Steve Harty is as surprised as anyone that he has been appointed chairman of Bartle Bogle Hegarty New York, and not just because it's a job he has coveted for some time. Like his peers, he is surprised because it is the kind of position BBH normally fills with in-house talent. Harty is also the first American to land the role in the agency's seven years in the US. Whatever next?
Harty, 53, says he has admired the agency from afar for many years. "BBH is what I think an agency should be," he says, explaining that when he left Ogilvy & Mather in 1992 to found Merkley Newman Harty, Nigel Bogle paid him a visit to talk about the BBH model. "I realised there was a lot in their approach - in terms of what an agency and a company should be like - that corresponded with what we wanted our agency to be like," he says.
The chance to test it out for real has been a long time coming and was prompted by the surprise departure of the BBH New York chairman and chief marketing officer, Cindy Gallop.
Harty says he had held talks with Gwyn Jones, the BBH New York chief executive, before Gallop's departure. Jones came in late last year and moved Gallop from running the agency on a day-to-day basis to a more ambassadorial marketing role.
Gallop, who planted the BBH flag in US soil seven years ago, has never fully explained her reasons for leaving her agency home of 18 years. Her shoes will be difficult to fill, not merely because of the height of their stiletto heels.
"BBH has gone from zero to 130 people in seven years," Harty says. "It has participated in some of the most interesting pitches over the past five years and its client list is first class. Cindy's done a terrific job, she was a high-profile ambassador for BBH in the US market."
Harty joins BBH New York after a year on the consultancy circuit. His last position was running the Plus Consulting Group, the ill-fated attempt by IPG to integrate Draft and Lowe that folded on his departure. Born in New York, Harty was a former special assistant to the director of the FBI, ran the Amex account when he was at O&M, and co-founded MNH. He is a man used to running things, so how will he find working alongside Jones as the day-to-day manager of the New York operation?
"I've worked in a lot of partnerships and, ultimately, it doesn't matter what your title is. Gwyn is a highly capable chief executive and, for me, it'll be a relief not to have that responsibility and to be able to focus on top-line growth," he says.
"I played rugby for 20 years for Manhattan RFC in the second row. There's no glory in the second row - you get used to being part of a pack. That's my approach to life."
The cynics have suggested that BBH's decision to appoint Harty to the role is an attempt by the agency to grease the wheels of its US operation.
It is famously difficult for UK agencies to make in-roads into the US market and, despite the fact that BBH is on top of the Brit pack in the US when it comes to billings ($375 million last year), there is clearly a demand from the agency heads for bigger and faster top-line growth.
Simon Sherwood, the BBH worldwide chief operating officer, freely admits that the US is a tough market to crack. "For some time now we've felt the need to find someone from inside the US advertising business to add depth and substance to the BBH management team," he says.
However, Sherwood is keen to point out that Harty's appointment has as much to do with his talent and experience as his passport. His tenure at MNH (now Omnicom's Merkley & Partners) has given Harty a wealth of experience in developing integrated campaigns. With the New York management team of Jones, Kevin Roddy, the creative director, and Emma Cookson, the global head of strategic planning, the talent is in place to win more local business.
For all its success in the US, the bulk of BBH New York's billings come from its international clients, Levi's, Unilever (Axe deodorant) and Diageo.
Harty is keen to tap large national budgets as part of his strategy to develop the agency's offering, demonstrate its abilities on complex accounts and "deliver better solutions for clients".
Of course, his knowledge of the US market - and particularly the strength of his contacts with the US consultancies - won't hurt. "You have to earn their respect," Harty says. "Clients are increasingly handing over to them. I know them and they know me, so there's a bit of shorthand there."
Sherwood is confident Harty will have no difficulties fitting into a British operation. "He used to play rugby and he's probably had a few beers in his time," he says. "Once we have explained what the Ashes was all about, he won't have any problem fitting in."
STEVE HARTY CV Age: 53 Lives: New York Family: Wife, four daughters 2003-2004: Founder and managing partner, the Plus Consulting Group 1992-2001: Chief executive and co-founder, Merkley Newman Harty 1980-1992: Various roles, including worldwide account director of American Express, Ogilvy & Mather 1983-1984: White House Fellow, including special assistant to the director of the FBI