Can gamekeepers make good poachers?

Its no surprise to find Nick Smith, former British Gas marketing director and ex-chairman of the Marketing Society, being linked to the top management job at JWT London.

It’s no surprise to find Nick Smith, former British Gas marketing director and ex-chairman of the Marketing Society, being linked to the top management job at JWT London.

I’m not referring here to Nick’s extraordinary capacity to get himself linked to just about every high-profile job going – the last example being the top commercial role at ITV which eventually went to Rupert Howell.

No, this is something else: Nick as part of a growing trend. Whether he gets the JWT job or not is, in a way, immaterial. Nick is one of that esteemed category of people, the former client, whose services are increasingly sought after by advertising agencies attempting to fill their upper-echelon posts.

As evidence we might point to former European Sony marketing director David Patton, who ended up at Grey after first turning down a similar ceo role at Saatchi & Saatchi. Saatchi was also very interested in poaching Chris Clark, head of brand strategy and marketing at HSBC, though he does not seem to have reciprocated the same degree of enthusiasm. Then there was Publicis UK’s rather more successful acquisition of Neil Simpson, fresh out of Vodafone. And this trend isn’t confined to creative agencies either. Remember Philippa Brown’s move from IPC Media to head the then new Omnicom Media Group?

No disrespect to former clients, but why the enthusiasm? Even if we allow for the fact that Clark, Simpson and Brown had gained considerable agency experience at an earlier point in their careers, are agencies so desperate for top talent that they must increasingly look outside their own world and culture for people to lead them?

Before moving on to contemporary agency issues that may explain this trend, it’s worth noting a little history. The client recruited to head an agency is, in itself, nothing new. There has indeed been a steady trickle of appointments over the years. Saatchi & Saatchi, in particular, has been a consistent aficionado of the client changeling. First came the hiring of Anthony Simonds-Gooding, then a celebrity client thanks to the Whitbread Heineken ads, as chairman of Saatchi plc’s communications division back in the eighties. Indeed, even the current long-serving worldwide Saatchi chief executive, Kevin Roberts, and his deputy Jim Mahony, chief executive for worldwide regions, hail from Lion Nathan the brewer. Still in a Saatchi connection, there was the hiring of Bob Seelert, a (pre-Kraft) General Foods marketer, as chief executive of holding company Cordiant after the expulsion of the Saatchi brothers and later still, David Hearn, another ex-food client, who ended up presiding over Cordiant’s dismemberment. Elsewhere, but just as conspicuously, WPP poached Ann Fudge – from Kraft – as chairman and chief executive of Y&R Brands.

Enough of these examples. There will be others, but the conspicuous point about them (with the possible exception of Roberts, who has had to manage Saatchi at a particularly difficult time), is that they have not been an unalloyed success as hirings.

All that glisters…
Now there are plenty of reasons why some clients – particularly the more pronounced exhibitionists among them – might find a top agency job attractive. The pay and the perks will be better. The job will, superficially at least, be more glamorous and more autonomous – an important inducement for those who feel they are becoming too institutionalised. Then again, if it all goes wrong, you walk away wiser to the tune of several hundred thousand pounds a year or two later.

It is less easy to see what the agency side of the bargain amounts to. Clients (at the hiring level) certainly have experience of senior management, but it tends to be of the autocratic, command-and-control variety, unsuited to making the friends you will so badly need if you are going to survive the mayhem of agency life.

The habit of unquestioned command has a yet more unfortunate consequence, unless it is quickly tempered by common sense. Senior clients are not, by and large, inured to the ways of humility and service and, as the agency boss, they may find it uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of exactly the kind of treatment they would have unhesitatingly meted out themselves.

So, if this is the kind of baggage senior client types bring with them, why are we now getting a sudden spate of hirings in London?

Now, I’ve no wish to be unkind to Nick Smith, who is one of the more clubbable, gregarious members of the marketing community, but he would probably be the first to admit he’s no Jeremy Bullmore. Bullmore was the class act who chaired JWT between 1976 and 1987 and in, many ways, exemplified the agency at the height of its creative powers.

A changing world
The sad fact is that top London agencies aren’t much fun to run any more. They offer little scope for the erudite charm of a Bullmore or even the buttoned-down dynamism of a Stephen Carter. Ownership by public companies and, more importantly, successive cuts (including training programmes) imposed as a result of the progressive impoverishment of the traditional business model, have turned them into sweat shops where ruthless book-keeping is at least as important as aggressive account winning.

Faced with this unappetising prospect, the in-house talent is draining away rather than vying for the top jobs. Who would run TBWA London these days when they could be as successful as Trevor Beattie and Andrew McGuinness – or for that matter, Johnny Hornby – doing their own thing? Who would run Lowe (currently a curious duumvirate of top creative and planner)? Paul Hammersley, the man who once did so, now finds himself running start-up agency Red Brick Road instead. He also tried his hand at DDB London. Where today are DDB’s new business wins?

At the same time, the balance of power within the agency world has shifted, reflecting the globalisation of business. If you want to get ahead, become a global account director. David Jones did, with Reckitt Benckiser, and look where it got him at Euro. Tamara Ingram has done a similar thing with P&G at Grey. The career of Richard Pinder, coo of the Publicis network, is another testimony to the changing structure of agency power. As he will no doubt tell you, power has drained away from the capital cities to the centre.

In these circumstances, local agencies must seek out their managerial talent wherever they can find it, which means outside. That may mean looking abroad in the agency world (Gary Leih, say, at Ogilvy or Michael Rebelo, who ended up getting the managing director job at Saatchi London) or looking abroad in the cultural sense, to the client.

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