Close-Up: Newsmaker - Ramsey cuts the BBH apron strings to join JWT

Russell Ramsey is the new creative chief at JWT. Will he fare better than his predecessor, Nick Bell, James Hamilton asks.

Russell Ramsey has been quite the tug-of-love creative over the past few years. Closely linked with the senior role at WCRS and, latterly, Euro RSCG London, there were some who said the Bartle Bogle Hegarty chief creative officer would never leave; like so many of his colleagues, the agency was in his blood.

It might have taken a couple of attempts, but Ramsey has finally cut the apron strings and left his home of the past 17 years. In doing so, he assumes the role of executive creative director that he's been seeking for the past four years.

It's a move, he says, he's more than ready for. Last year, he was promoted to third in charge under John Hegarty and John O'Keeffe, and took day-to-day control of the creative department at BBH in January. "There are challenges at a new agency, but I'm ready," he says.

A former colleague agrees he's a great fit for the role: "The role BBH has had him in for the past two years has helped him grow from the creative's creative into the client-facing, man-managing creative. He's got real client-handling skills and doesn't have a lot to prove."

But what of the company he's joining? The vacant executive creative director's chair at JWT has been like an open wound at the agency since Nick Bell's acrimonious ousting in January after a brutal two years of account losses and swingeing cuts. At the time, the JWT global creative director, Craig Davis, blamed Bell's departure on an agency restructure around groups, based on pools of clients. Privately, sources at the agency say Bell and Davis didn't see eye-to-eye; the JWT chief executive, Alison Burns, is thought to have wanted to keep Bell, but was overruled.

Friends say Ramsey has never been an office politician - at BBH that role always belonged to his former partner, O'Keeffe. Why should the quiet man from South Shields fare better than Bell in a Byzantine agency structure such as JWT's, where, in addition to these account "pools", a daunting phalanx of creative directors jealously guard their global businesses?

Burns accepts that JWT has a history of complex, client-facing structures, but argues that much has been done to clarify reporting lines and make global businesses housed in Knightsbridge feel as if London is their "home". Ultimately, she says, any work created in the London office comes under Ramsey's remit. There are no grey areas. "We have a simple group structure, with five creative heads. Russell will have responsibility for all of them and their output," Davis explains.

Ramsey will be seeking hands-on account involvement at JWT - at BBH he has run the flagship Levi's and Audi tasks. "I'm hands-on," he says. "I'll probably want to take on some accounts on my own; the overall creative director should have his own bits of business."

"He can run any selection of them he chooses," Burns says, noting that Bell ran the Diageo and Pfizer accounts when he was at the agency.

Ramsey is proud of his working-class roots, modest to the point of shyness, and has forged a quiet but hugely successful career at BBH. His friend, Richard Exon, the Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R chief executive, says of his former colleague: "Russell is one of the most outstanding creative talents I've ever worked with. His skill is in recognising that creative integrity and commercial realities are not mutually exclusive."

There are some that ask if Ramsey's sometimes introverted persona makes him the right man for the top job, but Burns says it is not an issue. "A benefit of a crowd of creative directors is that there are always a lot of charismatic characters available who like that aspect of the role. Russell's primary responsibility is not to wow clients with his persona, it's to wow them with the quality of his thinking," she says.

Ramsey moved to London as a student, studying graphic design at the London College of Printing, before he began the long trawl of adland's streets to find a job. "I'd always wanted to work in advertising, even before I knew what it was," he says. "I'd see Benson & Hedges posters and think how cool they were. When I was 14, I decided that was what I wanted to do."

His big break came at Saatchi & Saatchi, where he teamed up with O'Keeffe. The agency was on the rise, and the pair worked on accounts including Allied Breweries and British Airways. One tactical ad they did for the airline made the D&AD Annual the same year that the iconic "face" ad didn't.

They moved to BBH in 1990. As Ramsey tells it, he and O'Keeffe sent their book to John Hegarty and came in for a short meeting. Hegarty said he liked what he saw, and that he'd be in touch in the following six months or so - there were no vacancies at the time. A week later, the duo were called in again and the flamboyant BBH creative director hand-wrote their contracts in front of them. Ramsey still has his, tucked away in a box somewhere.

Arguably, Ramsey is one of the best art directors in the industry, and is very much the creative's creative. But it would be wrong just to pigeonhole him as traditional. Yes, his core craft skills are strong, as shown by the work BBH has produced on Levi's over the years (he was the creative director when "twist" won everything going), but he is also well versed in the multifarious demands of modern advertising. According to Davis: "Russell has a talent for big, holistic, media-neutral solutions. He's a creative leader who is looking forward, and believes his best is yet to come."

A majority of Ramsey's media-neutral approach to creativity has come from his time as the creative director on the BBH Audi account. The agency is responsible for everything from shelf-wobblers to the creation of content for the groundbreaking Audi TV channel, and Ramsey has overseen the lot.

He worked on that account with the then BBH deputy chairman, Guy Murphy. Murphy is now the global planning director for JWT, although, following the departure of Hugh Duthie from the London planning director's role, Murphy is taking charge of the domestic market for the time being. He and Ramsey will work closely again for the foreseeable future, a partnership which many at the agency predict is capable of producing big things.

The presence of such a close colleague and friend will no doubt ease his switch from BBH, which will surely come as a wrench after almost two decades. Burns agrees that his first task in his new role will be to find his sea legs in a new culture before he sets about the challenge of joining the London management team in trying to turn around the fortunes of an agency which, just three years ago, was threatening Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO for the top spot in the UK.

Unsurprisingly, for a creative so steeped in BBH culture, Ramsey sees the JWT job as being more about improving the work: "Once you get some positive momentum going, everything else gets better."

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 46
Lives: Wandsworth
Family: Married, with three daughters aged 11, eight and four
Football team: Newcastle United
Favourite ad: "Creek" for Levi's
Favourite film: Wall Street
Favourite brand: Sony

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