Feature

The Networkers: Rick Bendel

A hugely private figure, the man at the helm of Publicis likes to keep a low profile in the industry. John Tylee helps Rick Bendel to overcome his discomfort and talk about his love of learning.

You would need to look long and hard to find a senior industry figure whose career and profile are more sharply contrasting than Rick Bendel, the man at the helm of Publicis, the world's fourth-largest global network.

He's been one of the youngest-ever managing directors of a UK agency and played a major role in driving the Publicis agency in London towards the top of the rankings.

Not only is he the first non-Frenchman to command the organisation, now employing 12,000 people working from more than 200 offices in 87 countries, but only the third leader Publicis has had since Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet set it up in two rooms above a delicatessen in Faubourg Montmartre in 1927.

Yet it's doubtful whether the man who seems not to have put a foot wrong on the path to the top of Publicis would even be recognised by most of his peers if they passed him in the street.

At the age of 46 and with an agency career stretching back almost three decades to the time when he was cutting out press ads in Leo Burnett's voucher department, Bendel remains an enigmatic and intensely private figure.

A seemingly innocuous question about how he spends his spare time is stonewalled. He won't even say how many children he has. And don't bother consulting the Campaign A List for enlightenment. His entry simply declares: "Details not supplied."

No IPA search party is ever likely to whisper in his ear about taking on the presidency. Not least because he has never served on an IPA committee and is a permanent absentee from the industry circuit. Even Bendel concedes that such aloofness may not be wholly sustainable in his role as the Publicis chief operating officer. Indeed, he promises to break cover soon to speak at some conferences.

This, you suspect, may prove a bit of an ordeal. Talking to the world outside Publicis and its clients doesn't come easily to him. The nervousness is underscored not only by his broody, almost scary, presence but the number of Marlboro butts in the ashtray by the end of his conversation with Campaign.

Silence often punctuates the questions and answers going back and forth across the table of his unpretentious and spartan third-floor office at Publicis in London's Baker Street. It isn't that Bendel is lost for a response, it's just that he wishes to weigh his words carefully.

When he speaks, his arguments are well-articulated and when he makes the case for the Publicis raison d'etre, it's with an intellectual passion that belies the fact that he left school at 17 and eschewed a university education. This was because he was an independent-minded middle child, he explains, and he's glad he didn't emulate his older and younger brothers who both went to Cambridge.

His discomfort also seems to manifest itself in attempts to interrogate the interrogator with questions of his own. These range from whether the global communication groups are justifying their existence to the new season's prospects for Chelsea, the team he's supported since he was a child in Hammersmith.

What's clear from all this is that Bendel is perpetually eager to learn and isn't prepared to squander attention on those he deems incapable of adding to his bank of knowledge. Clients are his obsession.

"One of the greatest joys of my job is to meet with and learn from some of the greatest business leaders in the world," he says. "I love people. But I love those I can learn from. And they may not necessarily be the top people. I don't find mingling with the great and the good of the industry is a valuable use of my time."

Perhaps the best way of understanding Bendel's way of working is to have him talk about the people he has most admired during his working life and who have helped define his business philosophy. The first is Stanley Pollitt, the father of planning. Bendel joined the then Boase Massimi Pollitt as a media planner some 18 months after the agency emerged as the first of the new wavers in 1968. Pollitt taught that the customer was king and understanding consumers should guide everything an agency did - a principle Bendel continues to hold dear.

"Our job is to be experts on people - how they think and how they behave," he declares. "That's the vital information we provide to clients who want to sell more. We can all provide striking creative work but it's the relevance of it that really matters. I'd much rather spend 15 minutes with a client just talking about what it's like to be a Croatian, rather than comparing the regional market shares of the competition."

The second influence is Bob Gross, the founder and chairman of Geers Gross. When he died in 1991 after 26 years in charge, it was a youthful Bendel, as a raw chief executive, who was to guide the agency (one of the first to go for a public flotation) into a merger with Publicis later that same year. Gross left behind a reputation as the over-protective autocrat of Britain's seventh-largest agency, best known for creating such memorable animated characters as Fred the Homepride flour grader, the Access Flexible Friend and "General" Accident.

Nevertheless, Gross' legacy of pragmatism rubbed off on his protege.

"Bob not only taught me everything was possible but that selling wasn't a dirty word but a fundamental requirement for our industry."

Into the mix of those who've made a lasting impact must also go Allan Leighton and Archie Norman, the iconoclastic senior executives who transformed Asda into a formidable supermarketing force. Bendel has long been the top suit on Asda and remains very close to it. "From Allan and Archie, I learned commercial literacy," he says. "They taught me huge amounts about managing a business and its people."

Nobody, though, has had a more profound and enduring influence on Bendel than Maurice Levy. With a combination of seductive charm, shrewd business sense and calculated risk-taking, the Publicis Groupe chairman has grown his operation out of its European heartland to become a global powerhouse, embracing not only the Publicis network but Saatchi & Saatchi and Burnett.

Bendel was struck by his mentor's stature and charisma from the moment he first met him to discuss a merger with Geers Gross. Michael Conroy, the smooth-talking Irishman, then the chairman of Publicis in the UK, had mooted the idea not only to improve the London agency's critical mass but to enhance its retail account-handling expertise on business such as MFI, on which it was experiencing particular problems.

Progressing from joint chief executive of Publicis in London to the chairman of the UK group, the workaholic Bendel steadily built his standing with his boss. The agency began to shed its reputation for revolving-door management while piling on significant amounts of new business.

On the surface, the urbane and sophisticated Levy and Bendel, with his bruiser image, seem light years apart. However, Bendel believes that far more unites than divides them. As he points out, neither are out of advertising's equivalent of Central Casting and both combine a high competitive instinct with a highly client-centric approach.

"Maurice has Gallic flair but always keeps his feet on the ground," Bendel declares. "I really like the way he's challenged the market, his ability to inspire people and the interpersonal skills he unquestionably has. Our ways of working are very similar but, above all, he's taught me the art of listening and the bravery of re-invention."

Levy also has a history of springing surprises. He lived up to that reputation in October 2002 when he announced the dismemberment of his newly acquired D'Arcy, and that Bendel, then the Publicis regional chairman for the UK and the Nordic region, would take charge of the network.

The appointment caused eyebrows to be raised all the way from Le Figaro to The Wall Street Journal at what was a landmark moment in Publicis history - a clear signal that the network was evolving from its French roots to become a multicultural and multinational operation.

Bendel claims to have encountered no resentment over his elevation, although it doesn't mean there wasn't any. He has no doubts that it was the result of a job well done by somebody immersed in the Publicis culture. Nevertheless, he's clearly flattered to be entering what he calls a "tight-knit family".

However, he's in no doubt about the special burden placed upon him. "By its name, Publicis is the flagship of the group," he says. "How we do is how the group is perceived."

The assimilation of much of the D'Arcy business has got him off to a good start, enabling the network to bolster its presence in the US and Latin America. At the same time, there's been a significant investment in talented senior managers. One is Tim Lindsay, the former Lowe Worldwide president, who joined earlier this year as the chairman of the Publicis UK group with a brief to make its integrated offering more compelling.

Another is Dave Droga, plucked from running the creative department at Saatchi & Saatchi in London to become the Publicis worldwide creative director.

"You can't be a global network of stature unless you have a strong creative product," Bendel insists. "We felt our output didn't match what we were achieving in business terms." A dozen top awards at this year's Cannes festival and a rise up the global creative rankings from 16th to eighth reflects the fact that the renewed emphasis is paying off, he claims.

Now, with the new management bedding in and creativity improving, what sort of network does Publicis want to be? Bendel suggests it isn't a network in the true sense, more a collection of strong local businesses that coalesce into a network for multinational clients such as L'Oreal, Nestle and Allied Domeq.

What's more, he believes the multicultural approach of Publicis , half of whose business is local, makes it the antithesis of its US-rooted rivals who have simply transported their transatlantic cultures as they expanded to meet the demands of US-based multinational advertisers.

"They are neither as media-neutral nor as global as Publicis is and therein lies one of our greatest strengths," Bendel claims. "We're a multicultural, locally focused business, which has become global by calling and not necessarily out of choice."

The near future will be a testing time for him. Should the network thrive, many believe Bendel, having succeeded Levy once, could do so again.

He's wary of overplaying his hand. "I didn't expect to get the job I've got and I'm very happy with it," he comments diplomatically. He also hints that the demands of running Publicis Groupe would cause him to weigh up the pros and cons carefully should the call ever come. But he acknowledges that attitudes evolve over time. "If they'd asked me five years ago if I wanted to run a network, I'd have said no."

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