The first year since Gary Leih’s arrival from South Africa as Ogilvy Group UK chairman has ended, but only just, on a triumphant note. The agency celebrated by winning the coveted &£50m, pan-European easyJet business (MW last week). The agency is not renowned for creative gongs, making the victory against Delaney Lund Knox Warren all the more rewarding.
Since last May, when he was chosen to lead the lacklustre WPP-owned London shop, Leih has been transforming the agency. Some unkind critics say it is synonymous with stuffed suits, but the ebullient South African has been doing his best to freshen things up. Never a flashy shop, Ogilvy UK has been reliant on internationally aligned clients, earned on the back of the network’s US operation. But its renewed domestic effort to appear on pitch lists, and convert them into wins, seems to be succeeding.
Ogilvy’s other recent victories include the &£40m pan-European account for Chiquita bananas, the &£14.5m Avis Europe, Middle East and Africa assignment, and the multi-million pound Glenlivet business (MW April 6). Leih says he is confident of scooping more.
He has already restructured the group, uniting Ogilvy’s 11 UK businesses, including OgilvyOne and 141, under a single board of 16 group partners. Leih has since taken complete charge, moving the media-shy Paul Jackson to managing director of client services on the international American Express business.
So has the unpretentious, loud but affable Leih really kick-started the agency? David Wethey, managing director of Agency Assessments International, credits Ogilvy’s new-found success to Leih’s “cheery-gruff leadership style”, which he says has given the agency a “new kind of buzz”.
Lack of charisma
Yet critics say it is still too early to dub a few account wins or the management restructure a renaissance. One advertising expert says: “My worry is whether Gary has enough charisma or edge to take the agency back to where it once was – a regular chart-topper in the agency league tables. [Executive creative director] Malcolm Poynton and Leih are too alike and fit into the old O&M mould of David Ogilvy’s ‘gentlemen with brains’. They’re just not terribly exciting.”
Instead of worrying about his own perceived low profile in an advertising community sprinkled with small but sexy creative boutiques, Leih has been concentrating on improving the group’s new business record and creative output. Here the former group managing director of Ogilvy South Africa knows what he’s about. His previous shop led 39 agencies across Africa and boasted all major marketing disciplines, with billings growing by 21% in 2004.
But the UK presents it own challenges. Ogilvy London has been overshadowed by the might of its sister agency JWT for too long. Home to blue-chip accounts like GlaxoSmithKline and Kimberly-Clark, Ogilvy has steadily lost business since the early 1990s, including its lead status on Ford of Europe. A raft of high-profile departures, such as those of Paul Simons, Tom Bury and Mike Elms, has also destabilised it. And to make matters worse it has consistently failed to get on high-profile shortlists such as British Airways. One rival ad executive blames the agency’s location in London: “The curse of Canary Wharf, outside the advertising epicentre, has not helped.”
But the timing of Leih’s arrival might be in his favour. He is establishing himself when solid London shops like Saatchi & Saatchi and JWT have also undergone seismic management overhauls, and are struggling to make any real impact. If he manages to move Ogilvy out of Canary Wharf, he might succeed in overseeing its revival.