Is Pearman departure indicative of instability at AMV?

Cilla Snowball resumes CEO role of London agency to steady the ship in the wake of Ian Pearman's surprise exit to TBWA.

Ian Pearman: moving to TBWA Asia
Ian Pearman: moving to TBWA Asia

Ian Pearman did not make a particularly auspicious arrival at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO after coming down from Cambridge University, recalls Michael Baulk, its former chief executive: "We used to look at the intake and think ‘here’s someone who will go all the way’. I didn’t think that about Ian Pearman."

Baulk continues: "After his initial induction, he had to give a presentation to me and David Abbott. It was woeful. I did suggest that he might like to put in a more intellectual effort; never mind me, if you’re going to put on a show to David Abbott you might as well make it a good show."

Twenty-one years later, Pearman is leaving the agency having demonstrably improved his show since those early days (with Baulk also admitting that he got it very wrong). Pearman rose rapidly to managing director and has spent the last six years as chief executive. His departure has left some surprised – not because it wasn’t time to move on but because he isn’t being retained within the BBDO network.

Pearman admits to having had itchy feet for a while – he instigated talks with group chairman and chief executive Cilla Snowball and BBDO network chief executive Andrew Robertson expressing an interest in a regional role 18 months ago. "I’d done all the things I wanted to do and, inevitably, the learning curve had started to dip. A famous French writer once said, ‘There are people whose clocks stop at a certain point in their lives’, and the thought of mine stopping in my early forties was utterly terrifying."

So far so predictable – for anyone wanting eventually to get a global role, the route to the top requires a stint running a region. But within BBDO, Pearman says, all the regional roles had recently been filled, meaning that in order to remain within Omnicom, he had to look outside the network. Salvation came in the form of an offer from his old friend Troy Ruhanen, president and chief executive of TBWA\Worldwide with whom he’d worked when the latter was at BBDO in the US, to run its Asian outpost. Pearman jets off to Singapore later this summer and will hopefully continue to shin his way up the greasy ladder.

Insiders say that this timeline is not so clear-cut. While acknowledging that Pearman needed to get out to get on, the fact that BBDO was unable to create a role for him speaks volumes about the state of his relationship with Robertson. Equally, his departure, from an agency in which he’d always played such a massive part, and the failure of AMV, which used to be famous for its seamless succession management, to anoint a replacement from the ranks is indicative of a wider problem. Snowball is now taking on the chief executive position at the London ad agency. Pearman disputes both points.

He says: "I find the succession thing fascinating. As one of its beneficiaries, I've thought about it more than most, and it's overly simplistic to define succession as narrow ‘like-for-like’ substitution. Agencies are run by teams, not individuals, and when somebody moves on to their next opportunity it's how the team around them step up that matters, not whether there's a single substitution. We have best-in-class people who will step up, and they will be brilliantly supported by Cilla who knows the culture of the agency inside out."

However, there is little doubt that the AMV Pearman is leaving is very different to the one he walked into. It’s easy to dismiss agencies’ geographical relocations as just that – they shouldn’t be that relevant to the creative alchemy that is produced within. One former staffer said that by relocating many of its agencies into one rather soulless building in Southwark, Omnicom not only exerted more command and control over AMV, but also managed to take out some of the spirit out of the place.

Certainly AMV's founders' famous focus on "people and ideas" looked harder to find when the agency lost some of its key talent. AMV said goodbye to the creative duo behind Currys PC World’s highly awarded 2015 Christmas campaign, Anthony Nelson and Mike Sutherland, chief technology officer Gregory Roekens and managing director Richard Arscott all in a matter of a few months, with Pearman now following.

In fairness, under Pearman’s watch, AMV has continued to grow and diversify its offering. It has become the UK’s first half-billion billing ad agency and it has just had its best year for creative awards, claims Pearman. The loss of Sainsbury’s was a blow, although it moved quickly to help fill some of that gap in billings – if not in status – by picking up the consolidated Carphone Warehouse business.

This is testament to Pearman’s business acumen, Baulk points out. "He’s got a natural business brain and is an accomplished business strategist. He’s a good advertising man – but an excellent businessman," he says. Few doubt that Pearman will do a good job at TBWA in Asia, where he will be in charge of 15 agencies in a region he described as already "incredibly strong".

His ambition, he says, is to make Asia a key driver of innovation for the wider network. "I don't believe that any market has to follow a linear path of development with milestones passed in a certain order. Markets can leapfrog whole generations of consumer culture and technology, and it's my job to help our agencies in the region ‘hack’ our own growth, disrupting what might be regarded as the traditional, incremental path, and getting onto a different curve altogether," he says.

If he manages to make a success of it, as many predict, and sticks out the regional job for five years or so there’s no reason that he will confound Baulk’s initial opinion and make it to the very top (with rumours suggesting that Omnicom chief executive John Wren might finally make way to Robertson over the next couple of years he could eventually take over his old boss’ job).

As for what happens at AMV, Snowball will be more aware than anyone that she needs to steady the ship, which, some say, has started to list even if it has not taken on much water. As a person who is imbibed in the old AMV culture, she seems an excellent choice. No-one knows AMV better than her and she will be able to pull it back to its core and restate its founding values.

Maybe then will a successor for Pearman emerge – the smart money is on Justin Pahl, who has only been in the managing director role for nine months and perhaps excluding him for the running this time round. But while AMV hasn’t been the same with or without Pearman for some time, he leaves a big pair of boots to fill.

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