Feature

All fired up

It may be devastating at the time, but getting the sack can be a fantastic opportunity. Here, five adland figures reveal how being fired spurred them on to bigger and better things.

The tin-tack. The heave-ho. The long envelope. The elbow. The sack has as wide a variety of names as the emotions it provokes among those who have had to endure it. Particularly if they've been occupying a high-level agency job.

In the hours and days that follow what Chris Thomas, dumped four years ago as Lowe London's chief executive, calls the "Oh my God moment", axe victims can endure a jumble of often conflicting feelings.

Even if your exit was no fault of your own and, like William Eccleshare, now BBDO's European chairman, you simply find yourself without a seat in a game of post-merger managerial musical chairs, the pain is palpable. "Of course it hurts, and there's no denying it," he says.

Little wonder that getting fired can cower some agency people so much that they never fully recover. "However good a job you know you've done, you can't avoid a sense of failure," one ousted agency chief admits. "The experience can scar you, and you fear you've become tainted."

Little wonder also that those determined not only to bounce back from the experience, but draw strength from it, often opt to put themselves through a physical and mental catharsis.

Stories of making symbolic breaks with the past by shedding the extra pounds accumulated through a largely desk-bound job are not uncommon.

Eccleshare, then 44, having spent more than 20 years in agencies, vowed to get himself in shape to run the London Marathon - and did so. "It gave me a target, kept me out of the house, got me fit and was fantastic thinking time," he recalls.

Tony Douglas, forced to take "early retirement" from the joint chairmanship of the then D'Arcy McManus Masius in 1995, went back-packing alone across Australia for two months. He returned to run COI (the first person from outside the civil service ever to do so) and to lay the foundations for the commercially oriented organisation that the Government's information arm has now become.

"I came back from Australia not only feeling fit and relaxed, but really confident and clear-minded," he remembers. "And I can't pretend I didn't want to prove a few people wrong."

Nigel Marsh, the British-born chairman of Leo Burnett Australia, even managed to turn what happened to him into a money-spinner, pouring out his experiences in Fat, 40 & Fired, a funny and moving account of how he sorted out his life after D'Arcy Australia, which he had been running, was killed off by its Publicis Groupe parent. The book struck such a chord among Australians, that it joined The Da Vinci Code on the country's best-seller list last year. It is still in the top ten.

For Marsh, getting the sack was a harsh reality check that brought him face-to-face with his true self and forced him to rethink his priorities.

"By the time I'd chosen to return to work, I'd stopped pretending that I believed things I don't, and stopped pretending I don't believe things that I do," he says.

"I assumed personal responsibility for the type of man I wanted to be and the future I wanted to have. However lovely your company is, they shouldn't be the ones designing your life."

The worst thing you can do is to act too quickly and with insufficient thought. Within months of being fired as the McCann Erickson executive joint creative directors, Gary Betts and Malcolm Green had set up The Mighty Big Ideas Company.

However, the venture proved to be a shortlived interlude on the way to becoming the creative chiefs at Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners. "We didn't take enough time," Green admits. "We felt we needed to prove we hadn't failed and, by setting up our own company, we could convince ourselves we were employed again."

Belinda Kent-Lemon, the IPA's human resources consultant and a founder of Occam HR, believes that refocusing and re-energising yourself is hugely important. "Don't brood," she advises. "It only makes you bitter. The people who recover most successfully from being fired are the ones who come to terms with what's happened to them very quickly and understand that it's time to move on."

The problem is that, because of its nature, the industry breeds few people with enough conviction and self-confidence to easily brush off the effects of a sacking and move on to bigger and better things.

As part of an IPA study into how agencies preserve the best talent, John Gage, who runs the research consultancy Agency People, analysed the success stories of a number of leading industry figures, some of whom had been fired earlier in their careers.

"We found that all of them had the strength of character to hold fast to their principles and ethics despite what had happened them," he says.

"The trouble is that the industry doesn't attract many people like that. Recruitment is unstructured and informal, and agency people in general are 'high adaptors'. It's not always easy to stick to your guns."

Certainly those who have been tossed out of a top job only to rise to greater heights seem to have reacted to their situation in broadly similar ways. All have drawn strength from supportive families and friends. None tried to hide away and lick their wounds. Thomas produced his own mailshot, setting out what had happened to him to former clients, business contacts and friends. Eccleshare was equally upfront. "Be honest with everybody," he counsels. "Tell them you've been fired. I've seen too many people trying to turn a sacking into something else."

Douglas stresses the importance of turning your anger to your advantage. "Be resilient, hold your nerve, be determined and take a calm view of what you're trying to achieve," he says. "In my case, my exit became my job. Finding a new one became my full-time occupation."

Successful comebacks are clearly a badge of honour for those who have done it. The feelings of injustice may never entirely recede, but the personal satisfaction more than compensates for it.

"The trite thing to say is to say that it was the best thing that could ever have happened to you," Eccleshare says. "But, like a lot of cliches, it's true. Just as long as you handle things right."

GARY BETTS AND MALCOLM GREEN

Gary Betts and Malcolm Green were fired in 1997 after just nine months as the McCann Erickson joint executive creative directors. They are now the executive creative directors at Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners, which sold to Creston in 2005 for several million.

As high-profile victims of McCann's ruthless culture during the late 90s, it comes as a surprise to hear them say they've never regretted the experience. With hindsight, the pair concede they were a bit naive to take the "McCann shilling". Having created the Gary Lineker Walkers Crisps campaign, as well as some acclaimed Volkswagen work at the then BMP DDB, they couldn't wait to be let loose on the agency's "sweet shop" of blue-chip clients.

They recount how they hadn't bargained for the corrosive nature of the agency's internal politics at the time. As relations with management deteriorated, the creative chiefs say they felt increasingly frozen out. The stalemate was finally broken when all parties agreed things weren't working out and Betts and Green departed.

"Being fired isn't the end of the world," Green says. "It can even embolden you to do things you might not have imagined possible. It makes you more cynical, because you see a side of the industry from which you were previously protected."

What other lessons did they learn? One is not to act precipitously after the axe has fallen, but to take time to think about the future. Betts acknowledges that the main reason for them going briefly into business with The Mighty Big Ideas Company was the fear of being thought of as "yesterday's men". Another was capitalise on what even a short spell in creative command at a big agency can teach. "We learned the right battles to fight," Betts adds. "And that has certainly helped us in managing a creative department subsequently."

MARK DENTON

Mark Denton and his creative partner, Chris Palmer, were ousted from the then Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow Johnson in 1994. Now a prolific commercials director, he is a partner at Therapy Films and the creative and managing director of Mark Denton Design.

Early on, Madame Claire, the Catford clairvoyant, rightly predicted a bright future for Denton. A new business, which would have his name on its door, was on the cards, she told him. Alas, her crystal ball failed to foresee the fault lines within Simons Palmer that were to culminate in his firing as the joint creative director six years later.

Thirteen years on, the incident still rankles. Indeed, Denton cites "getting fired from my own agency" as his most humbling experience in the current Campaign A List.

"I've nobody to blame but myself," he says candidly. "I was tossed out on my arse because I went into business with partners I didn't really know. I was a berk."

Denton had high hopes for the fledgling Simons Palmer, which he believed had the creative potential to be the Collett Dickenson Pearce of the 90s. Why did it go sour? Denton claims his omerta pledge prevents him from saying, although it's clear that divisions over the agency's future direction were too wide to bridge. "I was totally gutted," he recalls. "I felt it was unjustified, but I knew I had to cope with it."

Nevertheless, he acknowledges that what happened was the making of him. Once so lacking in self-confidence that he was too frightened to answer a phone during an agency meeting, he threw himself into directing despite initial misgivings he could do it.

"If I'd not been fired, I'd probably still be working at an agency and have a few bob in the bank," he says. "But I'd never have had the creative opportunities that opened up for me."

CHRIS THOMAS

Chris Thomas was fired as chief executive of Lowe London in 2003. He is now the chairman of BBDO Asia in Singapore.

Thomas knew his head was on the block at Lowe (the agency had suffered a series of devastating account losses - Orange, Burger King and a huge chunk of Vauxhall business among them), but never expected his execution to be such a civilised and bloodless affair. Within minutes of being told his services were no longer required, Thomas and Tim Lindsay, then the president of Lowe & Partners Worldwide, were shooting the breeze over a bottle of wine.

"I'd seen the axe falling on other people and I knew that unless we turned things around, it would fall on me as well," he says. "But I was still shocked and surprised, and it was hard to shrug off a sense of failure. Not only that, I had four kids, school fees and a big mortgage to worry about."

Thomas and Lowe were not a comfortable fit. Having grown up within the well-mannered environment of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, he was never happy within the more brutal culture that emerged in the wake of the merger between Lowe and Ammirati Puris Lintas.

Within three months, he had returned to his spiritual home, his appointment as chief executive of the BBDO-owned direct marketing agency Proximity London allowing him to "rejoin the family I should never have left". "Going to Proximity was the best career move I ever made," he adds. "I knew nothing about DM, but I learned so much from so many talented people, and the experience opened up a whole new opportunity."

Thomas still recalls going to his local pub with his wife, Fleur, a few hours after his sacking and hearing her prophetically consoling words. "She said this was going to turn out to be the best thing that could have happened. And she was right."

WILLIAM ECCLESHARE

William Eccleshare was the chairman of Ammirati Puris Lintas, and was left jobless when the agency was merged with the then Lowe Howard-Spink in 1999. He is now the chairman and chief executive of BBDO Europe.

Getting sacked either breaks you or re-energises you, Eccleshare says: "I've interviewed lots of people who've been fired, and you know as soon as they enter the room if the experience has defeated them or made them stronger."

Nobody would disagree that Eccleshare is of the latter category. Fully expecting to be jettisoned when Lowe and Lintas married, Eccleshare was nevertheless dispatched in brutal fashion. It was, he says, via a phone call from a New York-based senior network figure who then, rather ominously, asked to be put through to a couple of other senior executives.

"It's always painful to be told you're not wanted, even when the decision isn't personal," he says. "But having spent more than 20 years in the business, it was an obvious time to take stock."

Eccleshare could scarcely have chosen a more challenging change of direction, submitting himself to 28 interviews in seven countries to become a partner at McKinsey & Company. "Getting back on the horse is important," he says. "Just don't assume it needs to be the same horse."

The McKinsey interview process was gruelling. "It makes the average agency interview seem like a chat over a cup of tea," he comments. "But I thought it worth exploring because it was a time when the ad industry was getting paranoid about management consultants stealing their lunch."

What did McKinsey teach him? "The meaning of hard work and how to manage knowledge, talent and clients. There's no doubt that, as a result, I'm much better at what I do now because of what I learned."

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