Close-Up: Profile - Could Gary Leih be the saviour of Ogilvy UK?

The personable all-rounder chairman-in-waiting hopes to restore his beloved agency to its former glory.

A Docklands apartment awaits the arrival of Gary Leih and his wife, Sharon. It's not quite "living above the shop", the Ogilvy UK Group chairman-in-waiting says, but it is a comfortably close bolthole that will suffice "while I get my bearings".

Leih (it's pronounced "Lie") has never distanced himself for long from his beloved Ogilvy. Despite having been involved in an Ogilvy breakaway, and spells with three other agencies many miles from his native South Africa, he's always been drawn back to O&M like a moth to a flame.

"Ogilvy is the mother who raised me," he says. "Other agency cultures were never as congruent with my views as the Ogilvy one."

Happily for Leih, the feeling is mutual. Mike Walsh, O&M's chief executive for Europe, Africa and the Middle East, had already singled out the group managing director of Ogilvy South Africa as one to watch. By the end of last year, Shelley Lazarus, O&M's worldwide chairman, had endorsed Walsh's recommendation that Leih was the man to revitalise O&M's lacklustre UK performance.

"Gary is a fantastic all-rounder you enjoy spending time with," Walsh says. "Not only does he have a wonderful balance of commercial and professional attributes, he is Ogilvy through and through."

However, few doubt that Leih is facing the biggest challenge of an advertising career that stretches back a quarter of a century. A fine heritage only serves to highlight the current shortcomings of O&M's London operation.

Shored up by internationally aligned business, the group is conspicuously absent from major domestic pitchlists such as Sainsbury's and Abbey.

So why has it gone awry? Losses such as Guinness, Bupa and the lead status on Ford of Europe, all of which occurred on the watch of Tom Bury, the then chief executive, were big blows. The cultural mismatch between O&M and Bury's successor, Paul Simons, didn't help. But onlookers find it difficult to pinpoint why O&M continues to disappoint, particularly in comparison with its WPP stablemate JWT.

"O&M just isn't as exciting as it should be and I don't know why," a leading industry consultant says. "The calibre of its senior people is high, yet JWT now has a huge lead.

"Is it because JWT London is regarded as a significant global entity, while O&M London is not? Is it because WPP now regards JWT as its lead brand? Is it because O&M's move to Canary Wharf somehow detached it from the mainstream? I wish I knew."

Leih's personal reputation is somewhat more impressive. Those who worked with him in South Africa describe him as warm, charming, personable and a hot businessman with an informal but effective management style. Leih is said to be at his happiest schmoozing a prospect over a glass of his favourite Chardonnay. "He's a real South African," a former colleague remarks. "Not one of those dumbed-down international versions."

He will need all these attributes. The recent history of southern hemisphere managers running UK agencies is not inspiring. The ebullient but abrasive James Hall returned to New Zealand after little more than two years as the Saatchi & Saatchi chief executive, having failed to raise the agency's creative game or rectify a dismal new-business performance. The swaggering self-confidence and polarising management style of Leih's compatriot Matthew Bull failed to stop the rot at Lowe London.

In Leih's favour is the fact that he comes from an agency that is far more than a mere O&M satellite. Ogilvy South Africa employs more than 700 people, embraces all the major marketing disciplines and acts as the mother ship for 39 agencies spanning the length of Africa. Its billings grew by 21 per cent last year. Wins have included Eskom, the country's main electricity supplier, and the prestigious African National Congress account. Its share of the brewer SABMiller's business has grown to 70 per cent.

"O&M South Africa belies parochial thinking," David Wethey, the managing director of Agency Assessments International, comments. "This is an agency that would be successful wherever it was located and anybody who has led it has to be taken seriously."

Born and raised in Cape Town, where his father was the manager of the Bryant & May match factory, Leih entered advertising via a course run by the South African agency trade body, abandoning thoughts of architecture because his maths wasn't up to scratch.

He joined O&M in Cape Town in 1980 as an account executive on its Volkswagen business, before moving on to the Johannesburg office, where he became a group account director running one-third of the agency's business.

By 1989, he was ready to spread his wings, going into partnership with Mel Miller, O&M Cape Town's creative director, to form The White House.

Leih's itchy feet could have taken him to London in 1994 but the offer of the new-business role at Australia's Campaign Palace came first. He stayed Down Under for seven years, working for Batey before founding the brand consultancy Public Image.

Des Speakman, the chief executive of Whybin TBWA in Sydney, believes Leih's Australian experience, which ended in 2001, honed his all-round skills. "The ad markets in Australia and South Africa aren't as specialised as elsewhere," Speakman says. "You get exposed to the breadth of the business. I think the skills Gary has learned will prove very transportable."

On the subject of his arrival in London, Leih is disarmingly frank. "I read Campaign but it would be presumptuous to say I know much about the UK scene," he admits. "What I do know is that we'll have a fight on our hands, because our position in the UK has been usurped by other companies."

Does that mean a management shake-up? "I don't think so. I'd rather recast people than replace them. That way you get them re-energised and re-motivated."

Within the UK group, Leih's broadly based management experience is seen as a major plus. Not least because above-the-line work only accounts for around one-third of its revenue, while operations such as OgilvyOne, the direct marketing specialist, and Ogilvy PR play increasingly influential roles.

"The Ogilvy UK group has done well to grow revenues in other services and Leih has good experience of that," a former O&M senior manager points out. "But the best thing is that he's an inside outsider - he understands the culture but can look at things with fresh eyes and will challenge assumptions. He ticks lots of boxes."

THE LOWDOWN

Age: 46

Lives: Cape Town

Family: Wife Sharon, daughters Alexis, 20, Caitlin,18

Favourite ad: "Frogs", "turtles" and "snails" corporate commercials for

Audi. "We originated them and they have run in 11 countries, including

Germany"

Describe yourself in three words: Open, frank, forthright

Greatest extravagance: Good Chardonnay

Most admired agency: Ogilvy & Mather New York

Living person you most admire: Nelson Mandela

Motto: Do the right thing

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