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
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
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
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
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
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
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.