There’s really nothing surprising in the axing of Nick Brien from McCann Worldgroup. From day one, bets were placed on how long he would survive: a formidably bullish media man on a risky turnaround mission at the world’s most traditional agency group. And in the past few months, the only question has been for how much longer the Interpublic boss, Michael Roth, would refuse to publicly endorse Brien while IPG sources briefed against him. Then, on Tuesday, Brien was dumped. "We thank Nick for his commitment and for driving change at McCann during his tenure," Roth said in the official release. If there had been visuals, you would probably have seen his teeth gritting.
There’s no doubt Brien’s tenure has been controversial. A parade of senior executives have quit, though far from all of them have been missed. Cornerstone business has been lost – Nescafé, ExxonMobil, some Microsoft – though some of these accounts went bad before Brien even arrived. Significant new business has been sorely lacking and some incoming leaders have been too painfully countercultural, miscast even.
On the positive side, General Motors was saved, more or less, staff praise new training and development programmes, and there has been a determined (though not yet proven) effort to put creativity at the heart of the group. All are vital for the necessary cultural reshaping of the company, but these long-term initiatives count for nothing if McCann is not performing on the short-term metrics.
McCann accounts for roughly a third of IPG’s $7 billion revenues, yet reports suggest that 2012 revenue is likely to be down to $2.2 billion – a double-digit slide since Brien took over. Blame recession-driven fee reductions and the loss of business that was already heading for the door before Brien arrived, but it’s true that Brien’s nascent revitalisation strategy hasn’t brought in significant new clients to make up the shortfall. Brien could have been the right man at the wrong time for McCann and, given longer, might just have rebooted the group into an offering more resilient across the long term. Sadly, IPG’s brutal focus on reforming its financials has taken necessary precedence over long-term brave thinking.
What’s certain is that recovery at McCann will only come through leadership that is focused on the core skills of the advertising business, not from operational capability. The new leader must be inspirational, brand-literate, creatively astute, yet with a clear understanding of multinational business. Is Harris Diamond those things? Some in the know express serious doubts; adman he is not. However, the decision to give the advertising agency network a dedicated and empowered management team in Luca Lindner and Gustavo Martinez has been welcomed. All in all, though, it feels like a predictable, desperate and rather depressing end to the latest chapter in McCann’s story.