After a turbulent year of accountancy discrepancies and a management shake-up, the Interpublic Group of Companies' chairman and chief executive, David Bell, has made his first indication of where he wants to position IPG on the world stage by hiring the Leo Burnett stalwart and international guru Stephen Gatfield.
Gatfield, who spent 18 years at the Publicis-owned network, has been credited with many initiatives on local and global scales, which have made the network famous.
At Leo Burnett, Gatfield raised standards to the point that the London office became the network's creative agency of the year.
Once his work there was done, he took his first step on to his international career path and became the regional managing director for Asia-Pacific. In 2001, he took on his latest role as the chief operating officer of Leo Burnett Worldwide.
However, in September last year the announcement came that he was leaving Publicis by mutual consent. There was speculation that his path to the top had been blocked.
His experience, combined with his intellect (he was a planning director at Saatchi & Saatchi before he joined Leo Burnett), gives him the ability to look at a network's global footprint and see where its strengths and weaknesses are.
What sets Gatfield apart is that not only can he formulate a recovery plan, he has the wherewithal to execute it too - a rare combination of skills.
Gatfield describes his new role as operational and says he will look at where IPG needs to plug the gaps in its armour so it can build on its performance in the US. "IPG's assets are very much in the form of key global enterprises such as McCann-Erickson and Initiative, which have a strong North American base. The challenge is how to migrate globally the strength of these assets," he says.
Renowned for creating new agency models - at Leo Burnett he successfully folded D'Arcy into Leo Burnett's network - he does not see this method as the panacea and all but rules out a merger between Lowe and McCann. "You have to have good reasons to merge assets. It's a destabilising time," he says. "At Leo Burnett we had the benefit of two clients, particularly Procter & Gamble, willing us to move in that direction."
Modestly, he says that merging D'Arcy into Leo Burnett was easy and he raises the issue that combining McCann and Lowe, which both have substantial international networks, would present client conflict in local markets.
His vision for IPG is partnering established agencies, similar to the deal between Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Leo Burnett struck in 1998, when the network took a 49 per cent stake in the independent.
The deal gave BBH access to the Publicis-owned network and the media agency Starcom, and allowed Publicis to learn from BBH.
Gatfield believes that the days of expanding into new markets with launches or acquisitions are numbered. "I think the model of networks owning and controlling things is going to be challenged. You end up with diminishing assets when partners move on," he says. "We need to think more creatively about how we partner agencies in areas where we need to be."
If anyone is well placed to judge what approach is likely to work best, it is Gatfield. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his experience, one of the areas Gatfield has his eye on is Asia. He was involved in the creation of Beacon in Japan, a joint venture between Leo Burnett, Saatchi & Saatchi and Dentsu; and Orchard, a second Leo Burnett agency in India, demonstrating an insightful understanding of the market.
He also sees opportunity in Latin America. He believes IPG could use its strengths in Europe to help it enter this market. "There's a lot of investment in Latin America from Spain and Portugal. This axis has to be understood ... having a strong foothold in Europe is a help," he explains.
His knowledge of the global market is renowned. Simon Sherwood, BBH's group managing director, says Gatfield is the person he relied upon for local market support. "He was the person I would call up and say 'Steve, we need someone from South America to come to a client meeting' and he delivered on everything," he says. "He'd get people from one side of the world to the other to work on a pitch."
Sherwood says Gatfield is highly regarded in Japan, traditionally a difficult market in which to earn respect. But it is for his knack of being able to take an over-arching view of the international landscape and his ability to build strong networks that he is renowned. Undoubtedly, this would have been attractive to Bell.
While he may have been frustrated at having to leave Publicis after investing the majority of this career there, he is likely to find this new path is more challenging and potentially more rewarding.
As IPG looks to move on under Bell's stewardship, hiring Gatfield could be the move to put the network on the map outside of the US.
Family: married to Eliza, one child
2000-2004: chief operating officer, Leo Burnett Worldwide
1997-2000: regional managing director, Leo Burnett Asia-Pacific
1993-97: chief executive, Leo Burnett London
1990-93: managing director, Leo Burnett London
1987-90: business development director, Leo Burnett London
1983-87: planner, Saatchi & Saatchi
Hates: verbal marketing diarrhoea
Loves: great, simple ideas that are full of humanity
Favourite: ad "skidmark" for Mercedes