CAMPAIGNDIRECT: PROFILE JOHN ZWEIG - WPP maestro leads acquisitions hunt/From playing backing on beer ads John Zweig has risen to head 40 WPP companies, Jim Curtis says

You may not have heard of John Zweig or Specialist Communications, the arm of WPP of which he is chief executive. But you will have heard of many of the companies under his wing - The Henley Centre, Enterprise IG, Coley Porter Bell, OgilvyOne - to name just a few.

You may not have heard of John Zweig or Specialist Communications,

the arm of WPP of which he is chief executive. But you will have heard

of many of the companies under his wing - The Henley Centre, Enterprise

IG, Coley Porter Bell, OgilvyOne - to name just a few.

As one of WPP’s ten divisional heads, Zweig has responsibility for more

than 40 companies, giving him the broadest portfolio in the group and

control over the bulk of its below-the-line operations. His division

accounts for 24 per cent of group revenue, second only in contribution

to the combined efforts of WPP’s advertising and media operations

(including Ogilvy & Mather, J. Walter Thompson, Conquest and MindShare),

which account for 51 per cent.

WPP’s group chief executive, Martin Sorrell, inherited Zweig in 1995

when he acquired CommonHealth, the largest healthcare marketing agency

in the US. Zweig was president of the agency and the acquisition

signalled WPP’s intention to invest more in healthcare. Since then his

division has grown to encompass much more besides.

As well as Enterprise IG and Coley Porter Bell, there are eight more

branding and identity companies in Zweig’s unit and, including

OgilvyOne, 14 direct and promotional agencies. There are four more

agencies specialising in hi-tech communications, three in ethnic

marketing and others in niche areas like food and retail consultancy.

There is no real limit to where the group can go, with ’specialist’

defined either by discipline - like sales promotion - or audience - such

as targeting ethnic minorities or the grey market.

With the responsibility of making so many companies perform to the

satisfaction of one the most exacting bosses in business, you’d expect

Zweig to be a dry numbers man. But meeting him during a visit to London

from his base in New York, he turns out to be anything but a

conventional suit.

He’s a Vietnam veteran, a semi-pro jazz musician and even has a guitar

named after him - bizarrely called the ’Zweig Bonefish Nylon’. His music

has earned him a loyal fan base, which probably has no idea he is a

big-shot adman. Tim Diebert, the man who makes his guitars in New

Jersey, confirms that Zweig lives something of a double life: ’From my

angle, John is a musician, then a business man. He’s a great, talented


Zweig certainly doesn’t act like a self-important executive and looks

like he’d be more at home shooting the breeze in Ronnie Scott’s than

sitting in a boardroom talking shop. Ask how many companies are under

his control and he’s almost embarrassed. ’Jeez - I haven’t counted them.

And I wouldn’t say they are under my control.’

Managing such a disparate group requires a deft touch. One senior

colleague at WPP says: ’To hold that portfolio together,you need a high

degree of sensitivity to different business cultures.’

Zweig says part of his role is as hunter-gatherer for his boss,


’I kind of bring things to him to talk about,’ he says, explaining that

this can either be in the form of companies or sectors that he thinks

WPP should invest in. Healthcare is a prime example. WPP secured a

foothold in the sector through CommonHealth ’long before it was in

vogue’ and is now well positioned to take advantage of the gradual

relaxation of drug advertising restrictions.

WPP recently strengthened its healthcare credentials with the

acquisition of the UK’s largest healthcare agency, Shire Hall, and Zweig

admits that he is on the hunt for more acquisitions in this area. He

comments: ’There aren’t many great ones of any size left, so it’s

getting harder.’ He is also eyeing interests in direct marketing, data

consultancy, hi-tech, ethnic marketing and the grey market. ’We’re

talking to everyone we think is potentially interested and has something

unique,’ he says, thumbing the corporate chequebook.

As his division, now called Branding & Identity, Healthcare &

Specialist, gets bigger, Zweig has to somehow build links and harmony

among his sprawling brood. Banging the drum for below-the-line is a

vital part of this, particularly in a group where the smaller

specialists risk being overshadowed by such famous brands as O&M and

JWT. ’We’ve all seen the air of superiority advertising has over

below-the-line, so it helps to have somebody like me who is constantly

reinforcing the value of what they do. I think direct marketing is

inherently superior in that it gives people exactly what they need,’

Zweig says.

Sorrell is clearly happy with his jazz-playing lieutenant. ’He’s a great

motivator and an inspirational leader,’ he says. ’He also understands

the importance of below-the-line and has a great vision of how the

companies in his division can inter-relate.’

But building links does not mean Zweig’s real objective is to streamline

his division through mergers. ’The spirit is more important that the

structure,’ he says. In some areas of the group, mergers might seem

likely - for example between OgilvyOne and Promotional Campaigns - but

Zweig says no. ’We’d encourage them to work closely together, but merger

is not the plan.’

Zweig’s interest in the marketing world happened by accident. As a

teenager in St Louis he studied under the guitar legend, Mel Bay, and

worked for a while as a professional musician, eventually drifting into

recording tracks for TV beer commercials. This introduced him to agency

people and also made him take a second look at his fellow musicians: ’I

was 18 and these guys were doing the same thing at 35 and 40, so I

decided I’d better learn something new.’

Bizarrely, the ’something new’ turned out to be marketing diarrhoea and

halitosis cures in the consumer health division of Procter & Gamble,

before a comparatively glamorous stint on Crest toothpaste. From here he

moved into healthcare consultancy, helping to set up CommonHealth in


Those days must seem far away now, as a challenging new era beckons

along with Sorrell’s much-publicised incentive scheme for senior WPP


A personal investment of funds in the company could reap rich dividends

in the future for Zweig, but he declines to reveal whether he is taking

part. If he is, you get the feeling he might just go and spend the money

on guitars. Maybe he could even treat himself to a new ’Bonefish



1976 Product manager, Procter & Gamble

1981 Category brand manager, Procter & Gamble, Company Healthcare


1984 President, CommonHealth/Ferguson Communications Group

1995 Chief executive, Specialist Communications, WPP Group