The Networkers: Ann Fudge

In the first of a new series of interviews with advertising's global leaders, Claire Beale talks to Y&R Brands' head. With her client background the task is huge, but Ann Fudge enjoys a challenge.

There's no fight like a fight between siblings. Just ask Mediaedge:cia about its spat with Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R.

Doing what media agencies are now supposed to do, MEC recently did a strategic appraisal of COI Communications' Energy Savings Trust's communications.

MEC decided that what Energy Savings needed was rather less above-the-line advertising than they had previously enjoyed. The trouble is, Energy Savings' ad agency happens to be MEC's sister creative agency, which was not best pleased with the advice: not much of a role for Jim Kelly's heroes. RKCR/Y&R apparently "went ballistic".

Of course, this sort of tiff between an advertising agency and its sister media agency is common and increasingly so since media agencies are under pressure to demonstrate their "neutral" thinking. Creative agencies, though keen to adopt the neutral tag, have little to gain and often much to lose from such thinking. As for what's best for the client, well ...

So what's all this got to do with Ann Fudge, the chairman and chief executive of Young & Rubicam Brands of almost a year standing?

Well, for starters it's a small, local but representative indication of the task facing anyone who has to manage a group of companies that are all essentially fishing in the same client pool but with no clear shared interest. As the head of Y&R Brands, Fudge is now mistress of a global company with around 550 offices in some 80 countries, with divisions that span advertising, media, direct marketing, PR, design and more. Turf wars, fiefdoms and corporate politics come with the salary.

But RKCR/Y&R's spat with MEC brushes up against a deeper issue that Fudge has put at the top of her agenda: collaboration. The Y&R group has for too long been a disparate bunch of companies - some successful, some not so - with little concerted coherence and certainly no formal structure for harnessing the power of the group as a whole in the service of the client. When Fudge's predecessor, Mike Dolan, was edged out of the role, there was speculation that WPP (the group's parent since 2000) was not satisfied with the pace at which the individual brands were being positioned as a family of services.

Fudge's mantra is collaboration within a framework that sets the client's business - rather than Y&R's objectives - at the core.

Now, before we go any further there are a few things you should know about Fudge. First, obviously, she's a woman. Second, she's black. Third, she's a grandmother. There you have it. None of these things in themselves - or even, ideally together - should be at all noteworthy. But in the painfully conventional world of advertising, of course, they are. Not to make a big deal out of it (Fudge certainly doesn't, shrugging off any suggestion that being different is a disadvantage, or even an advantage) but these things can only add to Fudge's stock.

It's no surprise that her PC credentials, allied to her impressive CV, have attracted the attention of a range of companies looking for non-executives (General Electric, Marriott International). "Ann, you're on quite a few non-executive boards, aren't you," one colleague remarked recently. "Heck, if I was a lesbian as well, I'd be on all of 'em," Fudge apparently quipped.

In terms of her Y&R role, though, it's her client-ness - the fact that she's from the other side - that marks her out as different on a practical level. For instance, in many ways it probably takes an outsider's unfettered - perhaps even naive - perspective to pick on group co-operation as a publicly stated goal. But while Fudge most definitely is not a spawn of the advertising mire, she comes with the sort of CV that should set many clients on their toes.

Fudge signed up to the Y&R role back in May 2003 after taking a two-year sabbatical to go travelling. It was two years off after a career under the skin of marketing and business management. She started out at General Mills after graduating from Harvard Business School in 1977 (where, incidentally, she managed to have two children).

At GM, she worked on developing and launching Cheerios before bailing out for General Foods. After its merger with Kraft Foods, she was appointed as the president of the $5 billion beverages, desserts and cereals division in 2000.

So she has incredibly solid experience in packaged goods marketing. She's a little peeved when I put it like that, though. "Business experience, I think, overall," she stresses. Fudge is very keen to emphasise her empathy with clients as business managers rather than keepers of the advertising purse. And that's key, too, to where she believes Y&R Brands should sit. "We need to be business partners and brand-building partners for our clients," she insists. It's a theme she returns to often.

As a client, she says, she'd brushed up against several Y&R companies.

"I had worked with Landor, Burson-Marsteller, Y&R Advertising, Wunderman. I knew what they were capable of at the height of their performance. But I knew that some of the lustre had been lost. When this job came up, well, the idea of coming back to businesses and people that I was familiar with and to be able to play a role in raising its profile and bringing it back to greatness was very, very intriguing."

Y&R Brands is certainly a company in need of a lustre implant. When Burger King fired Y&R earlier this year, its chief executive, Brad Blum, said that he was looking for "ground-breaking, results-orientated and innovative advertising". The implication, at least, is that he didn't feel he was getting that from Y&R. Burger King is a notoriously fickle client, true.

But it was a major PR blow for the newly installed Y&R Brands chief. "It was definitely one of the lows," she admits. "It was a surprise. But I'm not gonna talk about it. Time will be the final arbiter."

Despite the breadth of the group offering, the health of the Y&R creative agency is key. And here much will depend on how strong a front Fudge can present alongside her global creative director, the notoriously demanding Michael Patti. Y&R's creative output needs to be the brightest product in its shop window and it needs more profile.

And MEC has never really carved out a successful position for itself in the media arena, always tied - ironically - too closely to its creative sister to compete against the major independent networks. Now, after the merger with the old CIA Medianetwork, and having imported some of its talent, the ambition is clearer, but the tarnished reputation and lagging behind the competition will mean that significant (international new-business) turnaround will take time.

In some respects, however, all of this may help make Fudge's task a little bit easier. There seems to be a growing recognition that "something has to be done" and that the bigger prizes will come from sharing knowledge, leads, resource and income. The recent UKlaunch of strategic unit Nylon, a 50/50 joint venture between Y&R Brands and MEC, is a really good start.

"The biggest challenge," Fudge says, "had been getting what I call a 'go to market' strategy for Y&R Brands. It wasn't very clear to me what our differentiator was. So we did a lot of work with blind interviews, with consulting companies, with client partners and we went through a self-assessment to understand what people thought about us in the marketplace and what space we wanted to hold."

If all this sounds rather like a case study from a marketing text book, then that's very Fudge. Her whole approach, from her cheery but considered conversation to her points of reference to her caution and the very lexicon she chooses to describe her ambitions, is steeped in the language of the FMCG handbook. This is hardly surprising, given her background, though it does make her seem rather more restrained, rather less expansive, colourful and vibrant than some of her advertising peers. Thank God for that say some of her lieutenants, most of whom, so far, have only positive things to say about their new mistress, praising her "bedside manner" and identifying her as an enabler, a facilitator.

Whether this likeable but restrained demeanor is the right approach for shaping Y&R Brands is moot. Achieving collaboration between a disparate group of self-serving companies (and refereeing the sort of dispute mentioned at the start of this feature) requires some tough and unpopular decisions.

Either this "bedside manner" is simply an early-days way of navigating the vipers' nest in which Fudge finds herself and she has the steel to drive through her ambitions. Or she'll get eaten alive.

Fudge certainly talks a tough game and her toothy smile hides a no-nonsense bite. "There really are times when we are our own worst enemy inside the company and there are some times that despite our best efforts to work collaboratively, people still fall back and talk a lot about the past and 'we can't do this because ...'. And that can be frustrating, though I don't let them finish the 'because ...'"

As to how she's going to persuade her group companies to, say, recommend the services of a sibling rather than their own division, or accept, say, that an MEC media strategy might perhaps result in less advertising and more product sampling, well that's something of a Holy Grail. How do you ask your management to accept less income and profit (on which their bonuses traditionally are based) for the sake of the greater common good?

"That's a great question," she flatters. "I don't have that figured out yet. And you know what? It's not really important. And let me tell you why. I really have a thing about this, I get pretty passionate about it. The bottom line is the bottom line and revenue streams can come from multiple sources. I need to figure out how to reward collaboration. Right now, I'm probably going to be the one to make the judgments about how things are split. But part of the issue has been in the past that before we even proceeded to talk about what we could do for our client partners, the discussion went to who's going to get the income. Absolutely the wrong way to build your business, wrong. Because we're focused on the wrong thing. We've got to make sure we've got the goods first, otherwise our energy is focused totally in the wrong place. We're going to start with doing what's right for our clients, not just what's right for us."

And she believes that her team has the breadth to really pull it off.

"No-one else can do it. No-one else has the wealth and the depth of a Wunderman or a Landor or a Sudler & Hennessey. There is no other agency network that has all that. And if we can really harness all that and work collaboratively - which is something that we are totally focused on - and put some great processes in place to make sure we're not missing opportunities ... it's huge."

Next week: Jerry Judge, Lowe Worldwide.

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