Sinking ships and tumbleweed were among the cliches conjured by Publicis critics even before it emerged last week that Tim Lindsay, the UK chairman, was off to Omnicom's TBWA Group to be its chief executive.
The timing of his exit turns Publicis' unfortunate story into melodrama. When Grant Duncan, the group's then chief executive, resigned in March, off the back of more than £70 million worth of account losses, Lindsay took on his responsibilities, insisting: "In a few weeks, when everything has calmed down and we're through this, we'll still be profitable and doing good work."
And perhaps that much was true. It just didn't account for the fact that the agency would be doing it without a chairman, chief executive or managing director.
Lindsay is aware of how his decision looks to observers, but denies he is defecting from an agency fallen on hard times. As someone often pinpointed for his vanity, it's little wonder he is keen not to be classified as a turncoat.
"I promised myself I would preside over the agency and see it back on its feet," he says. "Together with management, I've done that. We've changed the way the agency works, broken down walls, fixed processes, and made the agency more transparent for our existing clients, while picking up big pieces of business from across the network and from acquisitions."
To some extent, this is endorsed by the recent formation of Publicis Modem, the smoother integration of Publicis Dialog with the main agency, and some recent global wins, including Airbus and Citibank. But it also exemplifies the wider disparity between the Publicis group chairman role and an adman who has made his way through the industry's most creative corridors.
Lindsay is described by colleagues as "the quintessential suit" who moved quickly through TBWA in the late 70s, then to Bartle Bogle Hegarty - where he spent nine years running the Levi's business - and later to Lowe Howard-Spink as managing director inside the Interpublic pressure cooker. He is renowned for his ability to sell great work to his clients, such as the award-winning Lego "kipper" ad, which he oversaw at TBWA.
Conversely, Publicis - whose network-based structure, corporate clientelle and penchant for scrutiny of process over creativity - sits in contrast. Adrian Holmes, the creative director of Young & Rubicam Europe, recalls the time they spent at Lowe together: "Tim is naturally more aligned with an agency that puts creativity at its core. It's no surprise he is heading to TBWA. If they hadn't approached him, he'd eventually have found his way there himself."
But Lindsay says the decision to leave wasn't easy: "I still buy in to the Publicis model; there were just bits of it that I was probably arrogant or foolish enough to think I could change. The reality is that when you're not a sexy micronetwork in London, you'll find it tough to win as much domestic business as regularly as a UK- based hotshop or independent.
"Then there was the Asda loss, which is probably the most bizarre thing to happen in the 30 years I've been in the business."
Lindsay frames the latter as a challenge that he's overcome, rather than a sore point. But there is no doubt that he was scarred deeply when his former colleague Rick Bendel moved the £44 million account into sibling agency Fallon, leading to redundancies. "Tim is a principled guy with a defined sense of right and wrong," a colleague recalls. "The whole Asda thing hurt him a lot, and if it wasn't the sole trigger of his departure, it would definitely have been one of the tipping points."
So, as TBWA looks to reinvigorate its creative reputation and better integrate its sister companies, it's little wonder that Keith Smith, the group's president international, was able to woo Lindsay back to Omnicom. And Lindsay's mix of management skill, passion for creativity and track record (he restructured Publicis Dialog) show he has the strength to ensure TBWA's requirements are met.
Lindsay, who is expected to start his new role in July, will be based in London, reporting to Smith and overseeing the UK and Irish markets. His remit is later expected to include Africa.
His main responsibilities will be to pull these disparate group companies into a cohesive offering, and roll out the Media Arts concept, which marries creativity and communications planning, as a clearly defined TBWA brand. Smith is adamant that, despite all the recent industry activity, the UK has been slow to embrace integration, and Lindsay's appointment marks its acceleration.
"He needs to drive the process we've started and make the TBWA offering in the UK and Ireland closer to the models used in other regions," he says.
The brief suits Lindsay, as it is more focused on integration, with new business a by-product rather than its sole focus. Smith explains: "All of our companies practice disruption, and it's time we started implementing this disruption process on ourselves, looking at how we ensure our offering is more consistent across all disciplines."
Lindsay can take this as a signal that he has the backing of senior management to make the necessary changes to achieve his goals; something he may not always have felt he had at Publicis.
Yet, for Publicis, there are positives. Jerry Judge, Lindsay's former partner at Lowe Howard-Spink, says although TBWA has inherited Lindsay, Publicis is set to benefit from his legacy: "The ugly work, such as cost-cutting and redundancies, has been done. Whoever inherits the role at Publicis can concentrate on the job at hand: building the London agency back up to strength."
Meanwhile, Richard Pinder, the worldwide chief operating officer of Publicis, insists this is a time of reflection for the agency, with himself and the executive chairman, Olivier Fleurot, at the helm until Lindsay is replaced. And the possibility of a merger with Fallon? "It's one of the many things that some people think is a good idea, but is probably not a real consideration at this point," Pinder states.
The move spells the end of an era for Publicis and, for Lindsay, the beginning of a new one. A former colleague reflects: "After a period of great creativity at TBWA and BBH, Tim has had to endure some loud bangs, such as the disillusionment of his latter years at Lowe and this recent turbulent time at Publicis. If I have one hope for him at TBWA, it is that he falls in love with the business again."
Lives: West Kensington and Cornwall
Family: Married, four children
Favourite ad: Lego "kipper"
Greatest achievement: Being one of the many people who made BBH the
place it was over the nine years I worked there
Motto: Always work with people who are better than you are
Interests: Art, literature, motorcycles, surfing, skiing and family