Close-Up: Live issue - O'Keeffe's surprise BBH exit has left the industry guessing

Question marks are hanging over what John O'Keeffe's new role at WPP will actually involve. Meanwhile, at BBH, clarity is the name of the game as its impeccable succession management strikes again.

Last week's big news was so big that not only did Campaign splash with the story, even though it appeared first in one of its competitors, but it was also deemed worthy of a double-page Close-up spread.

So, starting at the start, John O'Keeffe, the executive creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty for the past eight years and apparent BBH lifer, has buggered off to do what, on paper, is, pound for pound, the biggest creative job in the advertising world - the creative director of WPP.

Almost immediately, in true BBH style, the agency had announced its succession plan with the news that Nick Gill and Rosie Arnold - both creative directors and part of the senior management team - were being promoted to executive creative director and deputy executive creative director, respectively.

The phrase "they have some big boots to fill" is used often in this sort of piece but it has probably never been more apt.

It's fair to say that O'Keeffe has been one of the most successful ECDs of his generation and has helped mould BBH into the uber successful business it is today - not to mention steering it through three consecutive Campaign Agency of the Year awards.

Maybe this is why Sir Martin Sorrell chased him down, wined and dined him and "charmed" the pants off him.

However, it is difficult to know this for sure because, even after speaking to Sorrell - who would only refer to the vague press release - it's not at all clear why he's chosen O'Keeffe for the role, or, in fact, what the job actually is.

The release says: "In this new full-time role, he will work with WPP companies globally - across agencies, disciplines and clients - to help raise creative standards."

And this is the confused e-mail response from a WPP spokesperson: "John will be full-time focused on the WPP role. The WPP world is a sizeable one now so plenty to do ... at the parent company there are other top talents like Jon Steel who bring vast experience in planning for our companies to call on ... this is the same idea but on the creative side. All part of the Group's oft-stated strategy ... to improve further creative standards across the board ..."

Right ... so far, so vague. And O'Keeffe can't do much better when the same question is posed to him: "The role is deliberately broadly defined as helping to improve the creative standards across WPP companies. WPP's performance at Cannes is testament to what a potent creative force it is, so I'm looking forward to working with a lot of very creative people."

This vagueness seems to add weight to a strongly held belief that it is still pretty much a non-job. A figurehead with a fat salary.

The second part of that sentence may well be one of the main reasons why O'Keeffe has decided to fly the BBH coop. Obviously, Campaign wasn't told what the figure was but you can guarantee it'll be a fair chunk of change.

It's been suggested that his departure may actually be a statement about BBH's lack of intentions when it comes to selling its final 51 per cent.

One insider says: "John probably looks at other creatives, like the MCBD guys or VCCP and thinks, 'they're not as good as me, but they have a lump sum'."

But what his job will involve is something even WPP insiders are unclear about. Some say it is a talismanic position, designed to help inspire the networks. Some think it will be about travelling the world giving speeches.

However, many agree that he won't have any real power over the end creative product or the hiring and firing of personnel. This would be a shame, however, because WPP's networks are famous for good client service and robust geographical spread, rather than creative innovation.

One insider says: "Can you imagine him telling Tony Granger (the recently appointed global creative for Y&R) what to do? Or Tony listening, for that matter?"

O'Keeffe adds: "It won't be my responsibility to get involved in the detail of every client in every WPP agency in the world. There will be specific challenges and opportunities. My job will be to help in those circumstances, as well as to beat the drum, as I've always done, for the power of creativity to deliver better bottom line performance for business. It's all the more important, in times of economic uncertainty, to proclaim that message."

But, realistically, will he be able to do this? A former WPP employee says: "He'll find it easy as long as he doesn't have any principles or expectations of changing things, which I think he does. It's going to be like taking an orchid out of the hot house and planting it on a roundabout off the A3."

But it's not all bad. Money aside, it's not hard to imagine that O'Keeffe had garnered what he could at BBH and felt ready for the next challenge. The WPP job, whatever it involves, will indisputedly force O'Keeffe out of his comfort zone, offering both scale and the buzz of trying something new.

Indeed, not everybody has a derogatory view of the role. Tim Mellors, the worldwide creative director of WPP's Grey Worldwide, says: "Sir Martin is no stranger to the needs, quirks and, above all, the value of a strong creative presence. As an agency's financial performance increasingly fails to dazzle, creative performance, as judged by independent arbiters such as The Gunn Report, become of real and influential significance to the analysts of Wall Street and the City."

Sorrell does say that O'Keeffe will be taking over the role Neil French, who is now the owner of the World Press Awards, once held.

O'Keeffe says: "Neil French is a legend. I'm not. He did the job his way. I'll do it mine."

Which is probably for the best because French was forced to retire from the role in 2005 after a comment at a talk in Toronto, where he labelled female creative directors as "crap", created a global stink after being published on a blog.

It is unclear when O'Keeffe will be stepping into the new role at WPP. However, it is very clear that his presence at BBH is no longer required, following the agency's speedy succession management.

According to Ben Fennell, the managing director of BBH, the plan to use Gill and Arnold as replacements for O'Keeffe had already been in place for a while and the agency had "been looking for ways to expand their roles for some time".

This, however, has made a few observers suspicious about some of the reasons for O'Keeffe's departure to a job with which absolutely nobody in the industry would have linked him.

One thought is that O'Keeffe had become agitated with the infamous glass ceiling at BBH and the realisation that John Hegarty would not be vacating the global creative director role any time soon.

However, when challenged with this view you get a classic O'Keeffe rebuttal.

"That is absolute cack." He then backtracks a little, almost as if realising he might not be able to talk quite as openly in his new role and says: "That's not really good marketing speak, is it?"

Similarly, he brushes off any rumours that BBH was eager to get the management succession going, some saying he was told he should start entertaining other offers.

One ex-BBHer says: "At the beginning of 2008, they had five big briefs to fill and the feeling from inside is that they cracked the briefs but haven't done it with amazing award-winning work - and this was put down to John."

But, there follows another gruff response as he says: "Someone's talking rubbish."

Fennell also scotches these ideas by saying: "Nick and Rosie would be executive creative directors in any other agency and everyone around the building is extremely excited about it."

Gill, who began his career in 1984 at BMP, before joining the start-up Wieden & Kennedy 13 years later, is well known throughout the creative department as being a creative who likes to make ads. He has also been extremely prolific in the past two years, creating many of the agency's biggest campaigns.

This leads one commentator to say: "If Nick is running the department then who will be writing the ads? He's been responsible for pretty much all of the agency's good work in the past year."

Then consider the fact that he left Wieden & Kennedy because he wanted to go back to writing ads and not running a department, and the decision may not look as sound as Fennell claims it is.

However, Gill honestly believes that neither of these points will be a problem. "In the past year, I've been taking on more and more of the ECD responsibility and been doing less ads, but I have been trying to instil my passion into other's work, which is just as fulfilling."

Fennell also points to the help Gill will get from Arnold, who is adept at the people side of things. Arnold adds: "Nick is very much focused on the work, but with me to back him he has the time to be."

Both realise that their task is going to be enormous because of the size of O'Keeffe's legacy but they also realise that they are inheriting an exceptionally strong creative department.

Arnold says: "He wasn't everyone's cup of tea but he's left a great train set for us to play with." While Gill adds: "We're not nervous or apprehensive, we have a lot of expertise to work with and that's what Rosie and I are excited about.

"Our biggest challenge will be to instigate a cultural reaffirmation. A lot of businesses are systemic, but we want everyone to just enjoy what they are doing."

In a bid to explain this, Arnold points especially to her recent three-month sabbatical where she took the opportunity to go back to art college. "We just sat around talking about art, no pressures or business, just the art. We want to instil that here."

Russell Ramsey, the executive creative director at JWT, and former BBH creative, says: "Nick is an ad genius, especially when it comes to films, while Rosie is great in new-business and an infectious, bubbly person. I think as a duo they will work very well. And I do think Nick has been given much more responsibility in the past few months and I think he has really grown into the role. People respect him and want to work with him."

It seems that it will be expected for the pair to work very closely together - but both of them say that this is something that they not only already do very well, but are looking forward to furthering.

Gill says: "I wish you could bottle what Rosie has. She's so confident and energetic." While Arnold says of Gill: "His attention to detail makes up for any of my reckless excitement."

While Gill and Arnold have their roles planned out, it seems that O'Keeffe may be slightly more in the dark about what will be expected of him and, therefore, how to achieve it. However, what they do have in common is a huge weight of expectation to perform.

WHAT LIES AHEAD FOR O'KEEFFE

- Neil French - owner of the World Press Awards and former creative director of WPP

Well, well, well. The job will have changed beyond recognition since I held the title. In those days, none of the WPP flagship agencies had a worldwide creative director, so my life was spent tootling around the world, lending a hand, and more importantly an ear, to any individual creative director who asked. It was a wild ride; incredibly tiring on the one hand, and rewarding beyond measure on the other. Along the way I made some firm friends among the existing glitterati, and was chuffed to death to see many of my hitherto-unsung mates make it to stardom. I admit I failed to recruit Dave Droga and Tony Granger, but they've done quite nicely without my help.

Which brings us to the golden lining of the job that faces O'Keeffe. He gets to work with an all-star line-up of worldwide creative directors. His travel-schedule will, I'm sure, be a lot less barmy, and he'll be able to work on quality accounts. Plus he'll be spared the agony of trashing the hopes and dreams of creatives in smaller offices, or indeed spotting and nurturing talent in those offices. Such is life at the top.

Possibly best of all, he'll be working with Sir Martin, and believe me, there's no more supportive and hands-on bloke in this racket. I almost envy him.

- Matthew Bull, creative director, Lowe Worldwide

Accountability without responsibility is the greatest pitfall of the job. Accountability: If the creative output of your subsidiaries doesn't improve significantly, it's your fault. Responsibility: Only problem is, you don't have the power of hiring or firing the chief executives and creative directors. And anyone who's anyone in this business knows it's those two positions that control the quality of the work. It's hard enough being given that responsibility in a network so to get it at WPP, Omnicom or IPG is going to be a big, big task.

Of course there is another approach - work with what you're given and create opportunity and deliver inspiration. It would be a waste if John wasn't given the chance to turn some business within the wide world of WPP around. As for inspiration, well that's the easy part really. Easy, but very individual in that all great leaders have their own way of doing it.

Make no mistake, this is an incredibly tough job to feel fulfilled by as a creative person. But it can be a profitable one if Sir Martin gives John the necessary power to change what he feels needs changing, be it in any office, or at any agency brand within the WPP group.

- Tim Mellors, worldwide creative director, Grey Worldwide

John O'Keeffe owes more than he will ever know to Charles Saatchi. Saatchi never held the creative flat-earther's view of art for art's sake, he was always looking to see how creativity could genuinely work in the service of commercial gain. John Hegarty, who was once Charles' head of art and has called him "his hero", has refined the master's palette and helped create in BBH another network that brilliantly bridges art and commerce.

Given WPP's now deep and eclectic offering in the whole marketing pantheon spanning PR, design and above all digital, O'Keeffe's early adoption and strong advocacy of the holistic approach, which BBH has been uniquely successful in adopting, is a vital part of his brief. While he will be collaborating with Craig Davis, the worldwide creative director of JWT, Tony Granger at Y&R and myself, the role is different and separate to ours in that the whole WPP group offering comes under his creative gaze. A big job, as Sorrell clearly wants to take the cudgel to Omnicom, but a vital one. Sir Martin will give John real power, a clear brief and financial backing, but can he take on the creative champ and win? As Mr Saatchi always said: "Nothing's impossible."

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