Close-Up: Newsmaker - Exon determined to prove there's life after BBH

RKCR/Y&R's new managing director tells Noel Bussey why, after 13 years, he decided to quit the agency no-one leaves.

The job spec for the managing director's role in an agency can be quite nebulous. It's often a jack-of-all-trades position: as well as running the company day to day, it often involves new business and account management duties, as well as the progression of the business, both internally and externally. It's a job for someone with an extensive CV, who is ready for a serious challenge.

Richard Exon is currently steeling himself for exactly this, as he leaves Bartle Bogle Hegarty after 13 years with the black sheep flock to join Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R.

"It's definitely going to be a challenge. But in my time, I've covered a number of roles that have given me the experience needed for this role," Exon declares.

This is no understatement. While at BBH, he has held a host of positions, from head of client services to new-business director (for both Europe and the UK), a role where he was an integral part of the agency's amazing winning streak that saw it pick up the Vodafone, Persil and British Airways accounts.

It's this experience that made him a target of the RKCR/Y&R chief executive, James Murphy.

"I've been chasing him for 18 months," Murphy says. "Also, I didn't want someone who has been an MD before. I think our success has come from the fact that we're all learning and we're all hungry - just like Richard will be. We all still have a point to prove."

It is this desire to prove himself that led to Exon quitting the agency that, according to adland perception, no-one ever leaves. At least not until they start getting caught in the senior management log-jam.

A former BBH veteran says: "BBH has been a past master in keeping people happy and keeping teams together. But when you have a fantastic management line-up, you don't have spaces to fill. This means unrest is an inevitability, but that's what happens when you have a group of talented, driven and ambitious people working together - people will eventually leave."

Some think Exon's decision to leave the agency was sealed when the former BBH managing director Derek Robson was replaced by Ben Fennell - a BBH graduate who had been learning the senior management ropes in Asia.

Another source says: "Ben is BBH through and through, and it was inevitable he'd get that job. But, a natural consequence is that there was a certain amount of dissatisfaction."

Exon is candid in admitting that he wanted his next move to be a managing director role, but is also philosophical about the possibility of achieving that at BBH.

"There will always be big roles at BBH, either in the UK or internationally, because it is such a big company, but Ben's role was never a discussion we had," Exon says.

Ironically, Exon may well encounter some dissatisfaction among the ranks at his new agency. He'll be the interloper who has taken a job that, even though it has been vacant for three years, has been sought after by a number of people just below the senior management team.

Murphy doesn't see this as a problem, and jokes: "He's so good, that the MD position will be vacant again in about 18 months anyway, because he will probably be in my chair doing the chief exec role.

"But, because this appointment has been so long in coming, I don't anticipate turbulence."

As if they are on the same song sheet already, Exon adds: "Change is often a disruption. I have to ensure that the change is for the good. I want to go in and work with all of the individuals and ensure that we all contribute to the business.

"And I don't think getting into the team will be difficult, as long as I can add value, share my experience and be open to learning more. BBH is a team culture, as is RKCR/Y&R, so this should stand me in good stead."

Exon is not the only person who thinks he will easily integrate into the RKCR/Y&R camp. His old friend Iain Jacob at Starcom (the pair launched Motive together for BBH in the 90s) says: "BBH trains you to take the high ground and not to compromise on standards. Richard reflects that - and I believe the guys at RKCR/Y&R do as well. He'll fit in easily, but he'll also try to make an immediate difference."

With both sides eager to get going, it seems a happy marriage is on the cards, but any relationship is fraught with possible dangers - especially if one of the parties is coming out of a previous relationship that lasted 13 years.

Exon has the last word: "Professionally, I have an unrepayable debt to BBH, and there is definitely an emotional attachment, but this move is about joining RKCR/Y&R, not leaving BBH. Leaving this agency is an unavoidable by-product of joining my new agency."

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