Age may wither them and custom stale their finite variety

November 7, 2009

Tim LindsayI was struck by WPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell’s comment on the marketing services industry at ad:tech this week. “The people who run agencies tend to be of an older vintage – to put it politely,” he said. “They tend to be resistant to change and want to spend the last three to four years of their careers travelling around the world rather than dealing with fundamental strategic issues on a daily basis.”

They should be so lucky to reach “an older vintage” these days. The number of people over 50 who are active in the ad business is a vanishingly small figure, according to Incorporated Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) figures, and it’s getting smaller all the time. One particularly endangered species seems to be the heads, or group heads, of UK network creative agencies.

To take a small but illuminating sample, Gary Leih, group head of Ogilvy (just over 50), and Tim Lindsay, president of TBWA\London (53), have both been put out to pasture recently. We could perhaps add the case of Bruce Haines, group chief at Leo Burnett, who managed to stay the course until the ripe old age of 55. And the comparatively youthful former chairman and group chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi, Lee Daley, who moved on in his late forties to an all-too-brief spell as marketing director of Manchester United. While we’re there, let’s tie in the long time management void at the top of Lowe, and the problems in filling the top slots at Publicis UK a couple of years ago when the self-same Lindsay left for TBWA.

To go back to Sorrell, I’m not sure anyone – other than himself perhaps – is capable of dealing with “fundamental strategic issues on a daily basis”. Just one or two over a two-year period is usually enough. As far as I can see, that’s exactly what Daley, Leih and Lindsay tried to do. They all instituted fairly far-reaching management changes in an effort to meet the digital challenge subverting traditional agency structures. With hindsight, the problem seems to be that they were judged not to have gone far enough. Or, put another way, they may indeed have embraced a “fundamental strategic issue”, but they were not allowed long enough to savour their triumph. The truth is, if an agency doesn’t bring in enough big business in the first two years of your tenure, you’re likely to be turfed out in the third. The digital challenge may simply have made it a little harder to win that business in the first place.

Lindsay was probably on skid row once his agency lost the advertising account for McCain to Beattie McGuinness Bungay. He was lucky to survive the subsequent – abortive – attempt to buy BMB. Nissan had also begun to look shaky. Pinning the Media Arts rebranding fiasco on him sounds like the thinnest of subterfuges employed by a management that had long since lost confidence in him – fairly or otherwise.

Ogilvy’s Leih plans spring rebound

July 18, 2009

Gary LeihQuit while you’re ahead. It’s a maxim that ageing admen find as hard to follow as ageing politicians and sportsmen. Not so Ogilvy Group’s UK chairman and chief executive Gary Leih, however.

Leih recently celebrated his 50th birthday and has decided to do something else. That something else involves taking some gardening leave in his native South Africa and then returning to the UK next spring to open a new shop. Leih is being studiously vague about the nature of this enterprise (no doubt wisely), but he claims to have a number of “stars” lined up as partners and to be doing something with the “digital/content” interface. More certain is the date of its establishment, about April 4 next year.

It’s worth noting that Leih the entrepreneur is not a new phenomenon. Although he has spent the bulk of his career at Ogilvy (in several countries) he also took time out in the late eighties to establish a successful start-up in South Africa, called The White House. And again, around the turn of the century, Public Image, this time in Australia.

Leih will be missed on the UK ad scene, even if it is a temporary absence. In a world where there are fewer and fewer personalities, he was without doubt one of them, what with his breezy, candid manner and an avowed fondness for eccentric shirts and chardonnay. He was part of a mid-decade influx of senior management talent imported from the southern hemisphere. Unlike his more abrasive contemporaries, James Hall at Saatchi & Saatchi and Matthew Bull at Lowe, Leih stayed the distance.

He made it onto the Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide board in autumn 2006. But if Leih harboured ambitions of becoming the next Worldwide ceo, after Shelly Lazarus stepped up to chairman at the end of last year, he was to be disappointed. The promotion went to Miles Young, then chairman of O&M Asia/Pacific.

Did he succeed in doing what he was brought in to do at Ogilvy? Yes and no. It’s fair to say he stopped the rot. Ogilvy had drifted downwards in the years before 2005 without anyone being able to put a finger on exactly why. Leadership was certainly an issue. Visits to the agency at that time revealed a reel which agreeably surprised, if only because expectations of Ogilvy’s creativity had fallen so far below those of sibling WPP agency JWT. Leih did not bring about a creative renaissance, but he did win some useful business, such as easyJet (for a while) and Barclays Capital. And he did manage to implement radical and much-needed streamlining of agency senior management without breaking too many heads. I imagine his biggest disappointment was, despite best efforts, his failure to deliver Ogilvy from the clutches of Canary Wharf, adland’s Journey’s End.

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