CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER - Christie vows to give W&K a more serious image

By Mark Sweney, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 23 January 2004 12:00AM

Neil Christie was W&K's first choice for MD to take it to the next stage.

Isn't it nice for Wieden & Kennedy London when things just work?

In poaching Neil Christie to be its new managing director, the agency pulled off that rare feat - landing their first choice - in a talent-stretched marketplace that has often seen third and even fourth-choice hirings become the norm.

Christie, a Scotsman with a to-the-point abrasive edge, is regarded by most in the industry as the perfect choice for the role. Honda, the cornerstone of the agency's renaissance to date, will be pleased.

W&K's former managing director, Amy Smith, is credited with turning around an agency that just a few years ago was struggling to survive. While Smith undoubtedly did a brilliant job galvanising staff and driving W&K forward, Christie played an equally important part that is not always given the credit it deserves. He led the pitch team that won the Honda account during a freelance stint with the agency. It was Christie's experience of working on car brands - including two years at Bartle Bogle Hegarty running Audi and eight years at TBWA\London looking after Nissan - that impressed Honda.

"There is no better account man for a car client in London," Johnny Hornby, a former TBWA colleague, says.

Christie arrives at W&K following two years at Partners BDDH, now merged with Euro RSCG London. Although his move to Partners, from TBWA, was successful - as the marketing director he was prolific at bringing in new business - it was also puzzling. His CV indicated that he was ready for bigger things.

During his time at TBWA, Christie was in the company of some of adland's leading lights and biggest egos - the likes of Hornby and Garry Lace.

When the Nissan account was centralised into the Paris office, Christie, not one to split hairs over job titles ("I don't worry about titles, it is about responsibility and the opportunity to make a difference"), took a more behind-the-scenes role as the chief operating officer.

He was perhaps a victim of not playing the internal politics game well enough. As one source put it: "He was in a game of musical chairs and you can't imagine a Lace or a Hornby losing."

His move was a coup for the lower-profile Partners. As one former Euro RSCG insider put it: "He was without a doubt the main attraction in the merger. It was strange how he had come to handle new business at a smaller agency. He is now back on track after a slight detour."

Christie's move to W&K will see the reunion of the original Honda pitch team of the now joint creative directors, Tony Davidson and Kim Papworth, and the head of planning, Russell Davies. The four will form the London office's senior management line-up.

The reunion will also allow them to put their band back together. Christie, something of a renaissance man who can paint, write and sing (not bad considering he started his career as a lawyer), will fill the lead guitar slot alongside Papworth on bass, Davies on drums and the instrument-deficient Davidson on, er, triangle perhaps?

Bonding aside, Christie is inheriting an agency at a critical growth stage. The lashings of praise for the "cog" spot for Honda have not led to the new-business awards that can follow such a triumph.

But Christie admits he could have had it worse: "There are few senior agency jobs where you go in to run an agency that isn't in a crisis - its reputation has slipped, the work is bad or clients are leaving." Yet W&K has largely failed to capitalise on its recent creative success and convert large-scale clients.

Christie recognises this and has new business at the top of his "to do" list. "There has not been an aggressive new-business drive. If you aren't out there aggressively chasing new business it won't come and knock on your door even if you have done a 'cog'," he says. "It is not a problem though, it isn't like the agency is pitching and losing, it is an opportunity."

The underlying problem is that the agency's culture as a staunchly jeans and trainers outfit has been difficult for many heavyweight clients to accept. The next stage of its growth cycle has to see the end of the trumpeting initiatives such as how a garden shed was erected in the courtyard for meetings.

"It seems to me, if I was running W&K I would be disappointed in the status of London, it is punching below its weight," Paul Bainsfair, the head of northern Europe at TBWA, says.

"It does good work but it needs big clients. Neil must deal with the perception of the agency among the client community - it does interesting work but not the type of work big clients are comfortable with. He has to get them in trousers."

Bainsfair describes Christie as "a gritty, pugnacious Scotsman, not afraid to give the client a hard time if they deserve it". This hard-nosed, pragmatic attitude will toughen the agency's image and act as a foil for the more casual style adopted by his senior management colleagues.

Christie has definite ideas of the level he feels the agency should be competing at. "W&K London is probably known within the ad industry as a small, maverick, highly creative shop but it isn't on the radar of every client out there. I can't see why we shouldn't be pitching against the likes of Clemmow Hornby Inge, Mother and Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy and winning."

Part of the issue is that the London office is blocked from pitching for clients in many sectors because of conflicts, such as Heineken and Nike, present at the Amsterdam agency. At three times the size of the London office, it is the dominant W&K presence in Europe. Christie is adamant that the London agency doesn't have to play "second fiddle" to Amsterdam, pointing out that his reporting line is directly to headquarters in the US. Relations between the two European offices are likely to be pretty good as the Dutch office is run by a fellow Scotsman, David Miller.

Transforming the agency into a serious medium-sized outfit isn't going to meet the resistance that Christie might have expected. Davidson is in agreement that W&K has not been good at articulating its offering to the wider market: "We don't want to be known for a house style but we do want to educate clients about how we work better. Clients think we are that crazy, wacky agency that does work for Honda or Nike. But our ideas are also strategically sound and we need to sell ourselves better to clients."

With the politics and turmoil often attendant with bringing in "outsiders" to senior management roles, this agreement of direction is refreshing. A swift and successful management transition is critical for the agency to make the most of the opportunities that come with the momentum of success.

"Every agency has its own tone of voice and while you don't want to change as you grow bigger you need a bit more structure," Davidson says. "Companies have to evolve and W&K is quite good at that, especially London as a younger, smaller office which can handle it a bit better. We don't want to lose our culture but it will change."

QUESTIONNAIRE

Age: 41

Lives: Islington, London

Family: Wife Jennifer, son Finlay

Favourite ad: PlayStation "Double life"

Describe yourself in three words: Miserable Jock bastard

Greatest extravagance: Travel

Most treasured possession: None, it's all just stuff

Most admired agency: W&K

Living person you most admire: Brian Eno

One to watch: New York punk band The Rapture

Motto: What, me worry?

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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