A trip to WCRS these days can be like visiting a boys’ dormitory
after lights out. On the creative corridor, a few of the lads are
kicking a football around. In the bar there’s a spot-the-beard
competition going on and upstairs on the executive floor, they’re
slagging off Stephen Woodford for getting pissed at the Christmas
Yet jolly japes are not what WCRS has been known for over the years.
Vicious in-fighting, more like. Stylish ads and working your balls off
in equal measure. However, something has been changing in the agency’s
The man insiders say is responsible for this looks a little like an
overgrown schoolboy himself. The elfin-faced Woodford - almost everyone
calls him ’Woody’ - has a thatch of strawberry blond hair and the grin
of someone in short trousers who has a catapult tucked out of sight in
his back pocket.
He’s likeable. Lovable even. But you wouldn’t want to turn your back on
him in a game of conkers.
Woodford has been managing director of WCRS for nearly two years. When
he first took on the job, back in 1995, the agency had lost four of its
key accounts, two of its key people, and had just picked up the
inglorious score of two out of ten in the Campaign end of year
The past two years have seen a revival in its fortunes, however. And the
last 12 months have brought six new clients in through the doors of
WCRS, as well as comfortable amounts of new business from existing
This culminated last week in the news (Campaign, 11 January) that WCRS
had prised its last remaining rival off the Trebor Bassett roster and
had picked up the advertising account of the computer giant, Silicon
Even his mother wouldn’t say Woody had done this alone. His style, in
fact, is not to swing from chandeliers in brave feats of derring-do. No,
Woody is best at keeping his cool while others panic, and spotting the
strategic way forward when things look a mess.
He’s not the kind of guy to dash into a telephone box as Clark Kent and
reappear as Superman. He’ll disappear into the box, do some thinking,
and reappear with a shy smile ... as Clark Kent. But after some
self-deprecating jokes and a couple of strategic insights on Kryptonite,
you’ll wonder why you wanted blue tights and a silly cape in the first
Amanda Walsh, who hired him back in 1994 and who is now the managing
director of Walsh Trott Chick Smith, says she was won over by his
intelligence and ability to foster long-term relations. ’People might
say he’s too placid and quiet, not a natural leader. But he’s a
different type of leader.
Much more people-orientated. He believes that the assets of an agency
are its people,’ she says.
It was this that made Woodford a valuable foil to the eclectic Robin
Wight, the WCRS chairman and the only one of its four colourful founders
now left at the agency. Woody concentrated on keeping the ship running,
while Wight fished for new business.
’The great thing about Stephen is that he’s one of those people who make
others feel that they can do their jobs well,’ Wight says, explaining
the decision. ’Although the agency had done well in many ways, it was
also considered a bit of a bear park. I thought Stephen would bring some
calmness to the situation and give people a feeling they were cared
Woody himself admits to having a bottomless capacity for being relaxed
to the point of catatonia. He calls it being ’horizontally laid
It is usually accompanied by any number of stories against himself. For
example, there was the time when he came back from a business trip to
find that a picture from Campaign that made him look like a commercial
for blackheads had been photocopied and plastered over every inch of his
office; or the dog he bought but had to take back because he could not
stop it barking.
Woodford began his career on the client side, at Nestle. There he was
the most junior person present in a big pitch held to decide which
agency would launch a new instant coffee. ’That really made me think
that to work in advertising was what I wanted to do,’ he recalls.
So 1982 found him at Lintas, where he was thrown in at the deep end, and
he admits to making some ’horrendous cock-ups’. Or, as he puts it: ’If I
wasn’t the crappiest account manager, then I was certainly one of
Luckily, his technique improved and he moved, three years later, to a
small creative agency, Waldron Allen Henry Thompson, followed by a
switch, four years later, to the famous WCRS.
’It felt very big, slick and creative,’ he remembers. ’There was a hell
of a lot of internal politics - it wasn’t a happy shop.’ But it was the
kind of atmosphere in which Woodford thrived. The fast pace meant there
was never a dull moment and, if you could survive the infighting, the
turnover was so high that survivors ended up on a rapid promotion
The next step in Woody’s career may have been a mistake but, if it was,
he doesn’t admit it. In 1991 he moved to become deputy managing director
of Leo Burnett. Woody says the experience of working at an agency that
has a sense of its own future was ’useful’. However, his friends say he
did not enjoy the more staid culture of the network.
In any event, three years later he was back in the maelstrom of WCRS,
this time as client services director. However, more major upheavals
were in progress at the agency. The executive creative director, Alan
Tilby, quit the agency, and the chief executive, Andrew Robertson, left
for Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. Surprisingly, Wight didn’t replace him
with his deputy, Amanda Walsh, or with the vice-chairman, Phil
Georgadis, but with the freshly arrived Woodford.
Woody says he spent the whole of his first month ’putting out fires’ as
he and Wight shot between various clients, trying to stop them jumping
Two years later, he presides over an agency which places much more
emphasis on existing clients than it did in the past, has a much larger
planning department than it did, and has creatives and suits who
actually talk to each other and even go for beers together.
So, a welder of teams, then, is Woody. An affable fellow who likes
footie and beer but who is enough of a New Man to wash up after
If you ask Woody what he brings to the party in terms of attributes, he
tells you - of course - a story. It was at an
induction-cum-brainstorming session around the time he joined Burnetts.
He and his colleagues were holed up at a hotel, and it was one of those
discussions where each member of the group was faced with a list of
their perceived characteristics.
’I looked down the list. It said things like ’friendly’, ’loyal’,
’eager’,’ he says, ’I felt like a bloody dog.’ The epithet stuck. He
woke next morning to a big marrowbone on his breakfast plate and, after
that, every time anyone saw him on the street there were whistles and
shouts of ’here boy’.
He doesn’t mind, though. He’s always making fun of himself, anyway.
That, and his honest approach, makes him a popular boss. A very
’unbosslike boss’ according to Larry Barker, one of the agency’s joint
’Because he has an open policy, everyone knows what their jobs are and
what their career paths are,’ he says.
As such, there are few people in the industry with a bad word to say
about Woodford, although women tend to feel excluded from the boyish
camaraderie now swamping the corridors of WCRS.
About the only negatives doing the rounds about the agency head boy are
the hurtful things Barker has to say about what happens to anything
technical - or collapsible - when Woodford walks into the room: ’I
wouldn’t want to go camping with Woody,’ Barker says. Thinking for a
moment he goes on: ’But then I don’t suppose he would want to go camping
with me, either.’