Close-Up: Profile - The woman ruling WCRS's independent family

Debbie Klein, the new chief executive of WCRS, must marry the old with the new at the reborn agency.

The "WCRS family", as Debbie Klein, its new chief executive, calls it, has been through a lot over the past year.

Allegiances were pledged through its management buyout, two of its senior team (the joint creative director Leslie Ali and managing partner, Jeremy Bowles) departed, and various clients have arrived and exited. Klein must now direct this "family" as it finds its footing as an independent agency.

Klein was one of the six-strong senior team that completed the buyout from Havas last April. A planner at the agency for the past eight years and the author of the lauded IPA paper Women in Advertising: Ten years On, Klein takes the helm at an important time in WCRS's history.

Peter Scott, the agency's joint chairman, says: "There's a lot to do. We want to build WCRS back into a famous agency - to make it top-five in terms of respect and top-ten in billings."

Klein's strategy is not rocket science. "It's about attracting and keeping the best talent in the industry," she says. The hiring of Will Orr from Mother as her new managing director is a start. And the hunt is now on for a heavyweight creative to replace Ali.

Klein is confident the agency can now afford to be picky about new business.

"We had a great start to the year with the Abbey win but we are now able to choose clients that are right for us. You can tell immediately if they'll fit in," she says.

She is also unconcerned about the quality of the work. "I'm proud of our reel," she says, and points to its diversity - the classic BMW ads sit alongside the wacky 118 118 campaign - as a real strength.

However, since the buyout, insiders claim the agency's output is becoming more conservative; that WCRS took a more aggressive stance when it was Havas' money it was gambling with. The uninspiring new Abbey work could be regarded as proof. One source says: "Everyone has money on the line and this changes everything. Decisions become important and they are made with less bravery." Referring to other independent agencies, he says: "Clemmow Hornby Inge and Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners acquiesce with clients too soon. They are looking at earnouts and billings. Their issues are not all about the creative and this is the way WCRS is going."

Klein springs to the agency's defence. "That's not fair at all. Look at our work since the buyout. 3 is some of our bravest. We pitched for Pizza Hut with a man's head through a slice of pizza and the line 'Huta Nuta' - that's not conservative," she says.

She is also adamant that the development of WCRS group companies shows they are still willing to take risks. "We haven't just hunkered down to run the agency, we've set up seven new businesses," she says. These include Personal, the direct arm, Meme, the digital division, and Dave, which provides branded content.

Klein's predecessor, Stephen Woodford, now presides over these companies in a group chief executive role. However, this raises another question.

For an agency of WCRS's size with 180 people in the group, are two chief executives really necessary?

"There won't be any overlap," Woodford assures. "I'll concentrate on running and building the group while Debbie's focus is purely on the health of the mother ship."

Klein also dismisses the idea of challenges to her authority from WCRS's other senior management. "Robin (Wight) and Peter (Scott) work on a group level and don't get involved in day-to-day agency management," she says.

Julian Hough, another senior partner, is working on secondment in 3's marketing department.

Even from a distance, though, Wight is a force to be reckoned with. There have been times when he's been as much of a hindrance to the agency as an asset. He has been central to the agency's up-and-down history over the years.

One observer comments: "Leslie Ali provided a good counterfoil to Robin. He can have conservative solutions and you get the best out of him through debate and argument. Stephen wasn't confrontational. It will be interesting to see what balance Debbie strikes."

Having worked with Wight for the past eight years, Klein is unlikely to be too fazed. "We have good debates. We get to a better place together than separately," she says.

Still, the agency's staff will be an issue for Klein, and not just the politicking in the senior ranks. Since the buyout, there has been disenchantment among staff who did not take a stake, so raising overall morale will be important.

You get the impression she will take these issues in her stride, and her proposed style of leadership - "cool head, firm hand, warm heart" - suggests she has already worked out the job at hand. Charles Vallance, a Vallance Carruthers Coleman Priest founder and former WCRS planning head, says: "She'll make a good job of anything, she's resourceful and accomplished."

Bowles, WCRS's former managing partner who worked alongside Klein, adds that she will bring "certainty and clarity" to a business that has been confused by the quantity of senior staff. "She's well-liked and respected in the agency. She'll be very good," he says.

Her planning background also seems to stand in her favour. Neil Dawson, TBWA\London's executive planning director, says: "Planning is becoming more important. It's impossible to win clients without planning. It also brings a level of accountability to the agency and it's good for this to be teamed with the chief executive's role."

Vallance agrees: "Planners make better chief executives than managing directors. They are schooled in the skills you need to be a chief executive. They are naturally strategic thinkers and are used to looking at the broader picture."

As a planner, Klein says she's a problem-solver and agrees that is a good quality for a chief executive. However, perhaps surprisingly, she is not evangelical about the fact she's a woman. "That's just not an issue. It's about being good at your job and if you happen to be a woman, then great," she says.

Klein's promotion comes at a pivotal time for WCRS. Despite being 25 years old last year, it is starting out again with its newly independent status. Klein has to marry the old with the new. As well as bringing it up to date with its new position, she has to ensure the creative retains its old edge.

With eight years' experience of WCRS, and the support of the rest of the senior team, not to mention a hefty chunk of equity in the agency, everything points to her throwing herself into the task and succeeding.


Age: 36

Lives: Cricklewood, London

Family: Husband Max, daughter Natasha

Favourite ad: BMW "drawing pins"

Describe yourself in three words: Girl from Africa

Greatest extravagance: My Bugaboo Frog - if BMW designed a pram, this

would be it

Most admired agency: Bartle Bogle Hegarty

Living person you most admire: Nelson Mandela

Last book read: The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini