The Networkers: Bob Jeffrey

J. Walter Thompson's worldwide chief executive was hired last year with a brief to reinvent the agency and bolster its creative firepower. He tells Rachel Gardner about meeting the challenge. When Bob Jeffrey was appointed to the role of worldwide chief executive at J. Walter Thompson last year, the unmistakable signal sent out to the network was that the time for change had arrived.

Allegedly hand-picked for the post by its chairman, Peter Schweitzer, with just a six-year stint at the agency under his belt, Jeffrey became the ninth chief executive at JWT last August. He is also the first in its 140-year existence without a history entrenched in the agency.

For Jeffrey has moved around a lot.

After launching his advertising career at DDB in New York, he was appointed executive vice-president at Chiat/Day. But the lure of seeing his name above a door led to the creation of Goldsmith/Jeffrey, which went on to become one of the hottest creative outfits in New York.

Lowe acquired the agency in 1996 and just two years later, having established its first West Coast operation (growing the business to more than $150 million in billings in just 12 months), Jeffrey left. Out of the blue, he received a call from a board member at WPP regarding JWT New York.

The Kodak and Citibank accounts had recently defected and the agency was crying out for a renaissance.

For a self-confessed entrepreneur, it was a challenge simply too tempting to resist.

Jeffrey, as the president of JWT New York, initially spearheaded the growth of the agency's flagship office. A shrewd account man, he brought in the blue-chip clients Merrill Lynch, KPMG and Novell to help the WPP shop regain its footing. In 2002, Adweek named JWT North America its Eastern Agency of the Year, just one year into his tenure.

I meet the man in question on an uncharacteristically hot, sunny morning in Knightsbridge. In an open-collared bright blue shirt, his demeanour is approachable and relaxed, and he is keen to make the most of the good weather and conduct the interview outside.

He informs me that every day he performs a different type of yoga. At 50 he shows no signs of slowing down, while in keeping with his physical vitality, he has an unfaltering passion for all he does.

Energy will be needed, and in abundance. Jeffrey has pledged to transform what has widely been considered an old-fashioned, planning-based agency - whose principal business strength lies with servicing packaged goods-based clients from outposts across the world - into a zany creative agency.

On this aim he is unwaveringly emphatic: "Priority number one, priority number two and priority number three is creative," he states."In the most simple way, we absolutely want to deliver a better creative product."

By this he does not just mean an improvement, defined by what JWT was offering a year ago or by being the best in the category. Rather, he believes, success is characterised by the objective measurements such as awards shows and recognition within the creative media.

On this front, many consider the network no longer the global power it once was. In the creative arena eight or nine years ago it was collecting handfuls of awards at Cannes for its work on Persil, Philadelphia and Polo, among others.

But lately there has been a distinct lack of JWT representatives climbing on to the podium to collect any Lions. Notably, the agency is absent from the consolidated Gunn Report 1999 to 2003, which totals up the key award-winners and stands as a unique performance indicator of whether agencies and networks are consistently delivering the goods.

Recapturing JWT's former creative clout is unlike any test Jeffrey will have encountered so far in a career that has been, by his own admission, with "real creative agencies producing highly acclaimed award-winning work". At an agency the size of JWT - which lays claim to 310 offices in 86 countries, more than 8,000 staff and worldwide billings of $1,178.5 million - transformation is always going to be a steady, if not protracted, process.

So, one year in, what proof is there that Jeffrey is turning things around?Attracting a high level of talent is the key. "It all comes down to talent and people," he says. "It's about bringing in the right people to make JWT a destination brand."

Publicis New York's former chairman and chief executive, Barry Krause, has replaced Brian Heffernan in Chicago, while Rosemarie Ryan, the strategic planner, has been hired to head the New York agency. Jeffrey admits her appointment at the end of last year, after eight years in an operational role for Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, was unexpected, but he felt it was right for the agency's future. He believes she has the credentials to win global clients and drive JWT's headquarters to the next level.

The introductions of new general managers and creative directors in New York, Detroit, Chicago, Houston and Atlanta, among others, have also served to re-energise the management ranks, while the appointment of Nick Bell from Leo Burnett as the executive creative director in London conveys a clear statement: JWT is looking to invest in its creative and raise the game.

Bell has an impressive track record but, after a somewhat turbulent year, the jury is still out. Rumours from within the agency suggest he has ruffled feathers and is not without his critics.

Perhaps the most recent dramatic example of Jeffrey's determination to effect creative change in London is the hiring of Craig Davis as the European creative chief. Saatchi & Saatchi's creative reputation fared well under his leadership and those who know him believe he can unite the agency.

The close collaboration between Davis and Bell is a model that Jeffrey is trying to promote around the world, in the absence of any immediate plans to introduce a global creative chief, which would further bolster the agency's firepower.

He defends this decision by saying: "I think the global roles are really challenging and there is a danger the person can end up spending virtually all of their time on a plane.

"The way you change an agency like JWT is to start at the 5 and 10 per cent level. If you look at revolutions that have happened throughout history, they start with small cells of people."

Davis, together with Michael Maedel, the worldwide president, is charged with moving the agency forward in the Europe, Middle East and Africa region.

Maedel's role in the partnership is to accelerate business growth and profitability by concentrating on developing integrated communications solutions. Jeffrey describes the calm, collected Austrian simply as a "superb business guy".

"Part of the challenge of transforming JWT is that it's not enough to change the creative product, or the creative talent," he says. "You have really got to re-engineer the business part of it to be consistent with that, and I think Michael is terrific in that area."

Outside of the US headquarters, London is a pivot for the health of the network. But the agency is currently under pressure to deliver on the main Smirnoff brand from its key Diageo client, which has called a review of its Ice variant. Unless the agency can secure the account, Smirnoff could also soon be heading for the door. The loss would be a major blow to morale. The relationship with Ford, JWT's largest client around the world, is also vital.

Organising the network so that the client can obtain the best leverage from its talent pool, across countries and forms of communication, is a lead factor in Jeffrey's business strategy.

Jeffrey has accordingly created "Ford First Call", to make any local or global resource available to Tom Cordner, the Detroit-based creative director on the account.

To forge a stronger creative community, he has started distributing briefs across the offices. Assigning vaunted creatives to briefs that have a larger global application, he claims, will help to shift the agency's brand reputation.

"We have opportunities at JWT to build strong creative centres of excellence around the world," he says. "But one of the challenges at JWT is to make big small. We've got size, scale and scope, which is great in terms of distribution and brand width, but you've got to balance that against the values of small, which are about accountability and smaller teams that have ownership on assignments."

The geographical area that is Jeffrey's heartland is in reasonable health.

It has been re-engineered from a traditional ad agency structure into an outfit capable of devising integrated brand solutions. As the North American chief he developed digital@JWT, the interactive advertising and e-business unit; connect@JWT, the direct response and CRM group; and health@JWT, the new dedicated health-related brand.

A further reorganisation of the Los Angeles and San Francisco offices was shaped in the summer. In a push to strengthen the creative bench and streamline the structure, the two outfits were regrouped under the JWT West umbrella that previously existed in the 80s and 90s.

Victory for WPP in the global HSBC pitch, on which JWT was the lead agency, presents a great opportunity but new business remains somewhat patchy elsewhere. Last year the Chicago and New York offices participated in more than 30 reviews but reeled in few big-time wins. The main accounts have come from the fall-out of the now-defunct Bates.

Following WPP's purchase of Cordiant, the pharmaceutical giant Pfzier shifted $300 million of its business into health@JWT. More recently, the Chicago office clinched the State of Illinois' tourism advertising account along with the Stouffer's "red box" line of frozen foods, a division of Nestle.

However, effective business management helped the agency's revenue inside the US increase by 15.9 per cent year on year as it topped the charts for the second consecutive year. Despite this, it is arguably at its creative nadir, with only one direction in which to head.

Gary Goldsmith, the chairman and chief creative officer at Lowe New York, and Jeffrey's former partner, says: "JWT has been in one kind of place for so long that it's not something that you can change overnight but if anyone can do it, Bob can."

Failure is simply not an option for Jeffrey. He wants JWT to be at the forefront of the ad industry's reinvention and nothing less will suffice.

He talks a lot about creative needs as a legitimate currency but there has been no dramatic turnaround in output as yet.

But striving to instill the start-up mentality that he knows so well into the agency, with its big dreams and heritage challenges, should make him the best man to deliver the goods.

"There is a certain amount of tension and disruption I'm trying to build into the culture, because you don't get to the next level of performance without constantly pushing yourself," he says."And it's uncomfortable too - you've got to get people out of their comfort zones."

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