TBWALondon picks chief executive but fails to silence doubters

After nine months of speculation about the vacant chief executive’s chair at TBWALondon, the post has been filled by Matt Shepherd-Smith, who has been promoted from managing director.

Also promoted is Neil Dawson, former executive planning director, who becomes chairman at the Omnicom Group-owned agency. Both fill positions left vacant when former chief executive Andrew McGuinness and chairman Trevor Beattie walked out with Bill Bungay to form their own eponymous agency.

While TBWAEurope president Paul Bainsfair may have hoped that last week’s appointments would halt the rumour mill, industry insiders have been quick to question the decision. They say that in waiting nine months only to make internal appointments, Bainsfair effectively undermined Shepherd-Smith from the beginning.

Bainsfair has called Shepherd-Smith and Dawson “enormously talented business leaders, among the most outstanding industry executives”. He also praised the “phenomenal job” they had done “keeping the agency on track during a period of change”. He has consistently denied looking outside the agency for chief executive candidates, but there is no other explanation for the delay, says one former Omnicom executive.

“He [Shepherd-Smith] isn’t the ideal candidate in Bainsfair’s eyes, otherwise he would have been promoted there and then.”

The source says that 2005 was not a good year for TBWALondon. “The agency has gone from bad to worse, with losses of clients and personnel. It is limping along.”

Another source suggests the timing is a reaction to the ongoing France Telecom pitch, which TBWAParis is co-ordinating. “The client has been saying that everyone bar TBWALondon has a tight management team,” says the source. “This is a reaction to that client.”

But a third industry executive agrees an appointment should have been made earlier. Now that Shepherd-Smith has been given the nod, he must bolster a beleaguered team that has lost high-profile accounts including Abbey and News Group Newspapers, while failing to make the new COI roster and the Argos shortlist.

“This looks like a reactive move, rather than a proactive appointment,” comments the executive. “However, Shepherd-Smith must get on with the task in hand. The ad industry has a short memory and he will be judged on what he does now, not what happened before.”

Shepherd-Smith joined the agency in 1998 and was made sole managing director in January 2005, after the departure of Jonathan Mildenhall, now strategy director at Mother. Shepherd-Smith’s amiability and winning way with clients are strengths that will serve him well, say observers. Others point to the “strong team” already forged by Shepherd-Smith and Dawson.

“Matt builds strong relationships with clients and has a good eye for a creative product,” says one.

Winning the France Telecom pitch would be a perfect start. “They are one phone call away from success or ruin,” hints a former TBWA employee. “This is make or break time for the agency – and for him.”

Catherine Turner

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