Close-Up: Newsmaker - Macdonald out to build on McCann momentum

McCann's new chief executive, Chris Macdonald, is hoping the agency takes last year's form into 2008. Noel Bussey reports.

There is a theory that the consequences of every major turning point in life are played out in parallel dimensions.

If this is true, then somewhere in another universe, Chris Macdonald, who has replaced Stephen Whyte as the chief executive of McCann Erickson, is a children's TV presenter who spends his days being covered in gunk.

Upon leaving university, Macdonald, a man lively, exuberant and witty in equal measure, received numerous offers from drama schools, and even took a screen test for a kids' TV programme called Guts, which, in his own words, "was based on seeing how much shit you could cover each other with".

However, the lure of advertising, "with its inherent theatricality and, more importantly, money", was too powerful for Macdonald to ignore, and his road to becoming a chief executive was set.

It seems that everyone who knows him - and, as a "social whore" (again, his own words), he knows a lot of people - thinks that not only is he ready for his new role, but that he is also going to be massive success in it.

Brett Gosper, the chairman of McCann Erickson UK and the president of EMEA, is extremely confident that he has the right man for the job.

"Along with his talent and enthusiasm, one of Chris' greatest assets is his naivety in the business, which means that when he is faced with a problem, he just sorts it out," Gosper says. "He doesn't have any preconceived ideas about how things should be done, so he just deals with them the way he sees best."

Andrew Mullins, the managing director at the Evening Standard, who has worked with Macdonald on and off for years, says: "He just doesn't waste time with internal politics. He takes so much pain out of the whole process through his talent and enthusiasm. He's also a consummate professional. I know for a fact he has quite a temper, but the client will never see it."

And despite now being saddled with some of Whyte's inward- facing duties, Macdonald's desire to be involved in every aspect of agency life - "I just love it all" - shows no sign of fading. "I'll just have to work harder, won't I?"

Macdonald will, of course, receive a helping hand from his senior management team - the joint executive creative directors, Brian Fraser and Simon Learman, and the executive planning director, Nikki Crumpton.

"I am so lucky to have Brian and Simon. I wouldn't want anyone else," Macdonald says. "Our work this year, from Heinz to the amazing UPS widget, has been the best for years."

As for Crumpton, who arrived at McCann from Fallon in July 2006, he says: "Before she joined, we had a lunch with her. Afterwards, she came back to the agency with us and did a creative review. She left at six o'clock and we missed her straight away. It felt like she'd been there forever."

Watching the four together, you get a sense of real friendship and team spirit that many agencies claim to have, but, in reality, struggle to muster - a feeling Macdonald not only sees as vital to the success of the business, but that he has also tried to build during his time as the managing director. It's the kind of spirit big networks need to compete in the domestic market.

In fact, the agency feels a lot like Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R during the reign of its founders and, following that, the Murphy/Golding/Priest era, when the agency was run to feel like a family.

When challenged about adopting this template to run his agency, Macdonald smiles at the none-too-subtle attempt at being coerced into saying something provocative.

"Firstly, the apparent rivalry between me and James Murphy was much hyped in the trade press," Macdonald says.

The pair, along with Tony Harris, were managing partners at RKCR/Y&R before the partners moved on. However, following their departure, Murphy took the chief executive role, Macdonald left for McCann and rumours of a fall-out duly ensued.

"And secondly, everyone learns from their past experiences," Macdonald adds. "I had a great time at a successful agency, so I'd be stupid to ignore that experience. But I have worked at other agencies as well."

Indeed, as well as RKCR/Y&R, he has also had spells at DMB&B, Lowe Howard-Spink and Publicis (where he ran the account management department at just 29) - a stretch of 17 years in total.

With his senior management team in place and fully ensconced in the big chair, his aim for 2008 is, put simply, to continue everything McCann did in 2007, "but make it better", and continue to forge a reputation as a strong domestic agency in a successful network.

However, Robert Campbell, the former executive creative director, offers Macdonald words of warning: "What he'll need to do is to cosy up to the Americans and the global account men - he needs to make sure that London is creating outstanding work for the global pieces of business such as Microsoft and MasterCard. If he doesn't, he'll quickly find out that the Americans will be over to stab a knife in his back."

As well as looking forward, Macdonald is also keen to praise the men who set the agency on its present course. The first of them being Whyte - who vacated the chief executive role last week.

The real story behind his departure remains unclear; persisting rumours that he was forced out - "That's the slowest-travelling bullet I've ever seen," one source says - are denied by Gosper and the McCann management.

Macdonald says Whyte's work should act as a catalyst for the agency's growth. "He deserves a lot of credit. It was a bizarre place four years ago, and he helped make it a solid agency that is fun to work at," he adds.

The two men have very distinct demeanours: Whyte is quiet and comes across as thoughtful, while Macdonald is dripping with noisy drive and ambition. This kind of energy, backed by the extremely sound business judgment of the more experienced Gosper, should serve the London agency well.

One issue Macdonald will be keen to address is the perception that McCann, like many network agencies, is something of a lumbering carthorse with no real personality or creative flair. But those who have worked there do not agree.

Christian Hinchcliffe, a former "McCann Eight" member who is now at CHI & Partners, says: "It's such an old car that no matter what is under the bonnet, it is always going to look like a Volvo. But once you look inside, you can see that the engine is more like a well-tuned Aston Martin."

Stuart Pocock, the managing partner at The Observatory, adds: "It's in good shape at the moment. The Heinz work was spectacularly good, and they were fantastic in the Sony Ericsson pitch 15 months ago. Chris has been a major part of all of it with his energy and drive, but the team around him is very strong."

With the agency starting to build some good momentum, it looks as if the senior management has a lot to look forward to in 2008, and that children's TV's loss is definitely McCann Erickson's gain.

Age: 40
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