WPP's creative principal

John O'Keefe
John O'Keefe

John O'Keeffe has elevated WPP to Holding Company of the Year in Cannes in just three years as its creative chief. Claire Beale discovers how.

It's said that when WPP was revealed as the inaugural Holding Company of the Year in Cannes this summer, Omnicom's John Wren made straight for his private plane to high tail it out of the South of France in a cloud of disgust.

It may be a mischievously dramatised version of events, but there's no doubting that the new Holding Company award at the Festival of Creativity was highly coveted and fiercely contested. And personal. The chance to be anointed the most creative company on the world's biggest and most prestigious awards stage brought the bitter rivalry between advertising's most successful and most competitive companies to a feverish head.

This was not just a battle between agencies and networks for a Lion's bust. It was a battle between the men who control the world's most powerful communications conglomerates. In the end, it was a battle between Sir Martin Sorrell and John Wren. Sorrell won.

For Sorrell the victory was particularly toothsome. "I'm thrilled and delighted," he says. Omnicom has always been known as the most creative holding company; WPP's reputation has been as the more financially geared, controlling business. Where WPP has made the shrewder acquisitions, built arguably the more powerful media, data and digital capabilities, Omnicom has consistently scored the dazzling creative goals, with its DDB and BBDO networks comfortably dominating at Cannes and in The Gunn Report over the years. Omnicom has had the magic.

Increasingly, WPP insiders say, that has smarted. Once WPP was confirmed as the world's largest holding company earlier this year, its new goal was clear: creativity.

In truth, WPP has had Cannes on its agenda for several years, certainly since the surprise hiring of John O'Keeffe, the former creative chief at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, as WPP's worldwide creative director three years ago.

Winning at Cannes became, clearly and calculatedly, a priority for O'Keeffe. "It's the world championship," he explains.

First, he looked at how much the company spent on entering advertising awards around the world: "Frankly, who cares about an awful lot of them. There are so many. I'm not interested in most of them. They cost a fortune and they're stupid. So, I reckoned, if I could convince agencies to stop entering so many awards shows, at the end of my first year I could turn round to Martin and say: 'Whatever you think I haven't done, I've just saved you £30 million.'" With awards distractions removed, energies could better be trained on the main prize in the South of France.

Sorrell puts it like this: "The raw talent, ability and work was there, but it was unsung. John has focused everybody and pushed everyone. And there's a little bit of technique to winning awards - John has given the networks the confidence to push forward and present work properly."

Still, there's no getting away from the thought that, as the world's biggest communications group, WPP surely has a better chance of winning Cannes' Holding Company of the Year award than its rivals. The award is calculated on the number of points each company accumulated from the individual awards categories, from 12 points for winning a Titanium or Creative Effectiveness Grand Prix down to one point for a shortlisted position. The more agencies you have entering as many categories as possible, the more likely you are to score the most points. Aren't you?

It's a question O'Keeffe brings up before he can be ambushed by it, although he does sound like he's memorised a briefing note: "Per dollar of revenue, we were more efficient points scorers than either Omnicom or Publicis. It's an important point to make, because if you were to carve it that way, Publicis would go ahead of Omnicom but we would stay in front."

He tries to explain himself more clearly: "Revenue billing, per dollar of revenue, it's cost us less to win the points than it's cost Omnicom." Hmmm. More emphatically: "We didn't in any sense go 'blunderbuss', enter everything including our time sheets, hope for the best and wing it. We did it the proper way." To illustrate doing it "the proper way", O'Keeffe points to JWT Shanghai's Print Grand Prix triumph.

Such prizes are, he says, happy accidents, but there's hard evidence now that the creative approach is also the most effective approach for brands: "We are trying to give our clients the unfair advantage of the big, creative idea."

How much influence, though, does O'Keeffe actually have on the production of those big creative ideas? Is his contribution to the Cannes triumph merely one of focusing WPP's collective minds and budgets? Or has he had a positive role to play on the creative product itself?

"I don't have any executive authority. I have to rely - don't laugh - on my skills as a diplomat. I want to be on good terms with people, and WPP's big enough that if someone asks me to get my tanks off their lawn, fair enough, there are lots of other things I can do," he says. "At any given moment someone, somewhere will have a big pitch coming up and I can jump in at the drop of a hat. Sometimes people e-mail me because they're struggling to see the wood from the trees. I'll give them my view, which sometimes they agree with, and at other times they'll say: 'What the hell are you talking about?'"

He has also become the creatives' voice within WPP HQ, their ally on the inside, though he says that much of that part of his job is simply about improving communications: "There is sometimes a lack of communication that breeds in creatives a kind of 'ooh, they're going to pull one over on us here'.

I can help stop that. I can say to the finance guys here 'Look, you're causing waves of frustration among our creatives', and they're equally surprised to hear that. So I can be a bridge between them and influence better understanding."

It's this pragmatism - and lack of precious ego - that is one of O'Keeffe's greatest strengths in his role, and perhaps explains why he seems to have adapted to it much better than friends and observers originally expected.

Three years ago, the WPP creative post was a job many felt O'Keeffe was particularly unsuited for - a highly political role without real responsibility, requiring diplomacy and a thick skin more than creative muscle. O'Keeffe's appointment was perplexing, not least because, for a role that seemed tailored for someone towards the end of their career, O'Keeffe was still a hot creative property.

At the time, observers assumed it was the size of Sorrell's purse that had proved irresistible. O'Keeffe had been with BBH for 18 years, and though the agency had slipped from its creative heights, it still danced to a creative beat. Why else but money would he give that up for a corporate life at WPP?

The WPP job itself appeared to be intangible, hard to define and tokenistic. It was this vagueness that worried O'Keeffe too. Until he realised it was a licence to bake the role his way. "Martin's pitch-winning line when he was trying to get me into WPP was 'make it up as you go along'."

And O'Keeffe was perfectly clear on one thing - his version of making it up was going to be nothing like that of his predecessors: "There was this attitude where the people who'd done well at a particular awards show would be taken on a safari or something. I won't be doing that. I don't think spotting a leopard in the brush will help someone when it comes to a mobile phone pitch. I'm not like that. I want to come to work, do the best job that I can and then go home to my kids. I don't want to go on safari."

It's a throwaway comment, but a telling one. O'Keeffe has never been comfortable in the creative spotlight. He's not a natural, confident charmer. His brusque dryness and a certain awkwardness are perhaps armour for shyness. Whatever, this simply enhances his credibility in a role that could so easily be a passport to a jet-set lifestyle without real accountability.

He says that a few days after he joined WPP, he was unexpectedly called upon to outline his creative vision before a strategy meeting in New York. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch were also speakers at the select gathering and, without warning, Sorrell called O'Keeffe to the stage to explain himself: "I looked at Martin and thought: 'You expletive deleted.' But as I got to my feet, this phrase suddenly tripped off my tongue: 'The coalition of the winning.' That was what I wanted to try to achieve among us."

O'Keeffe was cute enough to know that such hyperbole might play well to the boardroom gallery but, lower down the ranks, "the drip, drip, drip over the years of 'WPP is the business-ey company and Omnicom is the groovy one' starts to play on people. They start to believe it. I identified Cannes as the way to change that view."

So has it? Has winning the first Holding Company of the Year award forced staff and the industry at large to reappraise WPP's reputation? Not really. Not yet. Not reappraise WPP itself. But Ogilvy scored as the second-most-awarded network at the festival this year, sandwiched between BBDO and DDB. Grey's global creative chief, Tim Mellors, adds that O'Keeffe "helped Grey get into the picture at ninth in the world. Before John, we couldn't have hoped for 18 or 20 Lions."

For the creatives toiling at WPP agencies, the accolade might give them licence to take a few more risks. And it certainly ought to boost their status within the hierarchy of what is important to WPP agencies.

And for less keen observers, including many of the blue-chip brands dipping their toes into Cannes' warm waters over the past year or two, the Holding Company prize will only enhance WPP's reputation. As Sorrell says: "Either consciously or unconsciously, these sorts of awards resonate with clients and some genuinely think they are important markers."

Typically, O'Keeffe, sitting in his corporately bland office at WPP's Farm Street HQ, has already shrugged off his Cannes glow. "It was a moment in time," he admits. "2012 starts now."


Samsonite 'Heaven and Hell' JWT Shanghai.

Cannes Print Grand Prix. Enough said.

The Topsy Foundation 'Selinah'

Brilliant Aids charity film from Ogilvy Johannesburg showing retroviral drugs taking Selinah from the point of death to full health. Just voted the best in the world at "Ads Worth Spreading" by our friends at TED.

Etrade 'baby' Grey New York.

No-one does hardworking, dialoguedriven, funny ads better than New York, and no-one does them better than these. A Super Bowl favourite. YouTube any of them.

Unilever 'SmithWinterMitchell'

Mindshare Entertainment blurs the lines between the show and the ad, and between the creative and the media agency in six spots for iconic Unilever brands. The ads - featuring the famous 60s agency SmithWinterMitchell - ran during Mad Men. A funny, well-observed and smart way to prevent the fast-forward-through-the-break problem.

Harvey Nichols 'accessories required'

Nice, gold-winning print campaign from Y&R Dubai, now the most awarded Middle East agency in Cannes history.


6.30am: Wake up to sound of kids (five and seven) running about. I quickly realise I'm back in sunny London post-Cannes. Went well for all-points-WPP, but 2012 starts today.

6.35am: Switch on BlackBerry. Everything from here on is about doing whatever's in the diary, plus responding via BB to any-and-all requests, issues etc from wherever in the world, insofar as I can. Who knows what the day holds in store?

6.45am: Skim global update e-mails from WPP's redoubtable array of media watchers, plus various reminders of where to be at what time (many of which overlap because of my annoying habit of trying to manage my own diary on BB, while my assistant does a slightly more professional job from Farm Street). Of particular interest are two invitations: one to address the Kuwaiti Chamber of Commerce atop some impossibly tall building in Kuwait City; the other to stand in for Sir M at the Council for Industry and Higher Education and talk about what is required of 21st century graduates - actually something I have strong views on. Nonetheless, better mug up.

9am: The day job - or, at least, today's day job begins: go to Team Vodafone for strategy conference. Try to get back to Farm Street for midday to call Khai in New York to congratulate him on the appointment of Graham Fink for the China role - a genuine creative superstar, in my opinion. Well-done, Khai. Plus, call my old mate Yang, now the chief creative officer of JWT Shanghai, to doff a cap to his Cannes Press Grand Prix. Fantastic news for all of us, well deserved, but also an inflection point for WPP in China, and China's emergence on to the world advertising stage. Stand back and watch them go now ...

1pm: I'm not a big luncher, so if I can buy an hour, I often go for a walk in Hyde Park. But today it's a walk across the park to JWT to meet old mate and ECD Russell Ramsey for a bite and catch-up. I also have dinner tonight with loads of different agency people from across Europe: appalling weight gain only assuaged by stress of Arsene Wenger's continued reluctance to spend over a tenner on anyone.

2.30pm: Walk back, pass by gym (definitely going to go in one day). There's a pitch in India for a huge piece of business (that I won't jinx by naming) that I am keen to help with, so I spend a couple of hours trying to do what I still consider my core function: have an idea, write a line, prove a point - all disciplines drummed into the 20-year-old by Messrs Dicketts, Mellors and Lowther all those years ago.

6pm: Head off to check into the hotel before dinner with 60 or so colleagues. It was quite good fun as it turned out. But I didn't forget to call the kids to hear the day's news and say goodnight.

Midnight: Switch off BB. I bet Martin hasn't switched his off! Night night.

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