By Matt Williams, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 18 March 2011 12:00AM
The industry loves a good "chief executive to leave big agency" rumour. But when Neil Simpson left Publicis London earlier this month, it came as something of a surprise.
Simpson had done a good job since joining the agency in 2007. Before him, Publicis London was in chaos. The agency had lost £47 million-worth of business from Asda, the £27 million MFI account and the £12 million Post Office business.
Under his tenure, though, Simpson helped the agency regain its mojo, making key hirings to boost its creative output and leading Publicis to the top of the AAR's new-business table in 2009.
Reasons for Simpson's departure vary, depending on who you speak to. Some think he was pushed, while others believe he got frustrated with the direction the agency was heading in and walked.
One suggestion that keeps coming up, though, is that he simply didn't fit in with the vision for the group's future held by Nigel Jones, the chairman of Publicis UK.
As one insider puts it: "Neil is just the man you want if you need to re-build an agency or raise its profile, but you can see he's not the type who's happy being a cog in a larger wheel. And we've got an agency now where everyone needs to play ball across the group."
Jones has made no secret of his intentions to create an agency group that provides clients with companies that have their own distinct positions and capabilities, but can also collaborate together well when called upon.
"I think clients want the best of both worlds," he says. "They want individual agencies that have deep knowledge, but they also want collaboration and co-operation. Our set-up hopefully helps us stay that little bit ahead of the curve."
Jones has already made significant alterations to the group's other three offerings to combat this - in fact, 25 per cent of the staff has changed since he joined in May 2008. He has brought in Agency.com's Enda McCarthy to run Publicis Modem, revitalised the magazine content division Publicis Blueprint and recently shelled out £14.5 million for the direct marketing and eCRM specialist Chemistry, which is to merge with Publicis Dialog to create what Publicis claims will become the second-biggest direct marketing agency in the UK.
"When I arrived, we had a number of different brands in the building," Jones says. "We couldn't go about making changes straight away because some of those companies were completely broken, so it was literally a case of having to repair them.
"Once we had done that, though, we could work out exactly what we wanted to do next, and I think now we've found the right structure that we're comfortable with."
The final piece of the jigsaw was to get the right leadership team in place for the main ad agency and, to do this, he has plucked a name from relative obscurity.
Karen Buchanan, a managing partner at The Red Brick Road, has cultivated something of a low profile in the industry.
Despite having spent time at DDB UK and led The Red Brick Road's most prestigious account in the shape of Tesco (and some cynics would say that, by leading Tesco, she was in effect leading the agency anyway), there aren't many who know much, if anything, about her.
Those who do, though, describe a friendly and personable woman who is loved by employees and clients alike.
Judy Mitchem, the chief marketing officer at Ogilvy Group UK and the former managing partner of Arnold UK, has known Buchanan since their days together at university. And she has never been in any doubt about her strong leadership qualities.
"Karen is incredibly genuine, charismatic and doesn't have a trace of self-importance," Mitchem reports.
"She is extremely good at people management and knows how to put people at ease."
Jones adds: "Karen is a really strong and broad team builder -she's very inclusive. But, at the same time, she's a strong and confident person - she's no pushover."
Buchanan will need that strong backbone when she joins the agency later this year (most likely at some point in the summer). Moving from a local position with one client to concentrate on to a broader role where she has a number of major international clients to deal with will be a big step.
Jones, though, has little doubt that's she's up to the task. "Our key objectives haven't changed," he says. "We want to improve the creative output even further, win more new business and work more collaboratively across the group. And Karen has all the characteristics to do that."
ALL ABOUT ... Buchanan
- Buchanan's career in advertising really took off when she joined DDB UK as a business director in 2001. - At DDB, she worked her way up to head of account management, before leaving for The Red Brick Road in 2006, where she ran its Tesco business. - She was made a managing partner earlier this year after The Red Brick Road's merger with its sister digital and direct agency Ruby. - Buchanan is one half of an advertising power-couple - she is married to Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's deputy executive creative director, Dave Buchanan.
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk