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.

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Max, Dan, Jerry – 2012’s out-performers

December 14, 2012

League tables of achievement are as commonplace as turkeys right now. Why burden you with another one? Well, I’ve been asked to – by the good folk at More About Advertising. So:

Ad of the Year. Yes, I liked BBH’s “The 3 Little Pigs” and Creative Artist Agency’s Cannes Chipotle winner. Also, Del Campo Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi’s work for – of all improbable B2C clients – air-conditioning specialist BGH. Of which this, directed by Juan Cabral, is the latest instance:

As MAA’s Stephen Foster puts it – “bleakly comic”.

My favourite, though, was “Follow the Frog”, a quirky satire of the desk-bound yuppie eco-warrior fantasising about making the World A Better Place. Writer, director, copywriter, art director is Max Joseph – clearly a bit of an Orson Welles in the making. The commercial was produced by Wander Films, a creative boutique in Los Angeles. The moral? You don’t need to go to the ends of the earth to save the rainforest. Just Follow the Frog by buying kitemark-certified Rainforest Alliance products. They’ll do all the ethical heavy-lifting for you: sustain the forests, uphold socially equitable farming methods, and guarantee that what you buy is economically viable:

It’s long – but isn’t nearly everything these days? The measure of the made-for-internet film is not its length, but how well it sustains our interest. On this criterion Follow the Frog succeeds very well. It’s got a good tale to tell, is directed with panache and enlivened by bold use of graphics. Oh, and it uses gentle humour to camouflage the piety of its evangelical message. Yes “Siri”, it get’s my vote.

Agency of the Year. I won’t beat about the bush: it’s got to be Wieden & Kennedy. International networks frequently produce isolated instances of brilliance (Del Campo being an example within the Saatchi organisation). Exceptional work, simultaneously executed on a number of fronts, is another matter. To take an investment analogy, W&K is a momentum stock outperforming in all its main markets. Whether that’s Clint fronting for Chrysler at the Super Bowl:

… London winning the £110m Tesco account – but also producing some of the most interesting creative work since “Grrr”:

Or Amsterdam’s slick spoof for the latest James Bond film, which neatly segues into its current Heineken campaign:

Person of the Year. Tempting to mention the name of Joel Ewanick, isn’t it? No one can be said to have made a bigger splash in the world of marketing over the past year. Arguably, however, the now-dismissed chief marketing officer of General Motors made headlines for all the wrong reasons. A change agent he certainly was, but were any of his changes for the good? And what sort of permanence will they have? We hacks miss him, but I suspect the wider marketing community will not.

Jerry BuhlmannInstead of anti-hero, therefore, I’ve plumped for a gritty go-getter: marketing services’ answer to Daniel Craig. Like Craig, he certainly wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice as the archetypal smooth operator. But his coolness under fire cannot be doubted. Step forward Jerry Buhlmann, chief executive of Aegis Group plc. If there is one thing archetypal about Jerry, it’s that he’s a self-made media man. He started off in the “five to one” slot, in other words the lowest of the low in the full-service agency hierarchy, at Young & Rubicam in 1980. Nine years later, he was setting up his his own media-buying outfit BBJ – along with ultimately less successful Nick Brien and the downright obscure Colin Jelfs. BBJ – nowadays Vizeum – though successful (it handled for example the BMW account) was originally a “second-string” shop for conflicted WCRS media. Buhlmann’s career really took off when WCRS’s Peter Scott had the inspired idea of acquiring Carat – Europe’s largest media buyer – and floating off the combined operation as a separate stock market entity, rechristened Aegis. Buhlmann and his company were soon swallowed up by the independent media specialist, which offered him much wider career opportunities.

But was he a man capable of capitalising on them? While no one has ever doubted Buhlmann’s single-minded ambition to succeed, a lot have wondered whether he had the competence to do so. Yes, he had a mind like a calculator and razor-sharp commercial acumen, but where, oh where, were those human skills no less essential for making it to the top of the corporate pile? There was much mirth in the senior reaches of the media industry when Buhlmann got his first big break as head of Aegis Media EMEA in 2003. “It’s like William Hague trying to emulate Margaret Thatcher” was a typical response to his promotion. Then, as later, Buhlmann’s critics completely underestimated his ability to learn on the job. When he became group chief executive in 2010, the reception was scarcely less friendly. The master of ‘focus’ and ‘detail’ was incapable of taking the broader view vital to successfully running a publicly-quoted company, it was said. And then there was Jerry’s far-from-diplomatic demeanour: how long before he rubbed the City up the wrong way and had to be dispensed with?

It wasn’t as if Aegis was an easy company to run, either. As a (near) pure-bred media specialist, it was susceptible to squalls in the media every time the inevitable financial scandal broke. Inevitable, because media buying and peculation are bedfellows and peculation distorts financial performance – meaning in Aegis’ case it had to resort to highly public mea culpas every now and then. Other major media outfits, by contrast, have been able to rely on defence in depth from the much bigger marketing services organisations to which they belong.

Not only that, Aegis’s card was marked as a public company. For years, it laboured under the strain of being a takeover or break-up target. The strain became nightmarish when Vincent Bolloré, the shareholder from hell, took a strategic stake in Aegis and began engineering a series of boardroom coups.

Some of the credit for Aegis’ eventual soft-landing – a 50%-premium, £3.2bn cash deal with Dentsu, sealed last June  – must go to Aegis chairman John Napier. But that still leaves a lot owing to Buhlmann himself. Not only did he keep all the plates spinning in difficult circumstances, he also demonstrated a strategic clarity which eluded his predecessors. He ruthlessly pruned the company of its lower-margin research operation (by disposing of Synovate to Ipsos), but at the same time bolstered its pure-play media-buying profile with the geographical add-on of Mitchell Communications.

Not a bad result, all in all, for the man once dubbed the king of the second-string.



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.


Watch out, there’s a Hytner about – Jim takes the helm at IPG’s Initiative

March 4, 2012

Interesting to see that Jim Hytner – whose career has more switchbacks to it than the mille miglia – is once more emerging triumphant from the quicksand of a career in marketing.

Hytner has just replaced long-serving Richard Beaven as worldwide chief executive of Interpublic Group subsidiary Initiative. Beaven (a surprisingly urbane man for the head of a media-buying house) has apparently left to spend more time with his passion for photography, an alternative vocation he says he has toyed with since childhood.

While none of this is to be doubted, we wonder whether he was also uncomfortably lodged in a career cul-de-sac. Beaven was once seen as a successor to Nick Brien when Brien left Mediabrands (the overarching arm of Interpublic’s media operations) to take on the top job at McCann Worldgroup. But the Mediabrands role instead went to Beaven’s chief rival at Universal McCann, Matt Seiler, who has been aggressively reorganising McCann’s media operations ever since.

Anyway, enter Jim. He’s relatively new to the world of media buying, having joined another IPG subsidiary, Universal McCann’s G14 (essentially the bits that aren’t America), as its boss only two years or so ago. Like Brien, he’s a Brit who has done rather well in the upper echelons of American-dominated McCann – the traditional breadbasket of Interpublic Group. There, however, the parallel ends. Where Brien is essentially a media services specialist who has made it into top agency management, Hytner’s much more colourful career has embraced the full ambit of marketing: he’s been an FMCG client; marketing director at some of Britain’s top television companies; client at one of Britain’s leading banks; a digital content wonk; and is now trying his hand – seemingly successfully – at the agency business.

The first thing to note about Jim is he is the youngest scion of a talented and very competitive family. All three Hytner brothers – the sons of a successful Manchester barrister – have set the bar high in their chosen fields. Nicholas, now Sir Nicholas, is the director of the National Theatre with such successes as the Madness of George III and The History Boys to his name. Richard, a lawyer by training and a Sloan Fellow of London Business School, is now deputy chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide.

“Cheeky chappy” Jim, less cerebral than his two brothers (they went to Oxbridge; he went to a redbrick), gives every appearance of being a lot more entrepreneurial. Certainly the young Hytner was prepared to give anything a go. First, like his eldest brother, he tried to tread the boards, but this was trumped by a potential career as a chef de cuisine. The way he tells it, his attempts to follow in the footsteps of Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay stopped dead one night, when thanks to a kitchen shift at the exclusive Miller House Hotel in the Lake District, he suddenly realised he was going to miss the 1985 FA Cup Final between Manchester United and Everton. To say that Jim is fanatical about Manchester United would be a considerable understatement. He (like more self-effacing elder brother Richard – though I’m not so sure of Sir Nick’s views on this subject) eats, lives and breathes the club’s highs and lows. “It’s the one final I’ve ever missed in my whole life, so I thought I can’t be doing with this hotel lark,” he tells us. Haute cuisine‘s loss was marketing’s or, more specifically, Kraft’s gain.

To this day, football analogies are never long absent from Jim’s utterances. And, in truth, it is a passion that has stood his career in good stead in the laddish, sports-mad environments of Sky TV, ITV – where he was marketing director – and (dare I mention it?) media buying circles. Though what Americans make of all this “soccer” talk, I have no idea.

Will Jim ever reach the top – conceivably, in time, replacing Brien? Over the years, Hytner’s maverick antics have made him a rather endearing fixture of the UK marketing scene. But they have also raised questions about his gravitas. This, after all, was the man who dreamt up those infamous idents of celeb TV personality Keith Chegwin in the nude when he was marketing director of Channel 5. What Jim may choose to call “brave” others in the industry characterise as controversy for the sake of controversy. He did something to allay this enfant terrible reputation during a (comparatively sober) stint as UK marketing director of Barclays Bank. But it remains to be seen whether he has mellowed sufficiently in his middle years…


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.


Why McCann’s Lee Daley wants his life back

July 6, 2011

Sad to see, if not entirely surprising, McCann Erickson Worldwide chief strategy officer Lee Daley throwing in the towel. Few people can have worked harder at Mission Impossible.

It’s important to note that at the time of Daley’s return to IPG-owned McCann, as chief strategist EMEA, in 2009, the troubled leviathan was under a very different leadership: that of ageing patriarch John Dooner.

Dooner was due for retirement, as he himself cheerfully admitted. The question was, who would succeed him? The most obvious candidates were Brett Gosper, CEO of McCann EMEA, Eric Keshin, the network’s COO, and Mark Dowley, network creative content and entertainment chief. Though popular in varying degrees, these candidates were also divisive. Enter Daley as a potential compromise candidate. He was an old McCann hand, having first joined the London office in 1990 where he rose meteorically to board director level. But he also had wider managerial experience in a variety of rival organisations. In 2001 his career began an odyssey which took him, successively, to WPP as worldwide CEO of Red Cell (later United), group chairman and CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi’s London office and eventually (if briefly) to Manchester United as commercial director.

IPG chairman and chief executive Michael Roth did indeed have a compromise candidate in mind, but it was not Daley. The man who seized the crown in early 2010 was Nick Brien, worldwide CEO of Mediabrands – who had done a sterling job of restructuring IPG’s ailing mediabuying behemoths Universal McCann and Initiative.

Since  when Brien has barely paused for breath in applying the age-old maxim ‘a new broom sweeps clean’. Keshin and Gosper have headed for the exit (though Dowley, I believe, remains).

Daley, in the meantime, was promoted to the network’s global leadership team and his present role – a consolation prize of sorts. Some consolation. In his lengthy resignation letter, reproduced in Ad Age, he makes it clear he hadn’t exactly landed on a bed of roses. The brief was to shore up McCann’s crumbling core clients, GM, Nestlé and L’Oréal. No time for the more rewarding task of pursuing new business – just 80 hours a week in an aeroplane relentlessly circumnavigating the globe in an effort to defuse one client crisis after another.

No wonder he gave up. Anyone would, in the circumstances.


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