Close-Up: Live Issue - O&M shoots for Gunn Report with hiring spree

The agency is looking for a creative breakthrough, taking on a string of hotshots dripping with awards. John Tylee reports.

For an alarmingly long time, the term "Ogilvy & Mather creativity" has ranked alongside "freshly frozen" and "honest estate agent" as outstanding examples of the oxymoron.

Condemned to churning out ho-hum work for internationally aligned accounts, the agency has managed only sporadic creative outbursts. Surreal ads for Guinness and some entertaining TV spots for Lever Faberge's Impulse ("Men can't help acting on Impulse") sometimes seemed the harbinger of an awakening at Canary Wharf. But even O&M senior managers now concede that the good stuff emerged despite the system rather than because of it.

Campaigns for O&M's global American Express client were mostly adaptations of US work, while lacklustre Ford films seemed to exemplify all the commercial problems facing the US car giant.

Domestic prospects were disinclined to appoint an agency so dominated by a global clientele. Any local business had resided mostly in O&M's direct marketing stablemate, OgilvyOne.

Malcolm Poynton, O&M's executive creative director, and Gary Leih, the Ogilvy UK group chairman, are determined this should change. For one thing, the agency's creative output has not historically matched its high-pedigree client list, Poynton says. For another, those clients must get the top-quality work they are entitled to.

Leih, however, sees the extra investment now taking place within the creative department as part of a wider plan, under which the full power of the group (more than 1,270 people covering eight marketing disciplines) will be brought to bear on producing seamless solutions for clients.

On the face of it, Poynton's answer looks like the quick-fix remedy that so many big agencies with zero creative profile have adopted down the years: pack your creative department with highly paid hotshots and wait for the awards and the business to pour in.

The ploy invariably founders because your agency rarely has the clients that will buy mould-breaking work and your creative stars quit in frustration.

Last month, Alasdair Graham, TBWA\London's much-decorated deputy creative director, became Poynton's fifth creative partner hiring. Graham will work alongside Neil Dawson, Richard Russell, Greg Burke and Dennis Lewis.

Between them, they boast a string of honours from Cannes Lions to Campaign awards.

Cynics will doubtless ask how five creative partners are going to do what four could not. Poynton, however, indicates that his recruitment spree may not be over yet. The idea is not just to hire creative catalysts, but to use them in a way that brings more cohesion to consumer communication, he says.

Cohesion and consistency have been conspicuous by their absence from O&M in recent years. As if five creative regime changes since 1999 were not enough, there was the additional turmoil resulting from the cultural mismatch between the agency and its then chief executive, Paul Simons, which resulted in his ousting four years ago.

O&M insiders claim the fundamental problem lay in the agency's fragmented internal structure, in which account groups operated almost autonomously. In many cases, the account baron leading the group appointed his own creative director.

Poynton suggests the agency's changed working methods may well have something to do with the fact that he and Leih both cut their advertising teeth in the southern hemisphere - Leih in South Africa and Australia, Poynton in his native New Zealand.

"These markets aren't big enough to sustain the specialisation that you see in the UK," Leih explains. "The result is that clients here have become more skilled at integration than agencies whose people have grown up working in silos."

The intention is to reflect Anti-podean working methods in London by having the five creative partners work within triumvirates alongside their planning and account equivalents.

The new configuration is in line with Leih's mission to draw on the group's multiplicity of skills for problem-solving for clients. Centralisation of the planning department and the introduction of channel planning is part of the process, he says.

The big difference this time around, Poynton declares, is that there are no fiefdoms or "agencies within agencies". Instead, the creative output is being overseen by people who have all had a breadth of experience across sizeable pieces of business. "I've got no prima donnas, no loners and no 'one-hit wonders'," he says.

Poynton will no doubt be hoping O&M can extend its reputation beyond its current one-hit wonder, the "campaign for real beauty" work for Unilever's Dove brand. The advertising, which features regular women rather than models, has attracted much acclaim since it first appeared. And, although the agency claims to have just enjoyed its best year ever in terms of creative awards, it is forced to admit that this is mostly because of Dove.

"There's no doubt the agency has been through a rough time creatively," Leih admits. "But the situation is improving. The trouble is our PR has been deficient in getting the perception out of the way."

Poynton is confident Dove will not be the agency's only claim to fame for very much longer. Recent new-business wins, including the £14.5 million Avis account for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and the £36 million pan-European assignment for the fruit producer Chiquita, will provide the springboard from which the agency can make a creative leap, he says.

Meanwhile, he promises exciting new work on BP fuels, and a new AmEx campaign will be home-grown rather than imported.

But what of Ford? Its TV work has been an all-too frequent contender for Campaign's Turkey of the Week and Poynton agrees it's been a creative "problem area".

"Ford has been having its difficulties," he says. "But the new partnership we have set up means we can have serious conversations about helping to overcome them."

The agency's hope is that by demonstrating creative potency on such large pieces of globally aligned business, it may bring a better balance to its client list by enticing more UK and regional business through the door.

The experiences of Grey London, O&M's WPP stablemate, and McCann Erickson have shown how hard it is to convince local prospects they will not be suffocated by big international clients. And Poynton insists he does not underestimate the amount of convincing that will need to be done. "Our challenge is to make the work we do for our global clients highly visible locally and demonstrate the effectiveness of what we do globally to the local market," he says.

Will O&M's big clients go where O&M wants to take them? Poynton has no doubt of it. "There's a false perception that international clients don't want great work. It isn't that they don't want it; they often don't get it. What client is going to turn its nose up at a vast improvement in its creative output?"

Above all, Poynton wants the foundations he is laying to be permanent.

"I've no interest in building a house of cards based on some flimsy clients - and a few scam ones - just to get a fleeting turnaround. We're building for the long term."

And when will the agency know the breakthrough has been made? A crop of Cannes Lions, perhaps? Or maybe a high Gunn Report ranking? "No question," he says. "It's when we're envied for our creativity as much as our clients."