New execs steer agencies through choppy waters

In an unsteady business climate where caution and stability are key defensive strategies, Canadian advertising agencies are experiencing more than their share of instability at the top.

In an unsteady business climate where caution and stability are key defensive strategies, Canadian advertising agencies are experiencing more than their share of instability at the top.

Since June, the industry has seen the exodus of five presidents and one agency chairman from Toronto agencies.

Canada’s shortage of talent is making it harder for agencies to find the right leaders to steer them through these choppy economic waters, a time when a strong hand on the rudder is imperative.

Two of the posts have recently been filled – both from the client side. Heidi Ehlers, industry recruiter specializing in agency creative, says she thinks it’s harder for clients to make the switch to agencies than the other way around. But right now, she says, it is difficult to find agency people.

‘It goes back to this ‘war for talent’ thing that’s been going on since the recession in 1991-92. Agencies weren’t spending money training people. Those people are now at the age and experience level where they’d be considered for presidential-type positions but they just don’t have the training.’

Leadership is the key to an agency’s success or failure, says Frank Palmer, CEO of Palmer Jarvis DDB, but he’s not sure that headhunters looking to the client side to fill these posts will result in success stories for agencies.

‘There is an agency culture and a client culture – and those cultures don’t necessarily blend,’ says Palmer, adding that leaderless agencies are putting their accounts at risk by not having successors in place ready to move up to the top spot.

‘I think coming from another discipline into an agency as well as having it leaderless for some time would indicate to a client that there’s not a lot of depth at that agency. If there’s not a lot of depth, how’s my account going to be running?’

Indeed, PJDDB has managed to maintain a strong list of clients and added 24 new accounts for its various integrated divisions since January, such as Doc Otis and Budweiser to its Anheuser-Busch U.S. account wins (originating with Bud Light last year) for Downtown and Pfizer’s Viagra for Rapp Collins.

Palmer recently ensured his succession with the appointment of Tony Altilia, former president of Vickers & Benson Arnold in Toronto, as president and COO of PJDDB to oversee the offices across the country. Altilia, he says, was chosen because he’s someone who is a well-rounded strategic marketer well-liked by both staff and clients.

‘A lot of companies don’t have that succession in place or they would have moved number two into the spot at the top,’ says Palmer. ‘If [Ammirati Puris] or TBWA Chiat/Day had someone in the number-two spot, they might have been able to move that person up.’

At DraftWorldwide Toronto, Bruce Barr – former SVP, residential services for StarChoice Communications and group VP communications at Bell Canada – has been named president. He fills the void left by Perry Miele, who left the post of president, DraftWorldwide International, last month.

Ammirati Puris in Toronto also looked to the client side to find president and CEO Neil Everett, most recently senior VP, marketing at Shoppers Drug Mart. He replaces two people: president Arthur Fleishmann, now heading Envoy Communication Group’s John Street agency, and long-time ‘soul’ of Ammirati, Doug Robinson, chairman and CCO, whose departure was coincidental to Everett’s appointment.

Cossette Communication-Marketing, Canada’s biggest agency, is not looking to fill the Toronto position left vacant in September by former Kellogg Canada president Phillip Donne who headed the Toronto office for a mere 10 months.

Bill Durnan, chief strategist for Cossette, says he’s filling the void and does not see a need for someone to take over the title officially. ‘I’m part of a national group developing the next stage of vision for Cossette and leading that out of Toronto. What does a president do? They create a vision and execute a plan – I’m like an acting president.

‘Keep in mind, Cossette is unique,’ Durnan continues. ‘It has national presidents Claude Lessard and Francois Duffar, so the importance of having a level of president in each office is not that critical.’

Meanwhile, at press time, Toronto agencies Wolf Group Canada and TBWAChiatDay are still without leaders.

Even when and if agencies are able to find the right talent, a new president can’t hit the ground running. An assessment of agency capabilities, strengths and weaknesses takes at least a few months.

If the president’s mandate is to ‘fix’ an area of the business that is lagging, that could take several months to a few years.

Gerry Frascione has been in his new job as president and CEO of BBDO Canada for just over a month. He is still doing a ’360-degree’ assessment of the agency and doesn’t expect to have a clear picture of his next steps until near the end of this year. Luckily, Frascione has a very solid base to work with. Creatively, the agency is a consistent performer. Although no longer Canada’s largest ad agency, gross revenues have slightly but steadily been increasing from 1997 through 2000.

Since Allen Rosenshine, chairman and CEO of BBDO Worldwide, New York, remarked earlier this year that BBDO Canada’s growth had not been as expected over the past five years, Frascione’s mandate was likely pre-ordained.

Tony Pigott, president and CEO of J. Walter Thompson, has been at his post since mid-1999 – long enough to see some tangible results. Gross revenues for the agency were $14.6 million in 1999. They reached nearly $26 million in year 2000.

Pigott attributes the growth to more business from existing clients as well as the acquisition of Go Direct and IMC, companies that brought database, direct and interactive capabilities to the agency – expertise JWT was lacking when Pigott took over.

‘The goal at JWT was obviously to rebuild the company – first its reputation for being a leader in the marketplace and then the actual size of the agency. The brand is still famous in Canada, despite its decline over the past decade. It has a pretty good platform, although there was confusion about what it stood for. JWT historically had a position of real leadership, respect, growth and great work and we had to set our sights on reclaiming that.’

Pigott says JWT doesn’t expect to become the biggest agency in Canada, but does plan to grow significantly and probably get into the top five.

His leadership approach has not been to clean house and make radical changes but rather to build on the foundation and momentum of the agency. This includes the creative side of JWT, which has also experienced resurgence over the past few years. Pigott has kept his hands off creative, crediting the new-found success to Rick Kemp, SVP and executive creative director.

Pigott instead has been concentrating on setting the agency up as a company able to drive sustainable growth behind branded business.

‘We believe you have to put a brand to work. For us, that’s a key attitude shift,’ he adds. ‘Whether it’s Kraft Dinner or Listerine, you have to dig in and find the right way to re-express that brand in an idea. Then through that idea, put that brand and its equity to work.’

Pigott hasn’t aggressively gone after new business in the past two years but now that the agency is on track with its existing clients, he says that is about to change.

Bob Shanks moved to Roche Macaulay & Partners as president in May when agency founder and creative director Geoff Roche decided he wanted to dedicate his efforts towards the creative product. The agency’s recent loss of Holt Renfrew and its showcase account Ikea Germany won’t make Shanks’ job any easier.

Aside from working on the new business angle, Shanks sees his job at Roche Macaulay as almost a PR one. Because of the agency’s concentration on work in Europe over the past few years, he says it has dropped off the radar screen in this country.

‘The other part is we have an association, albeit a minority one, with a fairly significant global power in Lowe,’ continues Shanks. That’s another area where we collectively believe we had under-utilized. One of my other charges is to energize that connection, hopefully to the benefit of the local agency and access whatever international opportunities there might be.’

Shanks is another who did not come into the agency and clean house. It wasn’t needed. Instead he has worked with all employees to come up with a list of priorities and get them involved in directing the future of the agency.

‘They all came here for a very specific reason – because they were attracted by incredible passion for the work. The last thing I want to do is come in and say, guess what, it’s all different.’

Over the next three months, Shanks predicts that in addition to Roche Macaulay’s profile being raised, there will be some results on the new business front.