Claire Beale reports on the man whose determination and energy are
‘By the year 2000 we want to be the best brand-building organisation in
London.’ Nick Brien, Leo Burnett’s new managing director (Campaign, last
week), proudly wears his ambition like a badge on the sleeve of his
The man who hit Burnetts like a tornado three-and-a-half years ago as
executive media director has finally fulfilled his ambition to take the
driving seat at an agency - albeit that Burnetts is more Volvo than
But is bolshy Brien really agency management material?
Steve Gatfield, Burnetts’ chief executive, says that the thrusting Brien
was quite obviously going to go far. ‘Before we hired him, we’d
identified him as someone with an enormous amount of energy, not only a
strong media player, but someone with a strong business brain and the
ability to take a broad commercial perspective.’
Gatfield says that many people in advertising are virtuosos, ‘but Nick
has this capacity to be both dynamic in his own right while being able
to suffuse the team with his enthusiasm. He creates this forcefield of
Colleagues further down Burnetts’ food chain say Brien can be a bastard
taskmaster - going away for the weekend with your girlfriend? Tough,
this needs doing by Monday morning, the weekend’s cancelled. But Brien
himself will be there too, working as hard as the rest, for he is
blessed with nuclear energy levels and a seemingly unerring
determination that can be intimidating to lesser mortals.
‘I’m a good motivator,’ Brien says in his thick, lispy drawl. ‘But I set
tough standards and that’s hard sometimes for the rest of the team.’ The
team copes by devising a number of fondly insulting nicknames for Mr
Brien, none of which is printable. Nevertheless, publicly he elicits a
fierce respect from Burnetts staff and friends such as Paul Woolmington,
the managing director of Bozells’ media operation, 20/20.
Brien owes his first job in the industry to Woolmington, and was
recently the best man at his wedding in India (if only we could print
that picture of Brien resplendent in turban).
For Woolmington, Nick Brien is the epitome of the new breed of
entrepreneurial media businessmen who have managed to leverage their
business acumen into a broader advertising base. To illustrate his
point, Woolmington recalls one particular holiday with him. While the
rest of the party were sunning themselves with a copy of the latest
bonkbuster or Tom Clancy, Brien was reading everything from Tom Peters
to Jimmy Goldsmith.
But Brien isn’t everyone’s cup of decaf cappuccino. Charming,
persuasive, determined, yes. Great thinker, sensitive manager, general
warm and giving member of the human race, no sireee. Brien’s days of
parading his worldly trappings (fast cars, boats, posh restaurants - he
lived the advertising lifestyle of the 80s) in front of lesser mortals
may be behind him, but he still says ‘ciao’. The image can grate.
Mick Desmond, the chief executive of Laser Sales, sums up Brien’s
peculiar blend of overt confidence as ‘tempered arrogance’, but he
believes that this is exactly what Burnetts needs to reposition itself
in the market. From a tired, creatively redundant agency just a few
years ago, Burnetts is beginning to rediscover some self-respect. Those
who survived the staff purge of the past few years acknowledge that the
agency is now a better place to work, with more investment, hi-tech new
offices and a greater confidence in its future.
Not that Brien takes much credit for the changes. ‘Steve [Gatfield] put
the team together and he was the architect of the changes. I’m just one
of the team players.’ ‘Just a team player’ - is this really the
swaggering Brien talking?
It’s a telling sign of Brien’s desire to tone down the more exuberant
aspects of his personality (note the increasing incidence of Brien in
glasses) that his appointment as managing director took second place to
the news that Burnetts has two new joint media directors.
Brien - who had been dogged by a reputation as a loud, showy lothario -
had no desire to hog the headlines and every wish to see due recognition
for the media team that has managed to retain some respectability when
all around the concept of the in-house media department is under attack.
The life of Brien has spanned full-service agencies (starting as a
trainee media buyer at Grey, then through to Benton and Bowles and WCRS)
as well as setting up his own business, BBJ Media Services, the WCRS
breakaway. It was there that Brien developed his keen business acumen
and came to the fore as a loud noise on the media scene. Brien always
paraded himself as a success story, and so fiction has turned into fact.
Less successful men would put his achievements down to right time, right
place luck, to a knack with spreading the bullshit, to a himbo charm.
And it’s true. But what Brien also has in spades is drive, determination
and energy. Yes, some of his proclamations have all the substance of a
Fairy Liquid bubble, but scrape off the confidence and smarmy charm -
with which so many get so far - and Brien actually has quite a vision.
As Desmond puts it, ‘Nick has a very clear long-term plan and knows
exactly where he needs to position Burnetts for the future.’
Few who knew the pre-Brien Burnetts would recognise the company now.
What was a very traditional, departmentalised agency where, as Brien
admits, ‘integration was the exception rather than the rule’, has become
a fully integrated, well-resourced, forward-thinking operation.
‘Everything is geared to building leadership brands for our clients,’
Brien explains. And to that end, he adds: ‘The only way to be a fully
strategic communications supplier is to have a full understanding of the
client’s brand and its consumers. You can’t have that with an a la carte
list of suppliers.’ Any other company working with Burnetts clients had
better watch out. ‘I don’t want any media planning or buying, event
sponsorship, Internet site creation or database management for our
clients handled by any company other than Leo Burnett,’ Brien warns. The
gloves (soft, supple leather, no doubt) are off.
This passion for advertising clearly runs in the family. Picture this
sibling gathering chez Brien. Four brothers - the managing director of
Leo Burnett, a finance director at Saatchi and Saatchi, a media lawyer
for a well-known firm of solicitors, a financier well used to lending
money to serious media businesses - sit around and discuss the global
media market. It’s in the boy’s blood.
Last week’s announcement of the planned media merger between MAI and
United News serves as a timely springboard for the Brien philosophy.
‘These new super-companies will be able to offer advertisers marketing
solutions which go way beyond traditional advertising. I want Burnetts
to be ready to take advantage of these opportunities.’
Fortunately, the agency has an enviable list of international blue-chip
clients (Mercedes, McDonald’s, Procter and Gamble) for which such
debates are already relevant, particularly in the US. Brien says he
spends a lot of time on planes to Burnetts’ headquarters in Chicago,
‘going back and forth like a magpie picking their brains and learning
Burnetts’ success in the UK, however, remains a moot point. The agency
may well have turned the corner structurally and culturally, but it
still has a lot to prove here. ‘We have to be a success in the local
market,’ Brien acknowledges. ‘Gerard [Stamp, the creative director] has
started to turn around the creative product. It’s getting stronger and
stronger. We are definitely getting there.’
While Brien’s bluster and brawn will undoubtedly convince many that the
agency is on the up, it will take more than front to secure its future.
But those who have Brien marked down as little more than an expensive
suit with a winning smile could soon be forced to think again.