'This organisation does not tolerate failure'
— Ernst Stavro Blofeld
Ah, the curse of the Campaign feature. In May 2017, we ran a piece interviewing 11 new chief executives of some of adland’s most notable creative agencies. Two years on, seven of them are no longer in their roles, many not entirely by choice.
The tenure of leaders is shortening across the board – not just in adland. The median tenure of chief executives at large-cap companies has fallen by nearly a year, to five years, since 2013, according to research conducted in 2018 by data provider Equilar. Even football managers are suffering from a greater lack of patience from stakeholders when it comes to achieving the desired results.
So what to make of these changes? Some might say that lurching from leader to leader smacks of desperation. A lack of stability and consistent vision cannot help agencies in the long term. Others might argue these changes will have a positive impact, by removing outdated thinking and making way for a new, more modern breed of leaders. As ever, the proof is in the pudding.
In this piece, we have interviewed the new management teams at five creative agencies to see how they plan to navigate the choppy waters.
Will they still be captaining their ships in 2021?
Adam & Eve/DDB
The problem with being the industry’s golden child for so long is that the bystanders are waiting for any sign of what they consider to be the inevitable fall. That feeling is no doubt compounded as Adam & Eve/DDB’s last two founders to remain at the agency – James Murphy and David Golding – leave this week.
But, so far, there have been very few chinks in the armour, and you wouldn’t want to bet against the new management team maintaining the agency’s high standards. For a start, although the quartet that forms the team is now the main event, the four have never really been simply a sideshow. Joint chief executives Tammy Einav and Mat Goff, chief creative officer Richard Brim and chief strategy officer Alex Hesz were promoted to their roles in December 2016, but all have been longstanding members of the agency.
Einav and Goff joined in 2008, the year the agency launched. Hesz joined shortly after and Brim was the first recruit post Adam & Eve’s merger with DDB. They are as much part of the success of the agency as the founders who schooled them. It’s a team formed from those who know how to get the best out of one another.
While many other agencies have had a swift turnover of leaders, the rise of Adam & Eve/DDB’s leadership team appears to be a textbook example of succession planning. Indeed, of the 11 new creative agency chief executives Campaign featured in that aforementioned editorial piece two years ago, Einav and Goff account for two out of a total of only four that have remained in position.
The risk is, though, that the weight of expectation acts as a paralysing force. However, the team interprets this positively. "We feel the pressure, but it would be wrong for us to turn that pressure into anything negative. It’s a positive fear. It’s an exciting driving force that keeps you on your toes," Einav says.
Brim agrees: "I think fear is really good. I spend a lot of time playing with it in the middle of the night. Is [the agency] going to go down? That is a fear. But it’s such a negative fear that I try to push it away." Instead, he focuses on continuing to make better work. "This building is dripping in brilliant briefs and my biggest fear is not bringing those to fruition," he says.
Hesz adds: "Fear is only a burden if you don’t know what to do about it. We know how to win big pitches and deliver great work. We are not going to have to change how we operate. Our job is just to go: ‘Brilliant, we’ve had a cracking run up until now, we’ve got some brilliant people with us, we know what we are doing, let’s crack on.’"
Despite its position at the top, the team continues to have a laser focus on clients and the work. Hesz believes this is critical to the agency’s success and something not often seen in larger agencies, where the leaders can become disconnected from the output. "The four of us are practitioners, not managers," he says. "We don’t spend our days shuffling desks around. Ultimately, if there are three people I want with me in a room to solve problems, it is this team."
Brim adds: "That comes from the agency that James [Murphy], David [Golding] and Ben [Priest] built and the mentality they built within that."
This is also not a team that has become complacent. The success has merely inculcated a "healthy paranoia", Hesz says. "People ask: ‘Why historically has it has gone alright for you guys?’ We reckon we give 10% more of a shit than most people – about the work, our people, each other, the client relationship, about getting every detail right. I remember in the very early days of Adam & Eve when we were sweating the mood film at four in the morning. That hasn’t really changed."
So the future of Adam & Eve/DDB is, as Goff puts it, "more of the same new thing". The same attitude and ambition but applied to a new chapter. The team is clear it will continue to push to get the best client briefs for other teams in the agency to solve and will create different types and shapes of work.
Einav says: "As you grow, one of the things is never to lose that hunger and the appetite to still keep surprising and doing things that maybe people don’t expect us to do."
Brim adds: "Creatively we were known for our big [John Lewis] Christmas TV ad. What we’re most proud of over the past couple of years is that we’ve used that emotional bullet in many different ways. Our creative reach has spread and that is massively important."
According to Brim, bringing in people with different backgrounds and thinking has changed the shape of the work the agency can produce. He points to its campaign for the charity CALM, for which it put 84 lifelike mannequins on the roof of the ITV studios in London to raise awareness of the number of men who commit suicide each week. He also cites the insertion of a new move into the Fifa series of football video games.
As Goff adds: "Having good ideas on a client’s business and making them happen is the only yardstick by which we’ve judged ourselves. The way you will get on here is wrestling a problem to the ground, getting a good solution and making sure it is still great by the time it gets out into the public."
If the agency is due a drop in fortunes, no-one has told the new management team.
It has been six months since WPP announced it was to merge Wunderman and J Walter Thompson, but Pip Hulbert still finds her time split between the pair’s two offices more than two miles apart.
Hulbert, the Wunderman UK chief executive of two years who was given the Wunderman Thompson reins in March, does not expect all J Walter Thompson staff to move into Greater London House (Wunderman Thompson’s future base) before July. So, until then, she has been focused on the "softer practicalities of ensuring that everybody gets to know each other".
Familiarity is important, with a complicated amalgam of two types of agency: Wunderman, a respected customer experience shop, and J Walter Thompson, a once-revered creative agency brand that has struggled in recent years. The planned result is described simply as: a creative and data technology agency, with an overriding objective to "inspire growth".
Hulbert insists this is the way for Wunderman Thompson to succeed in the midst of widespread industry disruption. "Growth is a force for good, helping us to be at our most relevant, entrepreneurial and engaged," she says. "It allows companies and the people within them to evolve, learn and thrive, acting with real confidence and conviction. It’s never been more necessary because disruption is the new normal, so only those brands that grow and change will succeed."
Hulbert will not be drawn on the specifics as to how the agency plans to brand itself, particularly the way in which Wunderman Thompson will differentiate itself from WPP stablemate VMLY&R, another hybrid created last year.
"We’re not there yet… ask me again in August," is her refrain.
But if disruption is the "new normal", how can Hulbert be confident she will still be around in two years’ time? "I think that as a CEO you can never be complacent. You have to adapt to new technologies and you need to be down to earth and connected to brands’ challenges to drive creative. Talking personally, I’ve always been driven by the creative output," she says.
While Wunderman’s chief strategy officer and chairman Richard Dunn remains in situ, Partners Andrews Aldridge co-founder Steve Aldridge has been recruited as chief creative officer. He will be in charge of the biggest creative department in London: an army of 110 creatives (including design but excluding studio).
As much as anything else, Aldridge seems pleased simply to be back at an agency full-time after more than a year working on projects as a consultant. In particular, he is relishing the chance to pitch again.
"There’s a purity to pitching that I enjoy and [it is] an opportunity to hone your identity as well," he says. "[But] our chance to make the biggest impact is to take existing clients on a journey with us."
For Aldridge, the sheer size and breadth of capability that Wunderman Thompson now offers is an ideal foil to the challenges the industry faces, whether it is more commoditised creative services or losing talent to tech giants and consultancies.
He believes the new agency genuinely can offer both brand creation and digital acceleration. "The insight tools are most interesting, they give us the platform to really drive a different type of creative product across the board. That is the thing that will set us apart," he says.
While size and capability may mean Wunderman Thompson is impossible to ignore for the time being, it will, of course, be the quality of work that will determine whether this fledgling giant will remain memorable.
Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
Sarah Douglas is mad about creativity – it’s the principal thing the Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO chief executive wants people to know about her. In fact, she mentions it several times during her interview with Campaign, which takes place at her insistence alongside her creative sidekick, executive creative director Alex Grieve.
"I’ve always been hugely driven by creativity," Douglas says. "That’s what got me into this business and this agency."
But her assessment of the industry’s current output isn’t swimming in enthusiasm. "I’d like the industry to grow some creative nuts to be honest," she adds. "I’m just a bit bored of having my favourite TV show or my favourite read interrupted by vanilla, bland toilet paper."
Fortunately for Douglas, who succeeded Dame Cilla Snowball at the helm of the agency in January, AMV BBDO seems to have its fair share of cojones at the moment – enough to help it bring in three Grands Prix at Cannes last summer, including for Bodyform’s "Blood normal", which is clearly the pride and joy of both Douglas and Grieve.
However, there was a hiccup last December when Grieve’s former creative partner Adrian Rossi, with whom he had worked for 20 years and built AMV BBDO’s creative reputation, jumped ship to Grey London.
While Grieve admits the news came as a shock, he suggests that it has been serendipitous. "Fortuitously, it has allowed Sarah and me to work much more effectively together," he says. "It would have worked with Adrian, but it would have been a different dynamic."
Both stress the highly collaborative nature of their working relationship, a factor Douglas says has made the job "more fun than I expected".
Grieve adds: "When I was working with Adrian – I was working for [former chief executive] Ian Pearman, and though it was slightly different with Cilla, she was still definitely the boss: there was a CEO at the very top and we were just below. The difference now is I’m working with Sarah, and you have both of us committed to creativity being the best way."
It’s clearly a relationship built on a deep mutual respect. Douglas describes Grieve as a "phenomenally gifted creative thinker" and a "tremendously good practitioner", who always knows how to "push good to great".
In return, Grieve notes: "What Sarah’s done immediately is create a whole new focus around the agency we all want to get behind and follow. She’s smart, kind, creatively driven, but she’s also tough and gets shit done."
Grieve is in the process of rejigging the structure of the creative department, with five or six creative directors set to be promoted to a new leadership group. It’s part of his response to what he describes as a "Darwinian" environment in which the nature of what clients need is changing rapidly and brilliant creativity is essential for agency survival.
One of Douglas’ objectives is to accelerate change in how the agency delivers creative solutions for clients. "We haven’t evolved as rapidly as we might," she admits. However, she insists that the agency has "started to address that". The approach she wants to adopt is to create "different gears", so the agency can vary its pace, level of resources and the way it collaborates with clients as a particular brief demands.
Ultimately, Douglas wants to shift the nature of the business. "I want the agency to become a creative tour de force, and us to move out of just being an advertising agency, even a comms agency, and become a creative company," she says.
In part, this means offering clients creative solutions that look less and less like ad campaigns. But it is also about supporting the personal projects of staff, and to do this the agency is currently developing a scheme to support investment in team members’ "side hustles".
Neither Douglas nor Grieve is a natural selfpromoter – certainly compared with some of the industry’s egos. However, Grieve says: "Just because I am quite quiet doesn’t mean I’m not passionate about the work and hugely ambitious to push AMV to the next level."
"We’re not chasing our own story," Douglas says. "We’re chasing a story for the agency."
While several UK agency bosses have had short tenures in recent years, Douglas says she’s "planning to be in this job for a while".
"The interesting thing that agency brands, particularly big agency brands, need right now is commitment," she says. "The environment in which we are operating is changing, and yet the core of what we need to deliver for clients is enduring, and we need a stability in the leadership team to take us forward. AMV has always been the leading light of the British ad industry and we want it to continue to flourish."
'Just because I am quite quiet doesn't mean I'm not passionate about the work and hugely ambitious to push AMV to the next level'
— Alex Grieve, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
After all the noise came the silence. When Grey London’s trio of leaders (Nils Leonard, Lucy Jameson and Natalie Graeme) left en masse in 2016, its momentum initially carried it through. The agency produced some nice creative work and retained clients.
But last year it found itself treading water. The never-realised threat of a possible merger with AKQA was hanging over its head, it had won no significant new business and, by summer’s end, there was a management vacuum as chief executive Leo Rayman moved to a new role.
Then came a big surprise. In December it was announced that Adrian Rossi, the respected joint creative chief at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, was moving into the new role of creative chairman. Soon after, he was joined by Anna Panczyk as chief executive.
While relatively unknown in the UK, Panczyk is a key player on the Polish ad scene, where she had been chief executive of Grey Poland since 2015.
Rossi’s appointment in particular was a sign of intent to the wider industry – WPP was positioning Grey London as its creative hotshop.
So what will this pair do to breathe new life into Grey London? Rossi and Panczyk are coy on the specifics, but say they want to build a different shape of agency and insist no department will be untouched by the changes.
"As an industry, we live in an ad bubble and we’ve got a chance here to step outside of that. Anna and I are not benchmarking ourselves against other agencies – many of their structures and processes have been in place for decades and they can’t change that much," Rossi says. Instead, the pair is seeking inspiration from the top creative companies in the world. Rossi sees Grey London as a "start-up with clients".
Panczyk adds: "All our changes are going to be around people and how they work. People are everything. Without them there are no ideas or clients. That also means creating a culture that isn’t about working all night, weekends or being stuck to desks. People need to be given the freedom of self-expression. We are hiring and encouraging ‘odd-shaped people’ as that is where we will get unexpected answers."
This doesn’t mean making everyone a creative. During Rossi’s interview for the job, Grey’s global chief executive Michael Houston said he wanted 75% of the staff to be creative. Rossi responded that if that happened, the agency would shut its doors within six months. "He must have thought I was an idiot," Rossi says. "A creative saying he didn’t want 75% of the agency to be creatives? But creatives should be free-spirited and concentrate on amazing ideas. I don’t want them to get bogged down in some of the hard yards you have to do."
He also believes the industry needs to regain its confidence: "There’s a real sense of fear. The industry has changed forever, but I see that as a good thing. Ad agencies have double-digit profit margins. We are still an extremely brilliant industry to be in. There’s more competition, but Muhammad Ali wouldn’t have been the greatest of all time if he didn’t fight the best out there."
The pair claim the opportunity to run Grey London is the only one that would have lured them from their previous roles. "It’s a unique opportunity. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t have left a bunch of amazing people behind in Grey Poland and moved my family to another country," Panczyk says. She adds that a six-and-a-half-hour lunch with Rossi that caused her to miss a flight back to Warsaw also made her sure it was the right move.
Rossi is equally enthused. "Both of us have made risky moves, but we’ve done it because we think this place could be pretty incredible."
So how will the pair ensure they are still in place in two years’ time? "Private investigators," Rossi quips. "We have incriminating photos and none of you are untouched."
On a more serious note, he adds: "It’s dangerous to think too far ahead. That’s why we have an ambition of where to go, but having a vision of where you want to be is fool’s good. The world moves too quickly for that."
As for how Panczyk is settling in to her new home, she has just one concern: "I need to find somewhere to keep my horse from Poland. Adrian is being particularly unhelpful, as he won’t let me use his back garden. This could be our first fight."
'I need somewhere to keep my horse from Poland. Adrian is being particularly unhelpful, as he won't let me use his back garden. This could be our first fight'
— Anna Panczyk, Grey London
Leo Burnett London
Ahead of his first day as chief executive of Leo Burnett and Fallon London, Charlie Rudd met his new chief creative officer Chaka Sobhani and chief strategy officer Josh Bullmore in Gino’s at Euston Station. But they had not chosen the spot to get acquainted, away from the hustle of the agencies. The trio was about to head to Chester to pitch for Iceland’s advertising account.
Bullmore had kindly suggested to Iceland’s management team that Rudd come along for the presentation, without checking with him first. A bold move they all laugh about now because they went on to win the pitch. It was a good omen for their nascent working relationship, and a confidence boost for an agency that has underperformed in recent years.
"Actually it was a brilliant thing," Rudd explains. "Because I was able to see Josh and Chaka present, it was almost like I was in the audience. I felt very proud. It was a weird way to start at an agency but actually in some respects it was a very good window into the agency. It’s almost like operating as a new client."
As they reminisce about that day, Sobhani, who joined Leo Burnett in 2016, and Bullmore, who has been at the agency since 2009, finish each other’s sentences. "It was really natural," Sobhani says. "It was, it was," Bullmore interjects. "And these are all the things that make you feel good about the future and stuff. It was the first meeting for goodness’ sake," Sobhani says.
Rudd left Ogilvy in July last year after the WPP agency integrated its different disciplines – including the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather London he ran as chief executive – into one operation. During his near eight months out of the industry, Rudd says he decided the most important part of any role is working with people you want to. When his former boss Annette King, now chief executive of Leo Burnett and Fallon’s owner Publicis Groupe UK, called, he already knew the answer.
"It’s so obvious," he explains. "You worry about how the agencies are doing or what the accounts are but actually the thing that’s more important than anything else is the quality of people you’re working with."
At Ogilvy, Rudd was handed the remit of building a gang. The one he put together won business from Vodafone, Boots and British Airways. At Leo Burnett and Fallon, Rudd says his job is about getting the best out of its existing people – and management.
"Arguably, it wasn’t as strong a team as the individual parts would suggest before," Rudd explains. "What I learned while I was at BBH was the way you actually lead agencies isn’t through a chief executive. You lead it through a really effective team. It almost sounds so trite, but the main responsibility the CEO has is making the team work, not to be a figurehead."
Rudd, Sobhani and Bullmore have moved to sit together in the office. Rudd says that’s not just so he can eavesdrop on their "fascinating" conversations but to make a statement: "We’re not three discipline heads at the top of the agency. We’re the team running the agency."
Sobhani agrees that the most important thing is having a connected leadership that develops a vision for the agency. They are currently "taking the time to figure it out", she says, spending time together and thinking things through. After the trip to Chester one of the first things they did was go out for an afternoon together.
"What came out of that was that we cared about the same things fundamentally," Bullmore says. "We care about the work first and foremost and then people. And caring about the same things means everything else becomes quite simple."
The task may not be quite as straightforward as Bullmore suggests. The propositions of the two aligned agencies need to be more clearly defined and staff morale is said to be low. But, in less than two months, Rudd has developed genuine chemistry with Sobhani and Bullmore and picked up a decent account. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a brighter chapter for two venerable agency brands.