SBHD: Sprung from a below-the-line background, John Farrell, DMB&B’s new supremo, feels agencies have a lot to learn. In this, he mirrors the new wave of US pragmatism.
John Farrell is not shy about his own undoubted talent. He knows, as a salesman, there’s no point hiding his light under a bushel. He gives it the full son et lumiere treatment, describing himself on his CV as a “business leader with strategic vision”, “highly creative thinker”, “excellent orator,” and “outstanding rounded commercial marketer.”
Despite these gifts, Farrell has had to spend the last ten years forcing the world of advertising to believe him. This is because Farrell doesn’t work at an above-the-line agency, nor has he ever. Farrell is below the line. Not only does he run IMP, the largest sales promotion and direct marketing company in the UK, but he has made it one of the most highly profitable parts of D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles’ European empire at a time when multinational clients are reining back their above-the-line budgets. And he is obviously tired of being regarded as part of the grubby lower order of the communications business.
Farrell appears to have taken in his stride this month’s leak that the group’s US masters had promoted him over the heads of Graham Hinton and Tony Douglas to become group chairman of D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles. “With the emphasis on the group”, says Farrell, tersely.
What has shocked so many bystanders in the agency world is that Farrell at 37, without any experience of working in advertising, should split up such a formidable team. “It jolted a lot of people,” says one DMB&B insider. “I think there’d been a perennial rumour that New York or Europe would come in and try to change things, but this seems to belong to a new agenda.”
Farrell has not hung around on his way to the top. By the time he left Nottingham Business School with a 2:1 in business studies he was ready to cut his teeth and, after flirting with a couple of what he calls “entrepreneurial ventures”, he joined IMP as an account executive in 1980. Apart from a brief interlude as a founder director of FKB in 1984, he has been there ever since.
He built a reputation as an inspired client-handler, with the knack of motivating the people around him and giving the clients the service they wanted, whatever form that might take.
“He’s a complete workaholic. He’ll go out every day in December with clients and drink until 5am,” says one former colleague. For any problems with-in the agency, where he became managing director at 28, the same therapy applies.
Farrell was the picture of the Eighties businessman. He worked very hard, drove flashy cars – Porsche gave way to Mercedes as he climbed the career path – enjoyed a drink, and still managed to be popular with most of his colleagues. In fact, he “got up to the kind of things that single men who fancy themselves do,” says one of them.
His clients interlace compliments about his professional virtuosity with boisterous asides. “He’s a party animal. Farrell must have shares in the Grapes in Shepherd’s Market and the Dover Street Wine Bar,” says one Mercury One-2-One sales and marketing director Steve Dunn.
The Farrell charm works well enough. But he’s no pussycat with colleagues, even at the wine bar.
“I classify my management style as open, rather than friendly. I’m not afraid to have difficult conversations with people when necessary,” he says. This is delivered with the kind of steely glare that you expect from someone auditioning for a Bond villain, a look which must bring a lump to a few throats in St James’s Square.
Gone is the mateyness described by his colleagues, though he plans to continue his habit of sauntering around the offices of all the operations under his control. Farrell must be in-volved; and just the sight of his willowy figure and Teutonic glasses is often enough to convey the message. He clearly believes that any advertising agency would profit from the sometimes sterner logic of sales promotion. “I like to think there are values inherent in IMP’s business: on time, on budget, great work – qualities that make money for our clients and work throughout the group,” he says.
These priorities, in that order, reflect prevailing ideas from the US, where the DMB&B succession was worked out. The most influential figure in the decision was chairman of DMB&B executive committee George Simko, a long-time supporter, who has evidently been grooming the IMP president for some time. Simko’s task-force of key London executives has been reviewing the group’s UK strategy for more than a year to bring it into line with worldwide policy.
An example of what Simko has in mind – and what did no harm in propelling Farrell to the top – was the recent Burger King triumph by DMB&B. It will not have escaped notice that much of Burger King’s budget is below the line. Here Farrell has been working assiduously, if not quietly, behind the scenes on the Transatlantic client. The result was a handsome above-the-line bonus a couple of weeks ago. A&P Lintas, which holds most of the Burger King account in the US, should watch out.
“Creativity is at the centre of our business, but it is not an end in itself,” says Simko. “The question is: how do we move boxes off the shelf?” In the US, this new-wave pragmatism exists in inverse proportion to the “advertising as art” school. And for some time now – as is clear from the US reaction to Maurice Saatchi’s recent behaviour – the salesman has been king. Just as it should be, says Farrell.
Farrell’s brief is, wherever possible, to weave the strengths of DMB&B’s operations into a seamless client service, “without media bias”. He is excited rather than nervous about the prospect, though it may raise a lot of agency hackles. “The job he’s got is more difficult than reunifying the Labour Party and the Lib-Dems,” says former IMP chief executive Chris Satterthwaite. Maybe. But Satterthwaite, more than most, should appreciate Farrell’s ability to deal with the situation. It was he who led the defection of six top IMP directors to the more integration-friendly HHCL & Partners last year. Farrell’s handling of the situation, while still bringing in a record profit for IMP, cannot have gone down badly with Simko.
Farrell will undoubtedly face a certain amount of prejudice from the above-the-line establishment, which tends to resent the more plebeian disciplines getting “above themselves”. “A slight man, jolly but inconsequential,” was the way one agency grandee described him. But Farrell is not someone to let himself be ignored.
Farrell’s is a mentality that has been slow to penetrate London agencies – but like it or not, to many people it looks horribly like the future.