CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER/BEN LANGDON; McCanns prepares for an injection of raw talent

Is the Ben Langdon brand of administration right for McCanns, John Tylee asks

Is the Ben Langdon brand of administration right for McCanns, John Tylee

asks



Sipping a glass of white wine in the lounge of the elegant Kensington

home of his boss-to-be, Ben Langdon, shortly to assume command of

McCann-Erickson in London, looks nothing like the boardroom bruiser he’s

made out to be.



Courteous and quietly spoken, he seems almost donnish in his gold-rimmed

glasses. Can this be the tyrant who is supposed to have reduced grown

men to crying in lavatories and to have scuffled in public when an

internal agency row spilled on to the street?



Can this be the man, still only 33, whose alleged deepest insult to any

staff deemed to be under-performing was ‘you ought to be working at

McCanns’.



Time passes and people change, and the move from Collett Dickenson

Pearce to McCanns - ‘a grown-up agency with grown-up clients’, Langdon

now acknowledges - could complete his rite of passage (Campaign, last

week). David Warden, his new chairman, certainly thinks so. ‘Campaign

will have to find another enfant terrible to write about,’ he says.



Maybe. Maybe not. Warden may want a ‘grown-up’ running the show but he

is in equal need of Langdon’s brand of aggressive energy. Clearly, this

is not available among his current crop of directors-in-charge - known

collectively as the ‘dicks’ - whose candidacies seem to have been

considered and rejected.



‘I don’t know whether Ben has matured and it may not be a good thing if

he does,’ says Mark Lund, the managing director of Delaney Fletcher

Bozell, who worked alongside Langdon for 18 months at the then Still

Price Lintas. ‘It’s that rawness that sets him apart.’



Justin Cernis, McCanns’ former new-business chief turned Mellors Reay

and Partners board director, agrees. ‘It’s a brave and exciting

appointment,’ he says. ‘Langdon will instil much needed energy and

direction into the place.’



Few doubt the agency’s need of a sparkplug. ‘McCanns is like Australia,’

a one-time executive remarks. ‘Everybody knows where it is but nobody

wants to go there.’



A cruel comment, but indicative of a widespread view. The agency has not

been getting on pitch-lists anywhere near often enough. Worse, it is

finding it can no longer rely on the unswerving loyalty of huge

multinational advertisers like Coca-Cola and Esso, which traditionally

provided the network’s raison d’etre.



Add to that recent losses such as Martini, the pounds 11 million

National Savings account and the whittling away of the pounds 25 million

Sega pan-European business and the extent of McCanns’ predicament is

obvious.



Will Langdon be the agent of change? In his favour is that McCanns, with

its base of blue-chip clients and mature international network, is an

ideal vehicle for his vaulting ambition. Less certain is whether

McCanns’ tried and trusted working methods will bend to Langdon’s

iconoclasm. One ex-McCanns senior manager is in no doubt. ‘He’ll be

carved up by the politics,’ he claims.



Undoubtedly, the appointment is a gamble for both parties, not least for

Warden, whose relationship with Mark Gault, the previous managing

director, was less than harmonious.



‘Ben and I asked each other all the tough questions,’ Warden says. ‘I

knew he was very talented and could do the job but I had to be sure

there were no fundamental differences in philosophy between us. I’ve

taken the politics out of McCanns and I’m not about to put it back.’



Key to the discussions were Langdon’s views on the calibre of the

McCanns’ senior management team he would be inheriting. ‘Decisions about

staff are for Ben to make,’ Warden insists. ‘But I don’t expect blood on

the walls.’



Whether this is true remains to be seen. One former McCanns executive

remembers Langdon’s three-month stint as head of client services at the

agency in 1993 - he would interview job seekers in his glass-walled

office as a warning to watching staffers that they might be out if they

didn’t shape up.



Langdon’s reputation for kicking ass and naked ambition - which he

claims has been fostered by his constant questioning of established

practices - is said to have its roots in childhood and the need to prove

himself to his father, the Punch cartoonist, David Langdon.



Indra Sinha, CDP’s former creative director, claims Langdon’s seeming

ruthlessness is the by-product of frustration: ‘He is one of the fastest

thinkers I’ve come across and a lot of his frustration is because other

people can’t keep up with him. He has to learn to surround himself with

clever people and to nurture them.’



Langdon was educated at grammar school in Buckinghamshire and Jesus

College, Oxford. A brief dalliance with the City followed before he

embarked on an agency career in the mid-80s as a planner at Allen Brady

and Marsh.



A short stint at Lowe Howard-Spink led to an account handler’s job at

Still Price Court Twivy D’Souza, where he was eventually put in charge

of the new-business drive. Lund remembers him as ‘a leader who never

cajoled but exhorted his people to follow him’. The result was to turn

Langdon into a solitary figure. ‘It was as if he was ‘semi-detached’ -

he was in the place but not part of it.’



In early 1993, Langdon followed Chris Still, the agency’s chairman, into

Addition Marketing, a through-the-line operation under the Interpublic

umbrella. It took everybody by surprise by capturing the pounds 6

million Mazda cars account before the infamous pavement bust-up between

Langdon and Still sealed its fate (Campaign, 11 June 1993).



Two months later, after an abortive attempt to set up shop with

Addition’s joint creative directors, Simon Green and John Dean, to

service Mazda, Langdon was back in business as McCanns’ head of client

services.



Malcolm Summerfield, the then McCanns chief executive, recalls being

left spinning in Langdon’s slipstream as he powered on to become CDP’s

managing director within three months. ‘I wanted somebody with

aggression and high energy,’ he says. ‘I soon learned he was also an

exceedingly ambitious young man.’



The CDP experience has allowed Langdon to learn the managerial ropes but

caused him to strain against his Japanese masters. ‘CDP and Dentsu have

given me a great opportunity but the industry is polarising into

international networks with scope and vision and boutiques,’ he says.

‘CDP is a strong brand - but it’s not as strong as McCanns.’



What’s beyond question is that Langdon’s commitment to his new employer

will be total. Even his most implacable critics agree that he drives

himself even harder than he drives his staff. It’s an attitude with

which McCanns’ US bosses will empathise. Moreover, his Still Price

Lintas experience means he is well used to the Interpublic way of doing

business.



And with Warden, British-born and a naturalised American who worked in

New York agencies for 18 years, alongside him, Howland Street is likely

to have better transatlantic rapport than it has enjoyed for some time.



At the same time, Warden emphasises that Langdon’s task isn’t to

replicate what he did at CDP. ‘Anybody going into CDP had to have an

agenda for change or the agency would have died,’ he says. ‘That’s not

the job at McCanns.’



That’s probably just as well. As one ex-McCanns chief explains: ‘You may

be able to survive for a time on sheer aggression but not for ever. The

big test is the soul-destroying job of dealing with the international

faxes piled on your desk every Monday morning.’



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