Close-Up: We need to raise the creative bar, O'Donnell admits

Gary Leih's successor tells Noel Bussey that he's acutely aware of the task awaiting him at Ogilvy.

After four years of a charismatic South African wine aficionado running the show, Ogilvy Group UK is now under the leadership of a Spurs-supporting "English geezer" with more than 20 years' experience at the network under his belt.

Paul O'Donnell, the new UK group chairman who has taken over from Gary Leih after he quit to concentrate on personal projects, is described as an "intelligent man" and "someone people follow" but with a "bit of an edge".

And when you get him going about the future of the business he is taking over, that edge quickly becomes evident - as does a real sense of assured confidence that he knows how he can achieve his goals with the group.

For example, he is under no illusions that his point of focus will have to be on Ogilvy Advertising, despite the fact that the group is made up of 13 companies, of which several, such as OgilvyOne, its direct marketing agency, and OgilvyAction, its all-purpose branding arm, are now almost as big as the main agency itself.

"It will always be the shop window. There's just no way of getting around that," he says.

And O'Donnell's quick to confirm that one of his primary objectives will need to be improving the creative product.

There is a view that Ogilvy, for a number of years, has struggled with its creative output, but that it was turning a corner under Malcolm Poynton.

However, when he left in March 2008, the agency decided that the creative department should be run by four creative directors: Will Awdry (who will also assume the role of managing director on a temporary basis), Greg Burke, Alasdair Graham and Dennis Lewis - a move that raised eyebrows around the industry and which has not, yet, led to a rash of awards or a steady stream of impressive work.

O'Donnell is acutely aware of this and points out that even though he thinks the set-up works - which is why he won't be looking for an executive creative director in the near future - he is adamant that creative standards need to be improved.

He says: "No one person is going to come over the hill on a white charger and save the day. We have a lot of creative talent - who wouldn't want the Bartle Bogle Hegarty alumni we have in our department? They just need to up their game and they know that. Or we'll have to look at making some changes."

Another big challenge will be reconciling the global responsibilities with the needs of a local agency - a problem that many have unsuccessfully wrestled with in the past.

One former Ogilvy executive says that it has no real domestic business and, therefore, no domestic case studies. "Domestic clients want to see domestic work," he says.

Mike Dodds, the chief executive of Proximity and former chief executive of OgilvyOne, adds: "He'll end up with a lot of business to look after that he actually has no control over."

Could these two problems have led to the departure of Leih?

O'Donnell brushes aside worries about the international business. He says the years he has spent running Ogilvy in both Asia and across the continent - his most recent post was as the chairman of OgilvyOne in Europe - gave him the experience he needs to deal with the issue.

Leih joined the agency in May 2005 and spent much of his early tenure putting the idea of a 13-strong group with a 360-degree offering into practice and mak- ing it a viable marketing services opportunity.

However, he was also the chief executive of the main agency and many think that the two jobs were not only too big, but also that Leih wasn't able to enact the changes in the agency that the network wanted.

O'Donnell is aware that this is something he will need to rectify and is already on the hunt for a chief executive. "My background is running businesses, but a lot of the experience is in below the line, so I'm not going to come in and recreate myself as an adman - that would be very unwise," he says.

A former employee adds: "You have to remember how big the agency is, and then how big the group is. It's not an easy job."

However, the "intelligent" and "astute operator" with a "dry sense of humour" isn't fazed.

He says: "Agencies are quite simple. They need to be attractive, win business and create great work - although they've been many people's famous last words, haven't they?"


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