Close-Up: Profile - Tough cookie gets set to tackle JWT's troubles

Alison Burns may not be well known over here but her US experience has given her a reputation as a fighter.

Stevie Spring, MT Rainey and Alison Hoad were just three of the names being thrown around last week as the news leaked that JWT was about to appoint a female chief executive.

The revelation that the job had gone to Alison Burns was met by more than a few blank faces. Who?

The British-born Burns last worked in the UK 13 years ago as the group account director at Young & Rubicam. In 1993, she moved to the US to be the vice-president of marketing at PepsiCo; then launched the New York office of the recruitment consultancy Kendall Tarrant. In 1998, Pat Fallon tempted her back into advertising to head Fallon New York. For the past two years she has been working as a consultant in that city.

So Burns is something of an unknown quantity in the UK, a status she accepts has its advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, she is working from a clean slate. On the other, a 13-year sabbatical from the UK means Burns will have to work hard to build a name for herself, while rebuilding the reputation and fortunes of the country's second-biggest agency.

JWT has had a difficult time of late, haemorrhaging almost £60 million-worth of business at the end of last year and losing most of its senior management.

Burns, described by more than one former colleague as a "tough cookie", has to steady the ship, fill the holes in the account list and rebuild the management team.

"My role and responsibility is to build a strong London agency. We're going to come out fighting and go out and pick up some good, strong domestic business," she says with a detectable US twang.

This statement is made with the confidence and determination of someone who played six years of international rugby for the England women's team.

However, along with the fighting talk, Burns also realises that her new agency is also in need of some immediate care and attention.

"Everyone in the company at every level needs to know where we're headed and how we're going to get there. One of the most important things I have to do is over- communicate," she says, displaying a hint of her experience of US-style management. "I'm looking for a sympathetic restoration, but in moving the agency forward we're going to change people's attitudes and perceptions."

She is so intent on making an immediate impact that, just two days into the job, she and Toby Hoare, the agency's executive chairman, have already spoken to prospective replacements for the outgoing planning director, Russ Lidstone, who is leaving with Mark Cadman, the former managing director, to run Euro RSCG London.

"Russ will be a big loss, but every cloud has a silver lining and the departure gives us the opportunity to see how these roles can develop.

We want to be fast, but we want to be circumspect. No other agency has appropriated planning, but we're going to," she says bullishly.

Cadman's managing director responsibilities will now be handled by Hoare and Burns, who see no need for the separate position. "We want better management, not more management," Hoare says.

Burns believes streamlining is the key to a successful restructure. Industry commentators say JWT's oversized global management team was the root cause of the agency's dismal end to 2005.

It has been difficult for past JWT London chief executives to handle domestic and global clients while appeasing Michael Maedel, the president of Europe, Craig Davis, the global creative director, and Bob Jeffrey, the worldwide president. All three exercise a lot of control over the London agency.

Burns is sure she can resolve these problems by drawing on the experience of the executive chairman. "A lot of the network relationships will be handled by Toby, leaving me free to run the London agency as I see fit," she says.

Hoare, Burns, Nick Bell, the executive creative director, and the new planning director will be the backbone of the agency. However, Hoare admits that he will start to relinquish some of his responsibilities once the dust settles. "I still have my HSBC business to run," he explains.

Although Burns has plenty of agency experience, she will need every ounce of her tenacity to mould a team around the talented Bell, who is famous for his uncompromising views.

JWT insiders say Simon Bolton, the former chief executive, clashed with Bell regularly and this played a part in Bolton's ultimate departure from the agency.

Similarly, Hoare admits numerous disagreements between Davis and Bell have caused disharmony in the London creative department. However, he says the pair are now working closely and have a unified idea of JWT's direction. Bell did not return calls.

Burns must maintain this harmony. The Publicis chairman, Tim Lindsay, who worked with her at Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Young & Rubicam, says she has worked with numerous creative directors and gets the best from them.

"She'll work out Nick in five minutes and figure out how to work with him. She's charming but very forceful, a real hustler. They should make a good team," Lindsay says.

Her own comments demonstrate that she already has the lie of the land at JWT. "We need the discipline and people to help Nick unleash what he is capable of," she says. "I see my role as having to block and tackle for Nick so he can get on and do what he does best. We're going to hunt as a pack and move forward as a gang."

Her years of working on the client and agency sides - particularly her five years as the president of Fallon - have clearly shaped Burns' attitude and work ethic.

"I learned a lot from Pat (Fallon) about being tough and having a fighting spirit. He's just indomitable and fierce in the face of defeat and never gives up. This is an attitude our agency is going to take," she asserts.

David Bain, a partner at Beattie McGuinness Bungay, worked with Burns at Fallon and thinks the experiences they shared at the agency made them tougher.

"Anyone who worked at Fallon when we did came out of that situation carrying a few battle scars," Bain says. "Alison is a real tough cookie, who will take restructuring JWT in her stride."

Besides, she is not new to the UK. Before leaving for the US she spent nine years in the London industry, starting at Fletcher Shelton Delaney in 1984 as an account handler before moving to BMP and BBH.

And if she really needs to get tough at JWT, she can always employ some of her rugby skills.

THE LOWDOWN Name: Alison Burns Age: 42 Family: Husband, Tony; daughter, Lydia Describe yourself in three words: Home at last! Favourite ad: Recent news coverage of a Jet Blue plane landing safely minus a wheel Who do you most admire?: My mother-in-law What objects do you always carry with you?: Working mother's guilt; a packet of Polos Favourite city: London and New York

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