Close-Up: Newsmaker - The man chosen to give kiss of life to Craik Jones

Can Mike Welsh halt the decline at direct marketing's bastion of creativity and bring back the blue chips?

When an agency falls from grace, the industry instinctively points a finger. Whether at the quality of its creative product, inefficiencies in its senior management or an inability to hold on to clients, most tend to have an opinion on where it has gone wrong.

But when asked about recent events at Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel, rivals are uncharacteristically sympathetic about the agency's downturn, blaming its slump on a run of bad luck.

As luck goes, you can't really get much worse than losing two of your most profitable blue-chip clients - Land Rover and Orange - and having your senior management respond to this with a mass exodus from the agency, all in the space of seven months.

While the industry looked on in disbelief at the gaping holes left in the agency, most hoped that Craik Jones, which has become a creative bastion for direct marketing, would find a remedy for its sickness. And, last week, the agency announced it had found the man with the prescription in Mike Welsh, the managing director of Claydon Heeley. Although not a heavyweight name in the direct marketing world, Welsh is respected by many as a traditional DM man with an unapologetic passion for the discipline.

Before joining Claydon Heeley in 2002, Welsh spent most of his career at traditional DM agencies, enjoying stints at GGT Direct, Lowe Direct and, more recently, EHS Brann.

Nigel Jones, the president of DraftFCB, and the man who hired Welsh at Claydon Heeley, says: "He may not be the best-known person in town, but he did a great job of stabilising Claydon Heeley. It's a great opportunity for him to work at one of his hero agencies."

Welsh's admiration for the agency and enthusiasm towards the role is palpable. "Given my direct background, being offered the chief executive position at Craik Jones is a bit like being offered Clarkson's job on Top Gear - it's about as good as it gets," he says.

And Richard Madden, the planning director at Kitcatt Nohr Alexander Shaw, points to Welsh's ability to make light of any situation as a skill that is ideally suited to his new role. "The worse it gets, the better he gets," he says.

But given the events of the past eight months, Welsh will need more than unshakeable optimism and a sense of humour to resuscitate the Craik Jones brand.

At the beginning of 2007, the agency's future looked bright. With a heritage of creativity (no fewer than 20 Direct Marketing Association golds, one Direct Cannes Lion and three gold Campaign Direct Awards), several long-term blue- chip clients on their books and a stable senior management team, the agency's offering was solid.

However, the £18 million Orange business, and the award-winning Land Rover account, moving into Wunderman in summer 2007 changed all of this. Frustratingly for Craik Jones, both losses were prompted by global consolidations rather than dissatisfaction with its creative product.

It was even rumoured that WPP (Wunderman's parent) had cut price deals with these clients at a senior level, leaving the day-to-day marketers and agency staff confused about why the accounts moved.

Fiona Scott, Craik Jones' former chief executive, says: "There's no such thing as an even playing field. Sometimes that works for you and sometimes it works against you. Land Rover was an account we were passionate about and for whom we produced fantastic work for the past 16 years, and we had a client who was as shocked as we were that it was moving."

Things then went from bad to worse. First Direct began talks with other DM shops, handing briefs to Tullo Marshall Warren and Claydon Heeley, which is when senior management headed for the door.

First to go was its creative director Mark Buckingham, followed soon afterwards by the agency's last remaining founding partner, David Watson, and the executive creative director, Jonas Lembke.

But perhaps more critical were the resignations of both Scott and the former managing director Jackie Stevenson, both of whom handed in their notice in December, Scott wanting to spend more time with her family, and Stevenson plotting a start-up, due to launch in the summer, with Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's managing partner George Bryant and senior creative Jason Fretwell.

Although some claim that their exodus was the final nail in the coffin for Craik Jones, both Stevenson and Scott are still working out long notice periods to ensure the agency will not experience a single leaderless day before Welsh takes the helm.

Cilla Snowball, the acting chairman of Craik Jones, is keen to emphasise that their simultaneous exits were not a case of the senior management leaving a sinking ship: "The coincidence of timing was unfortunate, but workable. Fiona loves Craik Jones, but she loves her children more."

She goes on to argue that recent events have been "talked up" into a bigger problem than really exists.

"There's a perception and reality gap," she explains, pointing to the Norwich Union win in November 2007, the strengthened position on the Unilever roster (it now handles ten Unilever brands, including PG Tips, Sure, Colman's, Knorr, Magnum and Wall's), as well as project work on Gap, as indicators that the agency really doesn't want or need the industry's sympathy.

The events of the past few months have also overshadowed some significant hirings, including that of Richard Calvert, who was poached from TMW to become the head of digital strategy.

But despite initial signs of a turnaround, two more of the agency's creatively prestigious clients, Gordon's Gin and Virgin Trains, are calling reviews.

While some say Welsh lacks the gravitas to fix these issues, and others feel he doesn't possess the digital expertise to bring the agency into the new age of direct communications, most are optimistic about his abilities. Sean Moran, a former colleague, and the executive creative director at Lida, says: "Mike is experienced enough to do the job, but young enough to adapt to new media, and he has the optimistic attitude needed to get them through this bad time."

Meanwhile, Jones points out that the task at Craik Jones may not be as big as the one Welsh leaves behind at Claydon Heeley, an agency that has just been shunted from the Zulu network and merged with the US data agency Targetbase. "Craik Jones had one bad year which is down to bad luck. I think with a bit of hard work and devotion, Mike can turn it round," Jones says.

It should not be forgotten that Welsh, despite holding the managing director role at Claydon Heeley, has effectively been the chief executive since Jones' departure in 2005, and while Claydon Heeley may not have had the best couple of years, Welsh had set the agency back on course by the end of 2007, securing five out of its last seven pitches.

Welsh is also quick to recognise the core challenge at Craik Jones, namely snaring some blue-chip clients to lure back lost talent: "The thing about Land Rover, Orange and First Direct is that they were talent magnets. So it's not just the numbers that need to add up. The clients we need are the ones that talented creatives want to work on."

After this run of bad luck, the agency has been left hanging on to its creative heritage by a thread. Welsh will need to reinstate confidence in its staff, future proof the agency for the digital age and bring in the exciting clients that will enable Craik Jones to flourish again.

If those who know him are to be believed, it appears he has the ability to pull it off.