Will Neil Simpson be the answer to Publicis’s prayers?

AdidasTroubled London agency Publicis has brought an end to its six-month search for a chief executive by appointing former Vodafone, Coca-Cola and Adidas marketer Neil Simpson to the role.

Simpson – who started his career as a graduate trainee at Ogilvy & Mather and spent a year at Bartle Bogle Hegarty – has never run an ad agency before, nor led a pitch for new business, say critics of the hiring. Simpson, who left Vodafone last year and is on the board of computer maintenance business The PC Guys, refuses to comment. Some see his appointment as a considerable comedown for Publicis, which was believed to be courting PR guru Matthew Freud for the job.

However, as a former client, Simpson should be well-placed to service marketers from companies such as Renault, Procter & Gamble and L’Oréal that make up the bedrock of Publicis’s business.

The French-owned agency’s London office has been rudderless since the departures of chief executive Grant Duncan in March and UK group chairman Tim Lindsay in May. They left after Publicis lost a third of its billings – some £90m of business – when Asda, MFI and The Post Office moved their accounts to rival agencies.

Chalk and cheese
One source says that Duncan, Lindsay and now Simpson are too committed to high standards of creativity for such an agency. “He is not what they need – you need a bit of experience in there,” adds the source. “Publicis is a service-led, big agency that does populist work for populist clients and looks after them very well. Then they started bringing in people from creative backgrounds. It’s like chalk and cheese – like putting Garry Lace in to run Grey. It is never going to work because the DNA doesn’t match.” 

Simpson was hired for two of his senior marketing positions by David Wheldon, now global director of brand and customer experience at Vodafone. Wheldon appointed him to Coca-Cola in 1993 and then later hired him at Vodafone and is upbeat about his prospects. He says: “It’s a very smart hire. Neil speaks the client-and-agency language, has a good creative brain and is comfortable in the new world of marketing. He’s personable and is good at getting people to do things without them realising they have been persuaded.” 

One odd feature of Simpson’s appointment is that Publicis was also expected to hire a heavyweight chairman to oversee the Publicis UK group companies, including Dialog and Modem, a role replacing Lindsay. However, it appears that Richard Pinder, chief operating officer of parent company Publicis Worldwide and the man in charge of recruiting top staff, will fill that role in a part-time capacity. This suggests to some that Pinder has struggled to find suitable candidates to work at the agency.

However, another observer says: “What is really needed at Publicis now is an injection of energy and vitality. Neil is definitely the guy for that. It is exactly his personality – vibrant, passionate, energetic and attached to the creative product.” 

Making waves
As a client, Simpson created waves at Adidas in 2002 when he moved the brand’s £70m ad business out of Leagas Delaney and into start-up agency 180 Amsterdam as its founding client. One source says that the diminutive Simpson went through a phase of naive egotism at Adidas, though he has passed through this and has emerged as a more mature and well-rounded executive.

The big question at Publicis is whether Simpson will hanker after some of the creative verve he helped bring to Adidas or help Publicis return to its roots as the home of safe, populist, big-brand advertising.

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