Opinion: Perspective - Why O'Keeffe's exit is win-win for BBH and WPP

Hell, it's the end of an era. John O'Keeffe's quit Bartle Bogle Hegarty. After 18 years. And for WPP.

There are all sorts of reasons why this is a great story. O'Keeffe seemed a BBH lifer. He's taking the WPP global creative role, but the job has so far proved a nebulous one; is it do-able (and how well will O'Keeffe's wonderfully dry sense of humour travel)? Was O'Keeffe frustrated in his ambitions to take a global creative role at BBH? Is Nick Gill a shrewd replacement or a knee-jerk attempt by BBH management to appear in control?

I reckon O'Keeffe had probably resigned himself to being at BBH until the end; he's turned down plenty of interesting offers over the years and BBH was home. And not many people do (want to) break out of BBH; its reputation for nurturing some of the industry's best talent and keeping it is legendary.

Was O'Keeffe frustrated that John Hegarty is still the international creative chief at BBH? Is the man human? But was he, therefore, openly bitter and disillusioned? Well, he's naturally a gruff bugger, but always passionate about BBH and its work. But really there was nothing left for him to do at BBH (other than succeed the God-like Hegarty) and when "persuasive, charming" Sir Martin Sorrell came knocking, O'Keeffe admits: "I thought, 'this is the moment. If I don't take it, I'll be here for life.'"

So, of course, you can see why it appealed. Creative jobs don't come much bigger than a remit that spans the mighty Ogilvy, JWT, Grey and Young & Rubicam networks. And they don't come much more challenging; tackling patchy creative reputations and raising standards, particularly in key markets, is a perennial issue across the group. Probably they don't come much more political either.

Exactly what the job is, though, is hard to fathom. O'Keeffe says the aim is to drive creative standards as high as possible. "But first I'm simply going to learn the rhythms of WPP and work out where I can help. I don't mean just at a senior level; I'm very happy to help from the ground up."

In truth, it seems the role is so hard to define that it will inevitably be whatever O'Keeffe makes of it. If it hasn't worked in the past (under Neil French and latterly Robyn Putter), then perhaps they weren't the right people for the job, though God knows there can be few more difficult briefs to nail.

O'Keeffe is a triumphant hire. As well as being one of the real creative talents of his generation, O'Keeffe takes to WPP a sure touch for spotting and nurturing talent and a fearlessness for taking tough decisions. Somehow I think fearlessness might just turn out to be his most valued skill.

Now, what of the BBH succession plan? Typically smooth and elegant, BBH has promoted Gill and Rosie Arnold to be the executive creative director and deputy. Knee jerk? No, just excellent management planning. Not for BBH the thrashing around for creative talent that has beset other agencies when creative chiefs move on. Gill, a relative newcomer, joined BBH as a copywriter in 1998 from Wieden & Kennedy. Arnold has BBH in her veins. She joined in 1983 and has been one of the agency's most consistent creative stars, a serious class act.

So the new team at BBH isn't so new, but it's as solid as they come, in executional terms at least. Expect a renewed emphasis on craftsmanship under their reign, though a key challenge will be finding ways to let Gill and Arnold continue to do great work.

Is Gill a creative leader as well as a bloody good writer? We're about to find out, but the two-minute ovation he apparently received at an all-staff meeting this Wednesday augurs well. (Unfortunately, Arnold received news of her promotion while suffering a bout of gut rot picked up in Mexico and wasn't there to receive her applause.) And the departmental shake-up may well generate a new shot of creative verve to help the agency regain its creative crown.

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