Close-Up: Can a 'New York-London' role work?

Linus Karlsson's new post at McCann has left some observers befuddled, John Tylee writes.

In appointing a creative chairman to straddle its London and New York offices, McCann Erickson has certainly opted for a radical remedy to perceived shortcomings in its creative output. Whether it's also a practical one is a far more open question.

While creative chairmen aren't exactly a new phenomenon - think Mark Roalfe at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R and Trevor Beattie at TBWA\London - there's never been one who will have such a broad scope of responsibilities as Linus Karlsson when he joins the Interpublic-owned network in February.

Time was when the 3,500 miles of Atlantic Ocean separating Britain and the US East Coast would have ruled out any such appointment. Indeed, there are those within the industry even today who dismiss the idea as totally impractical.

But those sceptics are not at McCann, where Nick Brien, its worldwide chief, argues that faster and more sophisticated communication, the creative synergies between London and New York and the fact that both cities are home to large numbers of multinational clients mean that this is a way of working whose time has come.

Chris Macdonald, the McCann London chief executive, claims that the hiring of Karlsson, a Swede who co-founded the Mother agency in New York, is all about adding value to the McCann offering on both sides of the Atlantic.

Rather than creating ads, Karlsson will become involved in major pitches, help track down creative talent (including a new executive creative director to support him in London), ensure the cross-fertilisation of creative ideas between London and New York, and keep close to key network clients such as MasterCard, he says.

How Karlsson divides his time between the US and UK will be determined by need. "And he'll always be at the end of a phone," Macdonald adds.

Critics, however, see that as the nub of the problem. "Agencies are all about small and closely knit teams of people with shared objectives," the boss of a major London agency argues. "They can't function effectively if the executive creative director is in New York."

The boss of a major global network is equally sceptical. "Unless Brien has an ulterior strategy, it makes no sense," he says. "New York and London may speak the same language but, culturally, they're very different. And even if your London and New York offices share the same global clients, they still need their own leadership teams."

However, Dave Trott, one of Britain's most celebrated creatives, who trained in New York, thinks there's much to be gained from the arrangement if McCann can pull it off. "It makes perfect sense to bring together the muscularity of New York creativity with London style," he claims.

In the end, it may all boil down to the comfort of the fit between the job and the person appointed to do it. Macdonald thinks Karlsson's down-to-earth demeanour as well as his open and collaborative way of working will stand him in good stead.

Others, though, question whether Karlsson, who had been at Mother for seven years, will be able to adapt easily to his new surroundings. "Can somebody like Karlsson be a force for good at McCann? Yes," Robert Senior, the chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi Fallon Group, says. "But his work has often been eccentric, quirky, dark and bizarre. In fact, all the things that McCann's work isn't."

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AGENCY HEAD - Chris Macdonald, chief executive, McCann London

"There will always be questions about such an appointment because nobody has done anything like it before. But we believe Linus will help us add value to what we do and to become more multi-channel in the way we work.

"It's also a reflection of the way geography is impacting on networks with so many major clients now headquartered in either London or New York.

"I don't think this arrangement will impact on our appointing a new creative head in London. That person will be part of the management team as well as having a lot of autonomy."

CREATIVE HEAD - Dave Trott, creative director, CST

"Hypothetically, if I was offered the job of running the McCann creative department in London but reporting to a chief creative officer, I'd most likely say yes. In principle, it's a good idea, but a lot depends on how it's implemented.

"I wanted something similar to happen when I was at Gold Greenlees Trott. We never managed to do it and that's a pity because it makes perfect sense to bring together the muscularity of New York advertising with London style.

"I also think UK creative talent could benefit immensely from being trained in New York."

NETWORK HEAD - Andrew Robertson, chief executive, BBDO Worldwide

"We have always taken the view that the role of a chief creative officer is hands on. Working with teams to make the work great, and meeting with clients to sell it.

"Linus is a great guy. But I hope he doesn't like sleep. He is going to be doing two very demanding jobs separated by a five-hour time difference.

"All I know is that David Lubars, our chief creative officer for North America, hardly ever leaves his desk before 9pm and hardly ever works fewer than six days a week. That would leave him one day a week and the hours before 9am to do London. Linus' move is good news for Starbucks."

CREATIVE HEAD - Tim Mellors, worldwide chief creative officer, Grey Group

"This is a unique way of attracting somebody with a creative pedigree who wouldn't usually think of McCann. What's more, the network has multinational clients where solutions are frequently transatlantic and teleconferencing has become state-of-the-art.

"However, there's a danger Karlsson will be biased towards the US and that the problems he'll need to solve won't fit into neat time spots or 'geography jet lag' - you're shifting forwards and backwards half a day.

"I applaud McCann's bravery - but I fear its politics, natural US bias and 'jet lag' could make it the job from hell."


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