With friends like Ben

By abandoning his partners at Ben Mark Orlando to take the job he persuaded one of them to leave, Ben Langdon has set a new standard of industry ruthlessness. Here, the incoming UK chairman of Euro RSCG Worldwide tells Lucy Barrett why he walk

Ben Langdon, former chief of McCann-Erickson and a man with a reputation for being a “tyrant and a bully”, is wrestling with a guilty conscience. He has walked out on Ben Mark Orlando, the agency he started up two months ago, to join Euro RSCG Worldwide UK as chairman and chief executive (MW last week).

But there is a Machiavellian twist to this tale. Langdon is filling the position at the Havas-owned agency previously occupied by Mark Wnek, the man he persuaded to leave Euro RSCG and join him in founding Ben Mark Orlando. Langdon will be Euro RSCG’s chairman, overseeing 12 agencies, including Euro RSCG London.

Understandably, convincing Langdon to give an interview has been difficult. He agrees, then backs out, several times over a few days. It seems his new US management, his headhunter and even his wife have tried to deter him from giving interviews, concerned that the publicity will only add to the already widely voiced criticism of his recent actions.

When he finally agrees to meet, in the bustling, noisy bar at the Charlotte Street Hotel, things do not start well. Langdon is jumpy, squirming in his seat and throwing his hands around his head in an alarming manner. He does not relax until the subject has moved away from his recent departure from Ben Mark Orlando.

Langdon keeps repeating that Wnek is one of the most talented creatives in the industry and he is keen for me to print his comments. His support of Wnek is most likely wasted: those close to events say that Langdon must know Wnek will never forgive him. “It was the most grotesque thing I have ever heard,” says Wnek on Langdon’s decision to back out of their partnership and take Wnek’s old job.

Both Wnek and Langdon say they realised early on that the launch of Ben Mark Orlando was a mistake. “I had taken on board Langdon’s awful reputation in the belief that it would be made up for by his effectiveness,” says Wnek. “Instead, I found him ineffective operationally and obsessed by revenue. Langdon found it hard to operate without armies of people supporting him.”

Langdon says he deserted his partners, Wnek and Orlando Hooper-Greenhill, because he is not an “entrepreneur” and has a strong desire to return to the order of a large agency. Langdon is known to have spoken to Publicis in the past few weeks about senior roles for both himself and Wnek, a move Wnek says he objected to.

The son of Punch cartoonist David, Langdon was educated at a Buckinghamshire grammar school. After reading modern history at Oxford, he joined Allen Brady Marsh. By the age of 29, he was chief executive of CDP and four years later, in 1996, he joined McCann as chief executive, being promoted in 2002 to regional director of McCann-Erickson Europe, Middle East and Africa.

During his time at the agency, he dragged it up the agency billings league from 14th to second. He is well thought of by advertisers, and under his leadership McCann came out top in Marketing Week‘s Agency Reputations Survey last year. Following his departure, the agency fell to third place in this year’s survey (MW last week).

The financial rewards and security afforded by a job with a large global group would be reason enough for many to return to the mainstream from a start-up.

And, according to Wnek, Langdon found life hard at Ben Mark Orlando: “Not a day would pass without him complaining about no longer having a chauffeur, or about having to sell his Aston Martin.”

Langdon admits his industry can be very well-paid, but he says he works hard for his money. “People who work in advertising expect to be well-paid, but they should give more to earn that money,” he says.

He claims that, at McCann – which unceremoniously fired him last year (MW June 26, 2003) – his day in the office started at 7am and that he was available for work-related phone calls until after 10pm. Although his former colleagues admit that Langdon works very hard, they also say the number of hours he spent in the office diminished greatly over time.

Euro RSCG London has a rather different culture to the US corporate machine that is McCann. The agency’s billings for 2003 were &£238m, on the back of 41 accounts (Nielsen). By comparison, McCann billed &£303m in the UK, spread over 330 accounts. Euro RSCG has just merged with Partners BDDH and its management structure looks top-heavy. Langdon acknowledges this, but claims to have no plans to cut back on the line-up, although he lets slip that the management “needs to know what it is selling”.

Langdon was appointed by his former boss, Jim Heekin, who joined Euro RSCG Worldwide as chairman and chief executive last year after being ousted from the same role at McCann. Those who have worked with both acknowledge they operate well together.

Langdon’s last year or so at McCann was overshadowed by an investigation by the US Securities and Exchange Commission into accounting irregularities. McCann Europe had apparently been treating internal invoices between offices as income, rather than as straightforward transfers. Langdon says the errors were nothing to do with him, and stemmed from before his appointment as European chief. No action has ever been taken against Langdon.

While at McCann, Langdon claims to have doubled the turnover of the London agency in six years. He believes he can do the same at Euro RSCG London in a five years, but adds: “This is a different job to McCann: this company isn’t broken.”

For those awaiting Langdon’s arrival at Euro RSCG, this is a worrying time. Dubbed “Bin Laden” at McCann, Langdon has long had a reputation for a filthy temper and foul language. His new agency’s senior management will no doubt be wondering whether they will be able to work with him.

But according to a former colleague, “‘Big bad Ben’ is something of a myth. Is he very demanding? Well, yes. If you don’t know what you are talking about, will he spot it? Yes. But is he one of the best I have ever seen at servicing clients? Without a doubt.” He admits, however, that Langdon is guilty of making rash decisions without thinking things through

Johnny Hornby, founding partner of Clemmow Hornby Inge, who worked with Langdon at CDP, also jumps to his defence: “A lot of what Ben has done has been blown out of all proportion. He is very bright and very charming. The nasty ogre image is not correct.”

Langdon has many plans for Euro RSCG London. “The basic building blocks are there,” he says, “but we need four signature campaigns, and four or five regional or global new business wins.”

At the end of our meeting, Langdon puts down his third beer, leans forward and says: “I will do whatever is necessary to make this work.” I believe him, but in the light of his treatment of Wnek, you have to feel a little nervous about those who might unwittingly get in his way.

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