Heekin’s talent means the mud doesn’t stick

It’s a charmed life that Jim Heekin, lately chairman and chief executive of Euro RSCG Worldwide, appears to lead. No sooner has he vacated his hotspot at Havas, than another senior position seems to beckon, namely an invitation to become head of Grey Worldwide (as opposed to Grey Global), in succession to Ed Meyer.

It might be pointed out that the game of agency executive chairs is less a matter of serendipity than skill and numbers. The actual pool of talent is precariously small. Look, for instance, at the curious brouhaha at Havas, which speeded Heekin’s departure. The failure to secure TBWA network chief Jean-Marie Dru as what seemed the dream-ticket successor to Havas’ Alain de Pouzilhac has led to a clumsy and somewhat unsatisfactory successor regime. At its head, the relatively unknown Philippe Wahl, whose principal recommendation seems to be that he is a close associate of the main Havas shareholder, Vincent Bolloré; and then at the network level to replace Heekin, a potentially unstable four-member team. Surely a pis aller?

But all this isn’t to deny Heekin has a talent for landing on his feet. He had, for instance, completed only four months at Euro RSCG as president and chief operating officer when his boss, Bob Schmetterer, unexpectedly relinquished the top post to him. A stroke of luck all the more extraordinary when contrasted with Heekin’s previous escapade as chairman and chief executive of McCann Erickson Worldwide, which he left under a cloud.

No one has satisfactorily established Heekin’s role (if any) in the accountancy scandal that continues to rock McCann’s parent, Interpublic, though as titular head of the delinquent subsidiary he must surely assume some of the collective responsibility. What can be safely surmised, however, is that his exit from IPG looks retrospectively timely. The problems of 2003 continue to haunt his IPG successors. In fact they have just got worse, with the resignation of key IPG executive Bruce Nelson (MW July 21).

Nelson’s significance is that he personally runs, through the Flag subsidiary, the Bank of America account. Not only is BofA one of IPG’s single most important revenue streams, accounting for about one per cent, or $65m (&£37m) in revenue ($600m [&£341m] spend) a year, it is also highly symbolic. It is a flagship example of a holding company building a subsidiary and key personnel around all the marketing services requirements of a particular client. IPG persists in denying Nelson’s exit, admitting only to ‘contractual problems’ (there may well be). But the fact is that BofA has now invited WPP Group and Omnicom to pitch against IPG less than two months after BofA renewed its IPG contract. What created this volte-face? Nelson’s expected departure? Or did Nelson decide to leave because he knew a review was inevitable? In other words, has BofA – which continues to profess confidence in the Flag model of account handling – more general doubts about the health of IPG? Impossible to say at this stage. This much seems certain, though: IPG must retain BofA if it is to dispel the growing suspicion that the continuing Securities and Exchange Commission investigation, not to mention the group’s chronically poor financial performance, is beginning to infect client opinion.

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