OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

Years ago, Young & Rubicam promoted desserts for General Foods with the slogan: "There's always room for Jell-O." Today, Madison Avenue wonders whether there's room at Y&R for a top executive who has marketed Jell-O and other well-known packaged goods - but has never worked for an agency.

Ann Fudge, named on 12 May as the CEO of Y&R and its Y&R Advertising division, has an outstanding resume, compiled over two decades at General Mills and what's now Kraft Foods. At Kraft, she rose to president of the beverages, desserts and cereal division, overseeing products such as Maxwell House coffee and Post cereals along with Jell-O. After leaving Kraft in 2001, she served on the boards of prominent marketers including General Electric, Honeywell and Marriott.

"High-powered leadership skills allowed Ann Fudge to shatter glass ceilings and become one of the highest-ranking women in corporate America," the website of the Sara Lee Foundation gushes in describing her Frontrunner Award, for business achievement, presented in 1999.

"Her business acumen and the ability to generate double-digit growth for products attracted the attention of headhunters, business leaders and executive boards seeking directors," a biography on CNN.com extols.

Well and good if someone's hotly tipped, as you might say, to become the CEO of General Mills, General Motors, General Tire - in general, any consumer marketer. But are the skills gained from solving advertising and marketing challenges as a client transferable to the radically different agency realm?

To be sure, Fudge isn't the first to go from bossing around agencies to being an agency boss. Her predecessor, Michael Dolan, who stepped down immediately with Fudge's appointment, points out that he, too, had a client background before joining Y&R in 1996. Other senior managers coming from the other side include David Hearn and Nigel Stapleton at the Cordiant Communications Group; Christopher Coughlin, the new COO at the Interpublic Group of Companies; and Kevin Roberts at Saatchi & Saatchi.

Still, Sir Martin Sorrell's startling decision - couldn't he have alerted Y&R employees with memos headlined "It is now Post time"? - is being met with widespread scepticism, at least initially. "She's in over her head," one top executive at a WPP agency asserts, wondering why suddenly there's a widening belief that knowing how clients think gives someone an edge in figuring out how to steer an agency or agency company through what's proving to be the most difficult period in decades.

The appointment also means Y&R Advertising will have two rookies in high places, the other being Michael Patti, recently imported from BBDO New York to be the worldwide creative director and CEO of the New York office.

But given Y&R's recent lacklustre performance, brightened only with wins of the Burger King and ChevronTexaco accounts, perhaps Sir Martin borrowed a page from the new book of a former agency CEO, Mary Lou Quinlan, titled Just Ask a Woman.

Look at how well another WPP agency, Ogilvy & Mather, has done under two female CEOs, Charlotte Beers and Shelly Lazarus - both coincidentally also winners of Frontrunner Awards. Word has it Lazarus may have played a role in bringing Fudge to WPP's attention; the two worked together when Fudge supervised Maxwell House, which uses Ogilvy as its agency.

Good to the last drop, indeed.

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