Dennis Lay is excited about 20/20 Europe. Can he stay on course?
According to a former colleague, ‘Dennis Lay is a piece of cake to slag
off’. The man who has just taken over as the managing director of 20/20
Europe has clearly riled a few people over the years.
He’s a nice guy. People wouldn’t say so if they didn’t mean it, and
plenty say so. But there are also quite a few people who deliver -
‘absolutely off the record, we’re not having this conversation, right?’
- the sweetest jibes about his, ahem, productivity.
Now, mostly this is the sort of information you’d treat with suspicion -
personal grievances and all that. Except when a lot of people say
exactly the same thing. Then you start to wonder.
Lay is clearly one of those people dogged with a certain reputation that
just will not lie down, however undeserved. He has a penchant for exotic
holidays, but mischievous colleagues groan that ‘whenever there’s a
problem, he’s on holiday, whenever there isn’t a problem, he’s on
holiday’. He’s also a real survivor: ‘He never did anything stupendous,
but, just as importantly, never did anything bad.’
Nick Horswell, a partner at New PHD and a former joint media director
with Lay when they were both at French Gold Abbott, has a different spin
on the theme. ‘Dennis has this organised way of getting things done that
can belie the effort put in. He’s a very direct, no bullshit guy. There
are no histrionics with him.’ Unfortunately, you can’t be a straight
talker in this business and not make enemies.
At 46, Lay - the Tom O’Connor of media (his looks, not his patter) - is
about to prove his detractors wrong by doing things for 20/20.
He wants to do lots of things, in fact. He’s going to build the brand
into a fully fledged pan-European media network, offering its co-owner,
Bozell Worldwide, the best media service around, and its other parent -
the CIA Group - a run for its money when it comes to pitching for media-
only business. He’s already taken the first step, last week hiring a
deputy, Sue Byrne, from 20/20 in London, where she is currently the
deputy managing director.
The 20/20 network, whose stature was superbly magnified by Lay’s
predecessor, Paul Wool-mington, is fully operational in the UK, France,
with Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain set to follow suit. Now
Lay needs to create a unified culture and develop the brand in other
He talks a lot about his enthusiasm for the job, and it’s here that it’s
impossible not to make the comparison with Wooly. Even after years in
the job, Woolmington managed to affect that sort of drooly, eyes-rolling
zeal which drove all before him. In his first week, Lay sounds as though
his motor’s running down, even as he describes his passion for the task
ahead. Still, he’s yet to settle on 20/20’s game plan, so perhaps that
will help get the blood racing.
The move to 20/20 is an attractive one for Lay because it allows him to
get closer to the whole of the client’s business. Some CIA insiders
suggest it is also an attractive move for CIA.
Clients, Lay says, are his strong point. ‘One of my clients once said
that I always had their best interests at heart. I might be a media man,
but I enjoy the development of campaigns and ads, being close to the
local executions. That’s why I’m looking forward to developing the
relationship with Bozell.’
Some of you may remember Lay resisted the tide of media separation well
after it became the engine that drove the market. As media director of
Publicis back in 1991, Lay declined to join Optimedia, the company’s
spanking new media offering. ‘I had become very involved in actually
running the agency,’ he says. ‘I was more comfortable in that
More comfortable that is, until relations crumbled with some of the
other senior agency execs. Lay doesn’t really want to talk about it. By
1992 ‘it had got to the point where I thought ‘I just don’t want to do
this any more’,’ and Lay embraced the media specialist sector because
CIA offered him a job.
It was his time as the managing director of CIA International, where he
says he worked to broaden the service CIA was offering and help expand
its best practices across Europe, which has prepared him for his latest
Now he has CIA in his sights. ‘If we can get 20/20 up against CIA in a
pitch across Europe, then my job’s done.’ The job is a long way off
being done yet, but perhaps Lay will prove his critics wrong and roll up
his shirt sleeves. Then again, he was wearing short sleeves when we met.
The Lay file
1972 McCann-Erickson, media supervisor
1974 FGA Kenyon and Eckhardt, joint media director
1978 GP&P, media director
1980 Leo Burnett, media director
1985 Publicis, media director
1993 CIA UK, group director of client service
1995 CIA International, managing director
1996 20/20 Europe, media director