THE KINGS OF MADISON AVENUE: Mike Greenlees - Caroline Marshall talks to a 'decent bloke caught in a political mess', the head of the TBWA network

Not many people fail and come away with millions of dollars and the

need never to work again. Mike Greenlees did, having seen the company he

created and floated rescued by Omnicom. But the notion of throwing in

the towel never entered his mind. He picked himself up and is playing

his new role as president and chief executive of the TBWA network with


A sprightly 53, Greenlees has recently drawn a line under two years of

commuting by Concorde between his family home in London and his office

in New York. He's going native and having a big New England-style wooden

house built in Greenwich, Connecticut. Today he's sitting in TBWA's

Madison Avenue HQ. He's responsible for the fortunes of more than 8,000

people working in more than 180 agencies in 60-odd countries.

'My first year was about housekeeping,' he explains. 'I inherited a

series of mergers on which the paint wasn't dry and I had to sort those

out before addressing the issue of network cohesion.'

Greenlees' journey to the chief executive's seat at what has been

recently rebranded TBWA/ (the slash is 'our diagonal lightning rod for

change') begins with a pure mathematics and philosophy degree at Warwick


After a brief stint on the client side - first at Bowater Scott, then

Imperial Tobacco -he joined Boase Massimi Pollitt in 1973 as an account

executive. He left as an account director in 1977 to go to French Gold

Abbott as a board director. It was at FGA that he met Mike Gold, the

other G of GGT, and at BMP that he met Dave Trott, the T. In 1980, they

launched GGT and although Greenlees fell out - first with Dave Trott who

was ousted in 1990 and then with Gold who left in 1994 - he took GGT to

flotation in 1986.

In 1993, TBWA Advertising, started in Paris in 1970 by Tragos, was

bought by Omnicom. Two years later, it bought Chiat Day, fusing it with

TBWA as the TBWA International network. This merger united Nissan's

European advertising with its US Nissan business, held by Chiat Day.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Greenlees was fulfilling his own

global ambitions. When BDDP went up for sale in 1996, he managed to

persuade the bankers and shareholders to support a daring bid to buy the

debt-laden French-based advertising group for more than pounds 100

million. It was a deal that would catapult the newly merged empires of

GGT and BDDP into 15th ranking in the world.

BDDP, led by its charismatic chairman, Jean-Marie Dru, came with what

looked like a valuable prize, Wells BDDP, which BDDP had purchased in

1991. Wells' flagship Procter & Gamble account represented more than a

quarter of its revenue and Greenlees saw a chance to woo P&G to other

parts of his empire. But it was the loss of P&G, which felt jerked

around first by the French and then by the Brits following extensive

management upheaval at Wells BDDP, that led to the roof falling in on

GGT. Losing P&G wiped about 40 per cent off GGT shares, leaving it a

target for predators. It was Omnicom, which saw a chance to bolster the

TBWA network outside the US, that prevailed. The year after John Wren

became Omnicom's chief executive, he bought GGT for dollars 235 million.

He dismantled Wells (founded in 1966 by a strong-willed adwoman, Mary

Wells Lawrence, it had once been one of New York's mightiest agencies),

divided its shrinking accounts among other Omnicom shops and merged

GGT's BDDP Worldwide with TBWA to form TBWA Worldwide.

Greenlees was installed as the president and chief executive, heir to

Tragos. Dru was given the title of president and chief executive

international. The other figures in this complex hierarchy are Lee Clow,

the chairman and worldwide creative director and Bob Kuperman (Kupe),

the president and chief executive of the Americas.

You do not have to be Einstein to surmise that Greenlees has had a task

on his hands to pull such a team together. Dru - the self-made man who

went to hell and back trying to keep the BDDP network intact and lost

his independence not once, but twice - first to GGT, then to Omnicom.

Kupe - a creative turned agency principal with a huge US fiefdom to

protect. Clow - the creative supremo who continues to report to Wren

rather than Greenlees, his network head. Throw in the fact that the TBWA

network is composed of a collection of relatively recently purchased,

entrepreneurial agencies like Chiat Day in Los Angeles, Hunt Lascaris in

South Africa, BDDP in Paris, TBWA (etc) in London and Whybin Lawrence in

Sydney and you have a momentous task on your hands, don't you? How has

Greenlees dealt with Dru and why doesn't Clow report to him?

On the second question, Greenlees is, for once, almost lost for words:

'Er, you know, er, that's an interesting question. Actually, I never see

reporting as an inhibitor, maybe that's because the role of Omnicom is

so relaxed and hands-off that it encourages individuals to excel. Also,

Lee's role is so important that nobody is unhappy about him reporting to


On Dru, he is more assured: 'Jean- Marie and I are alike, we have the

same values, we rarely disagree on the fundamentals, whatever people may


Greenlees has three priorities. The first took up most of his and Dru's

time in the first year and it is completing the physical merger of the

remaining BDDP and TBWA agencies. So far there have been mergers in

London (a specially complex one, with four agencies turned into what is

now, to everyone's relief, to be known as TBWA/London) as well as Paris,

Amsterdam, Madrid, Milan and Zurich.

His second is to bring cohesion to the network. It is closely linked to

his third, which is to introduce tools which can enable the various

agencies to work together across geographies and time zones.

Some of TBWA's international clients lend themselves more easily to

Greenlees' vision ('the role of a network is to add value') than


There is Nissan, TBWA's largest account held in 23 markets, which has

been successfully consolidated thanks to the purchase of Jordan

Zimmerman, Nissan's dealership support agency in North America, and the

recent formation of the joint venture known as G1 Worldwide with

Hakuhodo in Tokyo.

Greenlees pays tribute to Robert Leplay, the global account director on

Nissan who has moved from Los Angeles to Tokyo to head G1, and to the

diplomatic skills of Dru, who negotiated TBWA's way through the politics

of Renault taking a stake in a troubled Nissan in March 1999. He

recalls: 'There was a moment when it looked like Nissan would not be one

of tomorrow's brands, and nor were we giving them our best


There is Absolut, a 19-year-old campaign featuring images of the

crystal-clear bottle, which communicates in English even in the brand's

native Sweden.

There is the Apple 'think different' campaign which has helped the

computer company quadruple its market share to 12 per cent. It came

about thanks to Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple who was ousted in 1985

and brought back in 1997. Jobs interrupted a six-agency review to hand

the US business, and shortly after the worldwide account, to Clow. The

pair had worked together on '1984', a commercial that Clow says he has

never topped.

Then there is the bizarre one, at least from a network point of view -

Sony PlayStation. PlayStation, its positioning summarised by the 'Do not

underestimate the power of PlayStation' line, was originally a Simons

Palmer European client. Meanwhile the American Play-Station client works

with Chiat Day, not because it wants to work with a network called TBWA,

but because it wants to work with a unique agency called Chiat Day.

There are two contracts, two campaigns and two political agendas at

play. Greenlees won't be drawn on this issue.

TBWA Chiat Day won the Levi Strauss business in January 1998 from

longtime agency Foote, Cone & Belding. A year ago, the gossip was that

the account was wobbly. The agency had tried a number of executions

that, as management at the ailing client changed, were short-lived. 'It

was more than gossip,' Greenlees says. 'It probably was wobbly. Suffice

to say that Carisa Bianchi (the president-ceo of TBWA Chiat Day San

Francisco) and Chuck McBride (the executive creative director) have

strengthened the relationship.'

Was that what McBride's hiring was all about, pulling in a creative

saviour from Wieden & Kennedy to bed down Levi's? 'It was about a lot of

things, not least of which was bringing someone with clout to our San

Francisco office.'

His objective is to get TBWA up to a level which is on a parity with the

larger groups in the world. It is a vision in which acquisitions don't

feature strongly. 'One of the first things I did was slow down the pace

of acquisitions,' he says. Both the significant purchases he has made

were designed to consolidate Nissan: TBWA took a stake in Nippo,

previously Nissan's in-house agency, since rebranded as TBWA Tokyo.

Buying Jordan Zimmerman in Florida brought on board the Nissan

dealership business in North America.

Everyone is interested to hear how Greenlees defines TBWA's

below-the-line, digital and media strategies. Omnicom's desire is to

move below-the-line brands to mirror the agency networks. 'We're making

the Tequila offices part of the local group structure,' he confirms. Any

plans to launch a digital brand? 'I'm not so sure it makes sense. Is

there really any difference between an Ogilvy Interactive or an FCBi? We

believe that the digital agenda affects everything we do, we want to

integrate e-commerce and interactive thinking into every client.'

What about media? TBWA still has in-house planning everywhere and buying

in some markets. Is it appropriate his agencies retain buying anywhere,

given the existence of Optimum Media Direction? OMD is buying-focused

and owned by Omnicom's three ad networks - BBDO, DDB and TBWA. 'Buying

will move into OMD, but TBWA will still have a place in high-ground

media planning,' he says.

While TBWA has a larger percentage of clients going through multiple

offices than either of its larger sister networks, Greenlees is the

first to admit that it doesn't have enough international business. 'We

have holes in most categories,' he says.

I turn back to an earlier interview with Clow to find out his view on

the international question. He said: 'I will never work on P&G. I don't

think they don't know how to sell products or market them, and I don't

have a disdain for packaged goods but I do for people who have a

formulaic idea for how you market and how you advertise.'

Say P&G comes calling tomorrow. It won't, because TBWA has rival

clients, but let's imagine. How would Greenlees persuade Clow, who

doesn't report to him anyway, that working for P&G makes sense? 'Not

everybody has to work on everything,' he says, simply.

In fact, his desire is to move the centre of gravity of the network away

from its creative centre, Los Angeles, to New York, the source of

roughly 60 per cent of all global advertising business. 'When people are

looking for creative guidance they'll ring LA, but in every other sense

this is where the agency is run,' he says.

He is aided in this ambition by the momentum of TBWA's New York office,

which claims billings of more than dollars 400 million, up from about

dollars 200 million in April 1999 when Carl Johnson arrived from London.

In 1999, by way of comparison, the LA office billed dollars 1.4


The interesting stuff, as ever, comes at the close of the interview. He

describes his lowest moment as 'sitting in the back of a Lincoln

Cadillac in New York and being caught off guard by an AdWeek reporter'.

That conversation led to Frank Assuma, the outgoing president of Wells

BDDP, bringing a dollars 14.6 million lawsuit for defamation, among

other things. 'I would have argued two years ago that one of my greatest

strengths was my ability to read people well, to judge them,' he

ponders, recalling that day. 'In fact, I think I had more to learn, and

I learned that it's not enough to have good instincts, you have to act

on them.'

He likes working for Wren ('a man in whose instincts I've rarely found

an equal') and although he says he doesn't miss the investor relations

part of his time at GGT, he would like to be involved in Omnicom's

dealings with Wall Street.

I put it to him that the reason he agreed to this interview is because,

after 30 years in advertising, he wants his home market to remember he's

still rocking, still passionate about the business. In London he's a

player, with powerful mates and a nickname - 'Legsey', derived from a

letter addressed to a Mr Greenlegs received in his initial weeks at BMP.

In New York, where he's seen as the man who screwed up Wells BDDP, he's

had to start again.

'I've done some big stuff,' he says. 'Some good, some you could debate,

but that counts for nothing here.'

Thing is, there's no-one better suited to doing just that. 'Mike's a

decent, driven bloke caught up in politics,' one associate says. The

word everyone uses about him, apart from 'charmer', is 'chameleon'. Does

he recognise that in himself? 'Yeah, I do,' he says, though he's

suspicious of the word chameleon. 'Dynamite doesn't always open a door

and if you want to get something done you need to work within the chosen

environment. You can either run a business where the business serves

your ego, or you serve the business and I take the latter view.'

- This article ran in September 2000. Mike Greenless stepped down in

March 2001 and Jean-Marie Dru was named the CEO of TBWA Worldwide.

Greenlees now heads Omnicom's e-business interests.


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