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

March 16, 2012

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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Will Nick Brien succeed in steering McCann off the rocks?

October 13, 2011

McCann WorldGroup is critical to the performance of Interpublic, the world’s fourth largest marketing services group; it provides about one third of its revenues.

Just recently it hasn’t been doing very well, a worrying state of affairs both for IPG shareholders and McCann’s chief executive of about 18 months, Nick Brien.

The fact is, it has not won any major new business under Brien’s stewardship. Worse, it is in deep trouble with two of its core clients, Nestlé and L’Oréal.

Last month, Nestlé expressed the depth of its displeasure by assigning all of McCann’s signature Nescafé business (nearly everything, globally) to rival Publicis Groupe. Reportedly, that’s $25m revenue down the Swanee.

Now comes news that McCann has screwed up its already troubled relationship with beauty house L’Oréal (which, by the way, is about 30% owned by Nestlé).

The Nescafé affair might – might – be written down to bad luck. Clients do move on eventually, even ones like Nestlé that have been with McCann for several decades.

The L’Oréal fiasco (for such it is) can, on the other hand, only be ascribed to McCann’s managerial incompetence. Stay with me, the story’s a bit complicated but bears retailing.

L’Oréal and its Maybelline brand are even bigger business for McCann than Nescafé: together they account for $100m a year IPG revenue, of which 80% comes out of McCann (according to AdWeek).

Historically, the relationship has been somewhat complicated by the fact US creative for Maybelline is handled by another IPG agency, Gotham, although McCann is responsible for adapting and distributing that work throughout the rest of the world.

Thinking, no doubt, that the account could be more efficiently run as a spin-off unit with its own profit and loss account, Brien and his lieutenants have spent the last year, and an enormous amount of money, creating something called Beauty Village.

Beauty Village was set up at the instigation, and with the full collaboration, of Cyril Chapuy – now global brand president of L’Oréal Paris, but formerly in charge of the Maybelline brand.

Client endorsement enough, you would have thought. But apparently not. No one had checked upstairs with the ‘C Suite’ at L’Oréal, with the result that Beauty Village has now had to be razed to the ground, despite all the hullabaloo a couple of months ago attending its launch.

Fairly or not, the buck for this disaster is going to stop with Brien. Already there is innuendo that the former media man has not got the client-handling skills it takes to run an organisation like McCann.

Whether that is actually true I’m not so sure. Media men may be direct rather than placatory by nature, but that has not stopped the likes of Tim Bell and Rick Bendel (formerly COO of Publicis Worldwide, now marketing supremo at Asda) succeeding in more senior roles.

Besides, there may be a silver lining to the cloud now settling over Brien’s head. At first sight the Nestlé and L’Oréal affairs look like unforced errors playing into the hand of Maurice Lévy, head of Publicis Groupe (core clients, both, at Publicis Worldwide). But Lévy has troubles of his own, with the Nestlé relationship at any rate.

For one thing, he has just lost Carter Murray, his key Nestlé point man, to WPP – which poached him as president-CEO of Y&R Advertising North America. Murray managed to raise Nestlé to Publicis’ premier and most profitable client.

For another, Lévy appears to have overplayed his hand by winning the £250m Ferrero European media business last month. Yes, it’s only media and, yes, a small part was already handled by PG media arm Zenith Optimedia. But now that Ferrero has upped the ante, Nestlé is feeling distinctly uncomfortable about sharing a media agency with its most deadly European rival.


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