Close-Up: Brien defies the odds to take McCann hotseat

By Alasdair Reid, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 29 January 2010 12:00AM

Despite his media - and English - roots, Nick Brien has been elevated to Worldgroup chief executive.

On this side of the Pond, we're absolute suckers for a story about one of our boys (or girls) doing rather well over there. Over there being, for choice, either New York or Los Angeles - and the story is all the sweeter if their profession just happens to be something vaguely creative.

It's one of the reasons we still (just about) love Ricky Gervais - and our realisation that Brits weren't really in the running at the recent Golden Globes awards was somewhat tempered by the fact that Gervais, as the compere, was up there giving them hell.

Not that we're comparing Nick Brien with Gervais, you understand - merely trying to convey the depth of the warm feeling that spread through the London ad community at the news that Brien, currently the worldwide chief executive of Mediabrands, had been anointed as the new chief executive of McCann Worldgroup, to succeed John Dooner. He'll take up his new post in April, reporting to Michael Roth, the chairman and chief executive of the parent company, Interpublic Group.

Interestingly, though, Brien comes over all coy when we encourage him to talk up the "local lad done good" aspect to this story and ask him if he's become a naturalised New Yorker or still sees himself as an Englishman abroad. "The latter, but I remain a truly global citizen with a strong Australian and German background," he says, referring to the nationalities of his parents.

He's rather coy, too, on the challenges ahead - and his corporate minders are similarly anxious to escape without having to answer any leading questions. As one of them puts it: "He needs to do his own assessments, listen to people here and talk to clients. We don't want to see a situation where there's all sorts of false speculation. That would be getting off on the wrong foot."

They're also curiously jittery about discussing the process that saw Brien elevated. But in some respects, last week's events were hardly a surprise. Dooner, who's now 61, had announced as far back as 2007 that he was stepping down at the turn of the decade; and in recent weeks, the rumour that the 48-year-old Brien had become the front-runner to succeed him has been gaining increasing ground.

The list of other prospective candidates is believed to have included Brett Gosper, the chief executive of McCann Erickson EMEA; Mark Dowley, the network's director of creative content and entertainment; and Eric Keshin, its chief operating officer.

There was, according to those in the know, a growing realisation that not only was Brien the candidate with the greatest drive and charisma but that other internal candidates had "issues or history" - in other words, they were associated with too narrow a factional power base and their elevation would not necessarily lead to internal sweetness, light and harmony over the short-to-medium term.

What's more, Brien is deemed to have worked wonders recently in stabilising the group's media offering and instigating a tidy group structure, with the Initiative and Universal brands housed under his Mediabrands umbrella. He's now seen as a "transformational" manager - though the most Brien will own up to himself is that he's a "fixer and builder".

He leaves Mediabrands in good hands - in the interim, it will be run by a committee, including Richard Beaven, the chief executive of Initiative; Tara Comonte, Mediabrands' chief operating officer; and Matt Sieler, the chief executive of Universal McCann.

Financial analysts reckon the McCann network is one of the weaker operating units within IPG in terms of growth and contribution to profits - but it's solid enough and is perceived to have seen out a sticky patch when it lost some plum bits of business, including Pfizer and part of the Microsoft account.

There are strong expectations within the IPG family agencies that Brien will seek to redefine the relationship between the various components of the McCann family, notably that between the McCann Erickson network and Universal McCann. After all, this is a theme that the group has pursued in the past, notably back in 2006, when it flirted with new forms of "connectivity" between its media and creative agencies.

"Nick has experience at senior levels in agencies across the full range of marketing services and he's accomplished great things since joining us to lead UM a few years back," Roth says. And Dooner, who is to take up the role of McCann Worldgroup's chairman, to "ensure smooth transition", adds: "Nick has a vision of where our industry is going and how to position agencies to be ahead of these changes. He has the passion and drive that are required to lead a complex, global company."

Indisputable. But does he have the experience? It's surely odd, not to say unprecedented, to see a media man elevated to the very top of an agency group like McCann. Company sources are quick to counter this one, pointing out that, lest we forget, Brien has a long (and distinguished) creative agency history (see box).

Yet he's still best remembered in London as a media man - and, indeed, his closest friends, such as Nick Milligan, the managing director of Sky Media, and Phil Georgiadis, the chief executive of Walker Media, still operate on that side of the fence.

"They broke the mould with Mr Brien," Milligan says. "He is contagiously enthusiastic about life, work and family. He is a natural leader and our industry will need people like Nick to challenge and change the model."

His love affair with American corporate life began when he decamped from Leo Burnett in London to sister agency Starcom in Chicago. And it was a love affair in more ways than one. It was in Chicago that he met and fell for his wife, Anastasia, who was then working for Burnett. They now have two children of middle-school age.

And Georgiadis reckons we should celebrate this appointment not just for the "Brit conquering New York" angle, but for the media angle too. "It's unprecedented for an ad agency group to make someone from a media background the boss. And from my perspective, it has been a long time coming. I'd argue he is incredibly well-placed to understand what needs to happen to make an agency group fit for the future," he says.

And in any case, Georgiadis concludes, Brien's right - accomplished and ambitious people have no real nationality. He adds: "He's a brilliant motivator of people and builder of teams. In energy, approach and outlook, he's always been compatible with an American approach to life. He's as open and energetic a person as you could hope to meet."

TIMELINE

1982: Brien starts his London media career as a trainee media buyer at Grey before moving to Benton & Bowles, then WCRS.

1989: Aged only 28, Brien emerges as a founding partner of BBJ, a media start-up spun out of WCRS.

1992: He leaves to join Leo Burnett London as an executive media director.

1996: He's promoted to managing director, then chief executive.

2000: Brien crosses the Atlantic to become the president of US corporate business development at Starcom.

2004: He's parachuted in to become Arc Worldwide's global chief executive.

2006: He then moves to IPG to stabilise Universal McCann as its worldwide chief executive.

2007: Brien is made the worldwide chief executive of Mediabrands.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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