is the man to restore it.


Is the Neural Network the answer to McCann’s prayers?

March 22, 2011

You may not think there is much of a connection between a new car launch and what young McCann Erickson advertising executives get up to in a night-club.

But to Lee Daley, McCann Worldwide’s global chief strategy officer, making connections like that is fundamental to a new way of unlocking his agency’s intellectual assets, providing effective consumer insights at a fraction of their normal cost and repositioning the McCann name at the same time.

McCann has always been awarded penalty points in the agency world because of its sheer size. Its machine-like reputation probably dates back to a period of acquisition megalomania in the early sixties, when the agency was under the stewardship of Marion Harper. Result: it is valued for the sophistication of its global services and its account management skills, but rarely for its creative thinking.

In fact, this reputation is somewhat misleading. In the fifties, McCann was highly regarded for the quality of its consumer insights. Through Herta Herzog, director of creative research, it became high-priest to the mysteries of motivational psychology, the then voguish domain of Dr Ernest Dichter and the School of Motivational Research. It powerfully influenced the thinking of one Vance Packard, author of the Hidden Persuaders (1957).

In a sense, Daley is tapping into that “smarts” tradition. But his focus is on unlocking the hidden talents of McCann’s staff and thereby turning a perceived disadvantage, McCann’s cumbersome size, into an asset. “In a way, it’s simply a numbers game,” he tells me. “McCann has 22,000 employees worldwide. That’s a massive talent pool, but it’s fair to say we haven’t always exploited that creatively, partly because of our brand image. Compare that with so-called creative agencies, Wieden & Kennedy, Mother or whatever. Full of talent, no doubt, but a fraction of our pool.”

Ah yes, but how exactly does he intend to release that pent-up intellectual capital, and to what end, exactly? The answer is something called the Neural Network, a project Daly has been working on for about 5 years – and which now involves some 8,000 of McCann’s employees.

Expressed simply, NN is a kind of internalised social media platform (although Daly recoils in horror from the suggestion that it is Facebook for McCann). It builds up a profile which matches every employee’s formal status in the organisation with their private interests and areas of specialism outside their current expertise. It encourages the setting-up of special interest communities and dialogue between their members.

The advantages are clear. It’s a levelling tool in an hierarchical organisation, which can be used by management as a kind of crowd-sourcing resource or virtual pitch team. Also reasonable to assume, judging from the number of people who have volunteered to join the database: it’s quite motivating for staff – for whom it may open up new career opportunities.

The challenges are equally clear: it’s a levelling tool in an hierarchical organisation, about which senior management must initially have had considerable misgivings. Without suitable controls, it could indeed become a kind of office Facebook. And even when exploited professionally, anarchy might ensue if senior managers were allowed carte blanche in appropriating extra resources via the Neural Network.

For this reason, all requests are carefully monitored by a group of senior executives called “Neural Network Gods”. In London, the key executive is group chief Chris Macdonald. Others include Daly himself and McCann Worldgroup CEO Nick Brien. The process of control is still being mapped out as the Neural Network is gradually extended to the other 14,000 Worldwide employees.

Equally important, from Daly’s point of view, is the challenge of monetising ideas thrown up by the Neural Network as McCann’s intellectual property. As is well known in agency circles, ideas are what you give away in a pitch: it’s very difficult to patent them. Clients might well welcome the idea of a me-too Neural Network, persuade McCann to set it up, and then run off with it.

Daly has partly answered this problem by setting up a 3-year rolling contract with Santa Barbara-based IntroNetworks – the company that devised the software – which gives McCann exclusive licensing rights.

If other agencies want to jump on the NN bandwagon, they may of course do so. But they will have to build their own software, and that takes time. And time is what Daly hopes will give McCann its leading advantage.


McCann’s Chris Macdonald dons a sharper suit

February 2, 2011

It’s up, up and away for London’s supreme account man, Chris Macdonald, but not quite to the top of the greasy pole as I claimed earlier. The youthful chief executive of McCann’s London advertising agency has certainly enlarged his power base, but by discipline rather than geographical territory.

Macdonald  has been appointed to the new role of chairman of the London-based McCann Worldgroup, where he will have responsibility not only for McCann itself but the digital media unit MRM, experiential unit Momentum and McCann Healthcare as well.

Macdonald has got where he is largely on the  strength of his own merits. But, as ever in the politics of advertising, the wheel of fortune has played its role too. His precocious promotion is also the by-product of a power struggle between McCann group supremo Nick Brien and European chief executive and president Brett Gosper, where Gosper has successively been forced to yield ground.

It may not have escaped notice that McCann – normally the motor of Interpublic growth – has had problems in the engine room, thanks in large part to the lacklustre captaincy of John Dooner. When Dooner (not before time) took his loot and retired, Gosper went for the top job, but was beaten to the draw by former media man Brien.

Brien may not be gifted with tact or creativity, but he’s right on top of one of the basic principles of leadership – stick to what you are good at (in his case, ruthless decision-making and a gift for tumbling numbers) and appoint people who supply your talent deficit. Brien picked Mother’s Swedish creative prodigy Linus Karlsson to lead the McCann creative renaissance. (How many times have we heard that one, readers? But maybe someone, sometime  will succeed in replicating the McCann London glory days of the late Seventies.) As an earnest of Brien’s intention he also made Karlsson chairman of London – a position hitherto part of Gosper’s titles portfolio.

Now the other shoe has dropped. Gosper is out in the cold. Macdonald is wearing an even sharper suit (David Jones watch out) and Brien has sensibly handed the more presidential aspects of Gosper’s role to Gustavo Martinez, formerly director of global brand management and global new business director at Ogilvy & Mather. Importantly, it appears Macdonald reports directly to Brien, rather than via Martinez.


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