One of the suits?

The appointment of Mother’s strategy director to a senior role at one of the world’s biggest clients was a shock to the ad world, but Jonathan Mildenhall is merely the latest in a line of agency executives keen to make their mark in the wider corporate sector. By David Benady

Joining a brand owner’s marketing department after many years in the advertising industry requires a serious transformation in outlook, as the flamboyant, Ozwald Boateng-suited agency executive, Jonathan Mildenhall, is about to find out.

The vivacious strategy director at London agency Mother has been offered a job in the creative excellence group at Coca-Cola as vice-president of marketing communications management. If he takes up the role, he will relocate from London’s trendy Shoreditch to Coca-Cola’s Atlanta headquarters, in the heart of conservative mid-America, early next year.

Reporting to chief creative officer Esther Lee, he will be “quite a long way down the pecking order”, according to one observer. Lee reports to senior vice-president of marketing communications Mark Greatrex, who reports to global marketing chief Mary Minnick. It is understood that Mildenhall will help Lee, herself a former agency executive, with the task of briefing agencies working across the drinks company’s brands.

The wider question for Coca-Cola and any brand owner considering bringing in an agency executive to their marketing department is what skills they can import that can boost their business.

A recent example of an adman crossing the great divide is Rick Bendel’s move earlier this month from the helm of Publicis to become group marketing director of Asda, which was unusual as it is rare for ad executives to take direct control over operational marketing.

They are more likely to land a softer communications role rather than having responsibility for business strategy and development. Indeed, one of the toughest challenges when going over to the “dark side” is overcoming advertising’s fluffy reputation for excelling at spin and sparkle but lacking business nous.

The Other Side
Then again, you would hardly call JWT’s Stephen Carter fluffy. He went on to run NTL and Ofcom, and is tipped to take over at ITV. And there’s nothing frivolous about the task facing former Saatchi & Saatchi London boss Adam Crozier, who has gone, via the Football Association, to the Royal Mail where he is downsizing the organisation.

In Mildenhall’s case, the Coca-Cola job offer comes after a rocky patch. Hailed a rising star of the London ad industry, he was lured from the managing director’s role at TBWA/London last year to a job at the network’s New York office which failed to materialise.

He stayed in the US anyway to study business at Harvard, then returned to London to join Mother, where he was billed as well-matched to the agency’s unconventional milieu. Now it looks as if he is off again.

But some wonder how he will fit in at the notoriously prim and straight-laced Coca-Cola, based in a city where, according to writer Tom Wolfe, a patina of political correctness glosses over deep-rooted racial tensions, and mouthy Brits are advised by one observer to “beware, be diplomatic and keep your opinions to yourself”.

Need for Discipline
It is certainly a giant leap from raucous agency life with its feral creatives and who-can-shout-loudest individuality to the buttoned-down militaristic discipline of a global corporation.

Even so, it is a well-trodden path. Mildenhall would join a cast of ad executive turned Coca-Cola clients over the years, such as Neil Simpson from Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), who later joined Adidas and then had a spell at Vodafone.

He was hired at Coca-Cola by David Wheldon, now Vodafone’s global brand chief, who had moved from Lowe Howard-Spink (LH-S) to become Coca-Cola’s first worldwide director of advertising in 1993. He says/ “On one level it is probably more fun to be in an agency working with maverick creatives, but it is ultimately more rewarding to make things happen, and if you are a client that is what you get.”

The Wider Picture
But he warns Mildenhall to prepare for a culture shock: “I presumed it was all about advertising at Coca-Cola, but when I sat in on business reviews, I don’t think it was mentioned once.”

It should be remembered that for any ad executive crossing over to an existing client, questions will inevitably be asked about the company’s relationship with that agency. Adam Kirby, development director at Saatchi & Saatchi, went from Lowe to become Diageo’s head of global advertising procurement. He says: “It would be witless to pretend there would be no appearance of a conflict of interest, but you have to judge people by their actions. Sometimes favouritism is shown, sometimes they have to be seen to be putting one over on their former agencies. I’ve seen both.”

Another agency-to-client move was Colin Clarke’s jump from Leagas Delaney, where he was managing director, to join Simpson at Vodafone in 2002. Earlier this summer, he was appointed Levi’s consumer marketing director.

Meanwhile, Rebecca Morgan, who left BBH to join BT as head of marketing communications two years ago before returning to the ad industry as chief strategy officer at Lowe London earlier this year, says a stint working at a client is valuable experience for anyone working in advertising: “You learn how it is at the sharp end, to stand in front of a chief executive and justify why you’ve spent the money. You know it, but don’t really feel it until you have been eye-balling the chief executive.”

Two-way Process
Clearly, moving from a small business of a couple of hundred people to one employing tens of thousands is a massive change. And learning to cope with the grinding daily politics of a big corporation is also challenging. But these factors are no deterrent.

Headhunter Hannah Brown, of Hannah Brown Associates, says: “There has been a trend over the past few years of much greater fluidity both ways, and it has become far more possible and likely to go from advertising to client.”

Some wonder whether Mildenhall really fitted in at Mother, as he is an archetypal, smooth-talking account manager at an agency that has dispensed with account managers. They feel he might be better attuned to Coca-Cola’s corporate atmosphere, and his former boss at TBWA, Andrew McGuinness – who founded Beattie McGuinness Bungay last year – says he is “passionate and effervescent”, just the sort of traits that would benefit the cola company.

Some hope Mildenhall will bolster Esther Lee’s position and help bring some freshness into Coca-Cola’s creativity. As one observer says: “Coca-Cola works with all the best creative agencies in the world, apart from BBDO, and never gets great ads out of any of them. They are so querulous, nervous and obsessed by research that they just don’t want to take any risks.”

Mother may take exception to this view and argue that some of its recent ads, while low-key, have heightened Coca-Cola’s creative standing.

Switching sides from agency to client is an increasingly frequent route into corporate management, moving sideways with broad communications skills and then possibly upwards with newly learned business prowess. But it must be nice to know that, unless things go disastrously wrong, there will usually be an even better job waiting back in an ad agency after gaining experience as a clint.•


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