More than a few eyebrows were raised when former British Gas marketing director Nick Smith was linked to the JWT London chief executive job (MW last week). Smith, currently at Accenture, could be a long way off joining JWT as insiders suggest he is still fighting it out with another candidate from Asia. However, the advertising community has already voiced its opposition to any such move.
The questions being asked are not only whether Smith will prove to be a suitable chief executive to lead JWT back to its former glory, but also whether the move means that the first division agency has so lost its momentum that it has to seek talent from outside.
“The appointment of a client to lead an agency like JWT London will send a signal that some of the fantasy has gone out of the agency world and that the agency has lost its creative prowess,” says Brett Gosper, president EMEA at McCann Erickson WorldGroup.
“It is a sign that agencies are losing their nerve when they start looking at clients, as agency culture is very different to client life. Agency people are wired differently to clients. Clients can be logical thinkers or conceptual thinkers, but not both at the same time,” says Farah Ramzan-Golant, chief executive of Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO.
“The appointment of Smith would set JWT back at least five years,” adds another agency executive.
But this is not the first time advertising has looked at the client community to help revive ailing agency brands. Last year Publicis appointed former Vodafone and Adidas marketer Neil Simpson as London chief executive, and Grey London brought in high-profile Sony marketer David Patton to lead the London agency.
“Let’s not forget that Simpson is a trained adman, from Bartle Bogle Hegarty. And Patton viewed advertising as a stepping stone to that next big move, attracted by what advertising had done to the careers of Adam Crozier and Stephen Carter,” says an observer.
Patton says: “It is fantastic to be compared to Carter and Crozier, but too early to say what my next move will be.” Patton says he cannot see why such a “big deal” is made about clients wanting to move to agencies, as advertising is a “very small” part of the marketing and communications industry.
Patton admits that apart from the “highly visible and successful” Kevin Roberts, the worldwide chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi, there are not many success stories, but “that it is only indicative of the fact that fewer clients want to work in advertising, not that there is a lack of client ability to succeed. Advertising can be very self-indulgent.”
Such a sentiment is shared by Simon Carter, a former marketing director for Thomas Cook and Post Office. “I have considered taking the agency route but find its ‘closed door’ quite surprising,” he says. Carter adds that clients have the skills that will help agencies not only get a voice on the main board but also help them make money in “these tricky times”.
AAR’s Martin Jones says that the appeal of appointing clients to lead agencies exists because there is a very small talent pool to choose from. He says that for JWT to be looking outside the community could mean that it wants to broaden its offer as an advertising agency.
But as Ramzan-Golant puts it: “It needs to be remembered that the Honda client might have bought great advertising, but he did not create the environment that helped create and foster that brilliant work.
“There is this pious hope that having a client run an agency somehow means that profit will be taken care of. It is the ideas that make that profit.”