Close-Up: Newsmaker - 'Next-generation' Publicis gets ready to rumble

Publicis' chief claims he's hired a formidable team to get the agency back on track - but can they pull it off?

Neil Simpson, the chief executive of Publicis, can't wait for the day when this becomes his actual title, and not Neil Simpson, the chief executive of the "ailing", or "struggling", or "beleaguered" Publicis.

To be fair, the agency's fortunes in the past year and a bit mean that these sorts of adjectives roll off the tongue easily. You must expect to find them creeping into copy or conversation when you lose £80 million worth of business (including Asda, £43 million, MFI, £27 million, and the Post Office, £12 million) and you go through two senior management teams.

First, the chief executive, Grant Duncan, and UK group chairman, Tim Lindsay, left the agency. Then, as a stabilising move, Richard Pinder, the chief operating officer of Publicis Worldwide, promoted Nik Studzinski and Kim Douglas (he became the executive planning director) to run the agency. Both left within six months.

To think that there is not a huge job at hand to kill off these descriptors may seem a little naive. But Simpson - a former marketer at Adidas and Vodafone, who'd had no previous experience of running agencies before he took the reins at Publicis in September last year - believes he and his new team can, with a lot of hard work and enthusiasm, not only lay them to rest.

"There was some serious neglect in the past. It's my job to galvanise the company and breathe some pride back into the talented people we have here. All I can do is recognise the fact that it needed a total clearout, do that, and then bring in a whole new team and get us up and running again. Simple, eh?" he says with a laugh.

The humour, however, belies an almost unshakeable confidence in his plans for the agency and his choice of senior management partners. It's that last word that he emphasises - they're not employees, but his partners.

They are namely Tom Ewart and Andy Lear, a creative and a planner from the soon-to-be closing Shop, and Adam Kean, a creative director at Publicis who has been running the creative department since Studzinski left to join Mother in February this year.

Lear will be the head of planning while Ewart and Kean will become joint executive creative directors.

Yes, you read right. No huge "been there and done that" names. No "big ECD", but an internal promotion and a pair of colleagues from a stricken agency who hardly have a superstar reputation.

Despite the Shop duo spending time at TBWA, CHI & Partners and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO between them, it is Kean - who spent most of his career at Saatchi & Saatchi and ran the creative department for a spell - who has the biggest reputation.

"I had a lot of interest from big-name players, but they're not who I wanted. They wouldn't fit where I want to take this agency. I wanted someone with experience at big-agency level who had shown they are not scared to roll their sleeves up and muck in," Simpson says.

However, one source close to the hiring says Publicis struggled to attract the heavyweight talent and had its hand forced into making appointments of this stature. Another insider adds: "It would also struggle to pay someone of that stature. It's a bit of a push to think it could pay someone £500,000 a year."

However, Simpson sticks to his guns, emphasising that he's been in talks with the pair for at least two months, and that Ewart and Kean have also been meeting regularly during this time - batting away any doubts about pairing up two creatives who have never worked together before, let alone putting them in charge of a department.

Lear also chips in: "From seeing the two of them working together already I can't imagine any issues coming up that can't be sorted out with a beer." "Or a fight," Ewart interjects, while laughing.

The ability to work together quickly will be vitally important when it comes to new business. After almost a year of being "missing in action", when it comes to pitchlists the agency needs to start making its presence felt and convincing clients it is a working unit.

A former Publicis employee says: "Even with the new team, the name doesn't look right next to the CHIs and the AMVs at the moment."

Also, you still can't ignore the fact that the agency Lear and Ewart have been running for the past two years has just closed its doors and that they must be held partly responsible for this.

However, Simpson is 100 per cent behind his team: "I honestly believe that if they had not resigned, Shop would not have closed. They learned so much at the agency about how to work through different media, not just TV and print, that they're bringing a whole new feel to the agency. As for new business, when clients see what we can now offer, we'll start getting back on lists."

Lear adds: "When running an agency, whether it was perceived as a success or not, you learn so much more than when working for someone else. It's all about the experience."

And, of course, Simpson himself has only been a chief executive for seven months.

However, Lear says: "Speaking for us all, he's not inexperienced. Working on the client side for so long gives him a breadth of knowledge that most people don't have."

Simpson then brushes away any fears that failure now could end his short-lived agency-head career: "It's like someone said to me the other day, 'The beauty of it is that if it doesn't work, it won't be your fault because it was broken beforehand.'"

He then outlines his new thinking for the agency: "It's called Ignite Conversation. I can't say too much at the moment, but it will change the agency's culture, attitude and the way we work on everything.

"According to the London School of Economics, a fourfold increase in conversation means double the revenue. That is what we're basing the offer around. And the best thing is that Tom, Andy and Adam all agree with this. We've spent a lot of time just sitting round talking about this and seeing how far we can push it." Confident enthusiasm aside, the team now has to buckle down and tackle the task in hand, which is pretty formidable, by anyone's standards. Not only do they need to reassert some confidence in the Publicis name, but they need to get back on the new-business trail while upping the ante on the creative by building on good recent work for the Cadbury brands Wispa and Creme Egg.

Lear, who surfs in his spare time, sums up the challenge: "We have our eyes open and are not scared. There is a surfing phrase that I think is pertinent here that goes 'fear makes the monster bigger'."

However, the recent loss of HP's Imaging and Printing business, a £100 million global account that moved into BBDO, and rumours of a hefty number of redundancies because of this (which have been denied by the agency) means the monster may have some claws.

Although, if the confident mood of the team is anything to go by, it seems they are more than ready to face the challenges that lie ahead.

"It comes down to the fact that everybody wants to prove themselves - all four of us need to show we can do this, and we're all way too proud to fail. This all sounds extremely positive, but in advertising you have to be positive about everything all the time," Kean concludes.

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