NEWSMAKER/RON LEAGAS: Would-be leading man falls prey to familiar plot - Leagas Shafron’s collapse might lie with its founder’s aspirations By John Tylee.

Ron Leagas is every inch a showman, whether taking centre stage at his local amateur dramatic society or in the agency boardroom.

Ron Leagas is every inch a showman, whether taking centre stage at

his local amateur dramatic society or in the agency boardroom.



Flamboyant, charming with a powerful personality and temperament to

match, he takes a classic account man’s pleasure in the approbation of a

captive audience. But he also suffers from the common luvvie

susceptibility to emotional bruising.



His Pollyanna-like eternal optimism makes it difficult to tell where

theatre ends and real life begins for him. Indeed, as the curtain fell

on Leagas Shafron Davis last week, questions were being raised about how

much its chairman allowed his perceived role as actor-manager to blind

him to harsh commercial realities.



Leagas has been known to risk much rather than suffer loss of face or

respect within the advertising village. It was the need to retain his

credibility that some believe made him defer redundancies at Leagas

Shafron until the agency’s survival depended on them.



A magazine article which once described him as advertising’s ’nearly

man’ caused a deep wound. No doubt salt has been rubbed into it by the

ironic timing of his agency going into administrative receivership on

the day that the first shop to bear his name - Leagas Delaney - bought

itself out of the Abbott Mead Vickers group for pounds 4 million.



Even as Leagas Shafron fought for its life, Leagas was throwing himself

into industry activities with unprecedented vigour which included a

belated appearance at the last council meeting of the Institute of

Practitioners in Advertising. ’He arrived ten minutes late, almost as

though he wanted to emphasise his presence,’ remarks someone who was

there. ’It was as though he believed that if he could maintain the front

everything else would be OK.’



An agency chief who knows Leagas also sees a correlation between his

amateur and professional performances. ’Ron seems to be playing a role

he has written for himself,’ he observes. ’It’s not an ego trip - it’s

just that he thinks this is how people act.’



In many ways Leagas is the product of his advertising upbringing which

began as one of Saatchi & Saatchi’s original ’golden boys’. He joined

the agency during its earliest incarnation in London’s Golden Square in

1971 as marketing manager from the pharmaceutical company,

Unicliffe.



Within seven years Leagas was managing director at the age of only

29.



The freewheeling days of the Saatchis high summer have left a lasting

impression on him and he has always tried to replicate the brothers’

’can do’ approach wherever he has worked. His preoccupation is with the

’big picture’, preferring others, like his managing director and loyal

lieutenant, Mike Davis, to implement the details.



He still misses the industry’s salad days - ’I think he remains

fundamentally a Saatchis person,’ Steve Grime, the former Leagas Shafron

creative director says. As a result, many now ask if he is a man out of

his time who still harbours grandiose dreams he will never fulfil. As

one former Leagas Shafron staffer puts it: ’Ron has a habit of playing

the big baronial chairman which really wasn’t appropriate to an agency

of our size.’



It’s a far cry from the barnstorming days at Golden Square where, under

Tim Bell’s patronage, Leagas played the front-of-house role for a

disparate group of talents ranging from the Aussie charm of Bill

Muirhead to the streetwise Roy Warman.



But his privileged position caused undercurrents of envy and earned him

the nickname of ’cunning Leagas’. ’He wasn’t terribly popular,’ an

ex-Saatchis manager recalls. ’Some in the agency, particularly those

with talent and ambition, felt he had exploited his friendship with Bell

and was fortunate to be where he was.’



Nevertheless, his decision to forsake the chance to rise further up the

Saatchis hierarchy in favour of a start-up with Tim Delaney impressed

fellow managers as a bold and credible thing to attempt.



Within six years, however, the partnership had cracked open, revealing a

flood of acrimony and a backstage saga which some see as reminiscent of

more recent events.



Associates say the source of the problem was Delaney’s high expectations

resulting from going into partnership with the Saatchis managing

director.



Certainly the new agency enjoyed some initial success. But, when it

moved into a new home in Shaftesbury Avenue without first disposing of

its old offices in Endell Street, its financial vulnerability was

heavily exposed.



The clincher came in the mid-80s as Leagas Delaney contemplated a move

on to the then infant Unlisted Securities Market. To his dismay, the

newly appointed finance director found that, instead of making cash, the

agency was haemorrhaging it, a situation that was eventually to drive it

into AMV’s rescuing arms. ’Tim didn’t receive this news in too forgiving

a spirit,’ remembers an agency manager at the time. Leagas’s exit was

swift and he and Delaney are said to have barely spoken since.



A year’s gardening leave later, Leagas had bounced back, setting up

Leagas Shafron Davis with the creative, Mike Shafron, with whom he had

worked at Saatchis, and the former TBWA client services director, Davis.

The agency laid down its marker with some newsworthy creative work and,

in 1993, negotiated its entry into Europe by setting up what amounted to

a reverse takeover of Ayer’s London agency.



What sent Leagas Shafron under? Partly a costly extrication from the

Ayer network - since renamed Wilkens - after the latter’s takeover by

FCB which also forced Leagas Shafron to find new offices. At the same

time, SEAT, the Spanish carmaker and Wilkens’ biggest client, cut its UK

adspend to almost nil while Tomy, the Japanese toymaker, arrived with

the promise of a pan-European brand-building campaign only to change its

mind. Some ex-staffers, though, believe the agency had simply run out of

steam. ’I think the agency had lost its vision,’ one says. ’Not only

wouldn’t it change, it was paralysed.’



Royal and SunAlliance delivered the coup de grace. Leagas has admitted

to friends that his abortive attempt to win the protracted pitch for the

pounds 15 million combined account of its Sun Alliance client and Royal

Insurance ’caused me to take my eye off the business ball’. What’s more,

he clung to the mistaken belief that the strength of the agency’s

relationship with the client would ensure substantial other work even if

the corporate account went elsewhere.



Moving into new offices lulled Leagas Shafron staff into a sense of

false security although the fact that few were working to full capacity

was unnerving. Their fears proved real enough on Thursday 26 February

when pay cheques failed to arrive and Leagas, said to loathe

confrontation, called staff together to tell them almost half would have

to go.



’It was just like somebody had died,’ one of those present

remembers.



’Each of us sat staring straight ahead. We couldn’t bear to look at each

other. After the news one guy said we should all take responsibility for

what had happened. He wasn’t very popular.’



Not that Leagas is having to shoulder the entire blame. Even some

jobless ex-staffers believe the crisis was as much to do with him

allowing his compassion to get the better of his commonsense as anything

else. ’He feels alone and scared at being held responsible for what’s

happened,’ one confides.



What Leagas will do next is anyone’s guess. Many expect him to turn to

consultancy rather than remaining in the advertising mainstream. ’If Ron

was born again he would be a planner,’ Murray Chick, a former Leagas

Shafron director, claims. ’He has a good feel for creative work and

loves using his imagination.’



Ross Capon, Leagas Shafron’s former client services director,

agrees.



’Take Ron out of the chairman’s role and give him a strategic job and

he’d be very good,’ he says. The question is whether Leagas will ever

learn to play to his strengths rather than to the gallery.



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