THE KINGS OF MADISON AVENUE: Peter Schweitzer - The new chief executive of JWT talks to Caroline Marshall about life as Chris Jones' successor

I had met Peter Schweitzer twice before asking him for an

interview. On each occasion we spent a couple of hours together over a

meal and we got on like a house on fire. He was the big American agency

guy with a nice line in mordant wit. I tried to winkle out some juicy

facts about the network that's known for above-average client service

and distinctly average creative.

But this time he seemed uncomfortable. Was it because he'd taken over

the top job at the J. Walter Thompson network but the faltering American

economy and the defection of three key clients in recent weeks had piled

on the pressure? Or was it simply because he's a private person who

doesn't see the point of giving interviews when he could be out keeping

clients happy?

Anyway, we meet in Schweitzer's big corner office at JWT New York. This

is the headquarters of the world's fourth largest agency brand with a

dollars 1,489 million gross income and offices in 155 cities in 90


His office, in what used to be the agency's boardroom, contains little

of interest apart from a few family pictures and an owl made from red

stone. The owl, of which more later, is a symbol of wisdom, one of a

series commissioned from Picasso and used as gifts for clients in more

prosperous times.

Schweitzer spends only around a third of his time in New York, and the

rest travelling or in Detroit where he has lived since 1986 in order to

perform his global account duties on Ford, which is JWT's largest client

by far.

Back in January this year, everything changed. It was six years since

Schweitzer decided not to uproot his family and turned down the job as

the worldwide chief executive of JWT, resulting in the appointment of

Chris Jones as the successor to Burt Manning.

Jones joined the agency from Saatchi & Saatchi in 1984. He rose rapidly

through the ranks to become JWT's youngest ever chief executive at the

age of 41. But as his fourth year at the helm came to a close, it became

clear that health problems related to a deep vein thrombosis in his

chest would prevent him from continuing and Schweitzer got the call


Jones was 45 when he stepped down but Schweitzer's age is a tricky


The official line says 61, he certainly proceeded fairly evenly through

his forties and fifties. However, some suggest he has started hopping

about on it and his picture in the PR handout I am given must be at

least ten years old. But let us assume he is now 61. Why did he say no

before and yes this time?

"In 1994 there were two reasons I didn't want to do it. I had the best

job in the company, I was running the biggest account on my own. The

other reason was personal; I didn't want to uproot my kids and bring

them to New York."

Most suspect that the second reason was the crucial one. Until

Schweitzer married the fourth Mrs S, to whom he is obviously devoted, he

got through a hectic roster of wives. He has children born in each of

the past five decades.

So what changed? "The first reason was still true the second time around

and I haven't had to move my family. But in January 2001, even though we

had a record previous year, I felt there were significant cracks in the

management that were not there when Burt was getting ready to retire. I

felt that after 25 years it was time to give something back. I felt that

I could bring some of the lustre back."

What were the issues that needed addressing? "We had got into a pattern

of talking a lot about things and not doing a lot, so we made about 10

significant personnel decisions in my first month. Also we were spending

too much time thinking about new business and not concentrating on our

existing clients."

Do the so-called "three obsessions" that Jones set out still apply? They

were revenue growth, offering total communications solutions and

improving JWT's creative offering. Maybe, but Schweitzer's expression of

his priorities is very different. He appears less concerned with the

creative product and he intends to concentrate more on building business

from existing clients than pitching new business. This makes sense:

Kellogg in the US has left for Leo Burnett, and Lever Faberge's Organics

left for Mother since he took over.

"I don't have obsessions or devils or demons," he says. "I think our

business is very simple. It's about giving our clients ideas that will

sell their brands."

As if to remind himself of his mission, Schweitzer takes out of his

jacket pocket a small piece of laminated card. On one side are listed

JWT's top ten clients plus revenue figures, on the other the top ten

offices plus billings. "I get paid to worry about the top ten clients

and the top ten offices," he declares. "I'm not going to kill myself

worrying about every little market and all the clients. I've got four

competent regional presidents and they can worry about their


I'd guess the top ten client list would read Ford, Unilever, Pfizer,

Phillip Morris, Shell, UDV, De Beers, Merrill Lynch, Nestle and


It sparks a few questions. How much time do you spend on Ford now? "As

much as necessary. Mike O'Malley (hired in April from General Motors) is

doing my job on Ford now." What have you said to Unilever's chairman

Niall Fitzgerald on Unilever's dismissal of its agencies' attempts to

negotiate a new remuneration package? "I haven't met him, it's being

handled by Martin, he's a better financial negotiator than I am." What's

the likely fallout of Pfizer's takeover of Warner Lambert, JWT's third

biggest client?

Pfizer has already cleared out layers of Warner-Lambert management,

leaving hardly any in senior positions as it consolidates its

acquisition. "I haven't met the Pfizer people yet."

Before JWT Schweitzer worked in New York for Grey and Kenyon & Eckhardt.

He joined JWT as the vice-president, management supervisor on Warner

Lambert in 1975. In 1979 he helped win, and subsequently ran, Burger

King, which lured him to the client side as the head marketing honcho

for a year. By 1981 he was back at JWT. In rising through the ranks, he

garnered too many big titles to list here: group account director on

Nestle, worldwide management supervisor on Kodak, vice-chairman of

agency operations, president and COO, president of North America etc. He

joined the JWT USA board of directors in 1986 and the JWT Company board

in 1987.

It is on the platform of giving clients media-neutral ideas - his mantra

is "great ideas that express the power of brands" - that Schweitzer rose

to the top of the Ford business. In endearing himself to the network's

biggest client, like many chief executives before him, he has ended up

running the show. He is proud of a partnership that has produced

mainstream advertising as well as integrated communications, including

digital online campaigns to entertainment tie-ins.

At roughly dollars 1.5 billion in annual billings, Ford accounts for

around one fifth of the network's annual revenue.Though unlikely to

trouble the Cannes juries next week, it is a fantastic example of

turning agency dross into gold. Ford has proved a powerful weapon in

JWT's armoury as it has been transformed from a flabby privately owned

monolith to the more nimble WPP-owned network of today.

Schweitzer moved in as the general manager of JWT's Detroit office in

1986 and with it came responsibility for Ford's US business. At that

time, JWT had significant Ford business outside the US but, for reasons

best known to a few long-departed account barons, it was run as separate


In 1988, just as JWT was reacting to the takeover by Sir Martin

Sorrell's WPP, Ford fired the network in Europe, Canada and Brazil.

"Even though I was just a domestic guy I saw that Ford was expecting

world-class service but we were not providing it. So we put together a

team and began to direct the business out of the Detroit office."

There were no precedents for setting up these so-called Global Business

Units, although JWT London was at the same time working towards one for

De Beers. It was about controlling giant pieces of business on a

multinational level with the business run from the closest agency office

to the client HQ. In De Beers' case, the account team is based at De

Beers' London headquarters.

The result? JWT went from having Ford in around 13 countries to 60

countries today. It is a concept that the network has implemented on

other clients, including Kraft and Unilever.

Schweitzer's 15-year stint on the Ford business colours his style, which

is US-centric, uncompromising, testosterone-powered and aggressive. He

is not averse to taking a tough decision, as his attitude to JWT's Ford

Motor Media shows.

As we all know, WPP's media brand MindShare was formed in 1997 out of

Ogilvy & Mather's The Network and J. Walter Thompson's European media

interests. The vision: to offer clout, volume and power out of a single

WPP media brand. However, it's no secret that the US agencies took

longer to buy the party line than their counterparts in Europe. Media

independents, after all, have not been as successful in the US. And then

there's the delicate matter of keeping the revenue for the ad


Although MindShare has launched in the US, Ford Motor Media remains

outside and is a separate buying facility. As it is the single biggest

chunk of media business within WPP, this must irk Sorrell and the

MindShare chief executive, Irwin Gottlieb. So will Ford Motor Media ever

be a part of MindShare?

"We are in discussions with Ford about Motor Media, but my attitude to

MindShare is prove you can do it better. I believe that we can do better

brand building work for our clients if media planning and communications

planning reside close to the creative agency. If they don't then what

you are admitting is that only the creative agency can have good ideas.

I'd rather do what's best for Ford and keep the revenues in


The answer is typical of Schweitzer's no-nonsense approach. I suspected

that the mere mention of Ford Motor Media and MindShare in the same

breath would provoke one of his famous bollockings, but he remained calm

throughout our hour together. I suppose the bollockings are reserved for

employees. People who have been the butt of them, or just witnessed

then, still blanche at the memory. His speeches in internal meetings are

famous for the very high incidence of f-words and c-words, but I didn't

hear one. Even more surprising is that he seems to have learned the

language of political correctness when talking about Sorrell whom he was

always said not to like. Now he says he admires Sorrell as "a brilliant

dealmaker and financier" using him to cement "top-to-top


True enough, for Schweitzer took Sorrell to the meeting earlier this

year when Kellogg, a JWT client since 1930, fired the agency in the US

and consolidated the business at Leo Burnett. It was a weird decision;

only last year Kellogg reconfigured its roster to realign its brands

globally then it promptly broke that alignment by firing JWT.

Dismissing any talk of knock-on effects - "we've been reassured that

Kellogg has every intention of keeping us in Europe and the UK" -

Schweitzer considers why it happened: "Our performance in the US over

the years has been less than they expected. Perhaps because we never had

significant critical mass while Burnett had 80 per cent of the


And he is honest about the insecure position JWT now finds itself in, a

position which is not helped by Kellogg's losing battle with General

Mills and own-label competitors: "We have lost our relationship with the

HQ; it's difficult to run the business without that link."

Schweitzer jokes that his motivations are money, sex and greed. He

certainly doesn't crave the publicity of some of his peers and until now

he has been quite happy to remain out of sight on the Ford account.

Asked to get past the money/sex/greed line, he concedes that "doing a

good job and my love of ideas and the business" is what gets him out of

bed every day. His enthusiasm certainly comes across when he talks the

language of "endless brand experience" delivered through the JWT

proprietary product, Thompson Total Branding.

It's been suggested that he's a good politician, which he hates: "I'd be

a terrible politician, I tell people what I think, I tell Martin what I

think." He's far too canny to admit any weakness, turning a question

about his strengths and weaknesses into an answer about his strengths:

"I bring simplicity and directness to the table when there's an internal

problem; I'm good at setting priorities; I have some leadership skills;

I don't suffer fools gladly."

JWT insiders back all this up. One says: "Superficially Peter's a

tyre-kicking Mid-westerner who drives a hot rod truck and wears cowboy

boots, but he also has insight and good management skills. He allows

good people room to move. Although he's less ideologically driven than

Chris, he has a good strategic grasp of what a company ought to do."

Aiding him in that task are JWT's four regional presidents: Bob Jeffrey,

the president of North America; Michael Madel, who heads Europe, the

Middle East and Africa; John Holmes, who runs Latin America and the

Caribbean, and Miles Colebrook, who runs international and


But Schweitzer's two closest advisors are JWT old-timers. They are Ron

Burns and Lewis ("Lew") Trencher. Burns is president of global business

and head of JWT's Kraft, Miller and Nabisco (in essence Philip Morris)

business. Trencher is chief operating officer and chief financial


It turns out that these are the two most caricatured people in the


According to one insider, Burns embodies the seagull effect: "He flies

in, makes a lot of noise, shits all over you and leaves you to clean up

the mess." Trencher inherited the COO title in 1994 when Schweitzer

turned down the CEO post and retains it today. He's the hard-as-nails


Burns and Schweitzer go back a long way, to 1976, when they worked on

Burger King. Trencher, meanwhile, moved over from WPP to JWT in 1992:

"Love-hate is not the right word for Lew and I but it is not a

relationship without tension," Schweitzer says, with a wink. Others

recall meetings where the two men have dispensed with reasoned argument

in favour of physical violence.

If Schweitzer's the big tough adman with no demons, he can be terribly

thin-skinned too. There's a feeling within JWT that he doesn't travel

well, that he is not at his ease when out of familiar territory, real

and metaphorical. This is perhaps due to the impression he has given

over the years that if everything's all right in the US the rest of the

world can whistle for it. He flustered: "Where did you hear that? What,

you mean I don't travel culturally? So my people don't like me then?

Aren't we all comfortable in familiar environments?"

And so, finally, to the topic of his successor. On the accumulated

evidence, Schweitzer is a stop-gap, a pragmatist, a steady pair of hands

who will make the numbers as WPP steers its way through tough and getter

tougher economic times. He says he is in place for three to five years.

He must therefore name or at least identify a successor soon and of the

internal candidates the money is on either Jeffrey or Madel. Both are

highly rated and of the right age, but Jeffrey has scant experience

outside New York and Madel, who who is Austrian, has scant client

leverage, which is normally a prerequisite for getting the top job.

Whoever ends up running JWT, everyone hopes that the symbol of the owl,

as appears in Schweitzer's office, might be reunited with the lantern

symbol that accompanied it in 1864 when JWT opened its doors. An owl for

wisdom and a lantern for creativity - now that would be a powerful

agency brand indeed.