Simons’ simple errors at Ogilvy

It is tempting, as a casual insight, to see a parallel between the recent shenanigans at the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions and the fiasco at Ogilvy Group, which has just culminated in the sacking of group chief executive Paul Simons. Both, after all, pivot on the brutal rejection of a foreign graft.

In Ogilvy’s case, the graft was Simons himself. Signed up three years ago amid much industry fanfare, he was the man whose charismatic charm was to lend new lustre to the UK agency’s fading reputation. Ogilvy had long been a solid top-ten performer, with a cohesive collegiate culture. It was strong on big client relationships but weak on perceived creative delivery and disadvantaged by its isolated situation at Canary Wharf. Lately, it had been plagued by a management succession crisis, caused by the promotion of UK chairman Mike Walsh to European duties and an inability to find an effective local substitute. This, as much as anything, contributed to the loss of the prestigious Guinness account and a huge chunk of Ford business, which went to Y&R instead – sure signs that Ogilvy was in crisis.

Enter Simons as the deus ex machina. He had many things going for him: prime among them, perhaps, considerable industry gravitas, entrepreneurial drive – exemplified in the successful creative agency he had co-founded – and a reputed way with new business which could provide the ‘shop window’ accounts Ogilvy so badly needed to give it more creative sparkle.

Critics of the appointment (and there were a few) pointed to Simons’ ‘maverick’ ways. How would this small-enterprise man fit into big, bureaucratic network, let alone drive it? Was he too egocentric? Would his business strategy eventually prove to be a grandiose house built upon sand?

Though Simons confounded them at first, the critics’ reservations have proved correct. The mismanagement of the agency is amply chronicled in its recent business record and its fall from grace in the last Marketing Week Agency Reputations Survey (it finished eighth overall, a fall of four places). If there were any doubt about the depth of internal resentment over Simons’ legacy, it can soon be allayed by reference to an ‘all staff’ memo, signed by Walsh, which must be one of the bluntest condemnations of a former senior colleague (and friend) on record. In it, Simons is lambasted for damaging the Ogilvy brand through neglect, poor performance and wilful disregard of advice.

Ultimately, the suddenness and ferocity of Simons’ eviction can be attributed to a number of circumstances peculiar to Ogilvy. Losing the RSA pitch to CCHM, for instance, was probably the last straw (un-Lucky for some). But we should beware of making Simons a scapegoat. In a way he, too, is a victim. In recent weeks, the agency business has become increasingly brutal in punishing failure. First we had a cull of business development directors (a bit like kicking the dog), now the blame has moved upstairs to chief executives such as Simons and Burnett’s Stephen Whyte. The question has to be: who is next?

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