The Networkers: Andy Berlin

John Hegarty says he is 'the greatest creative entrepreneur', and certainly Andy Berlin will need all his advertising understanding and business nous as Red Cell's head, Francesca Newland says. In many respects, Andy Berlin should not be included in this series of profiles called The Networkers; not least because Campaign had to promise not to ask him about the Red Cell network in order to secure the interview.

In fact, his network experience is extremely limited. Apart from a 15-month stint as the president of DDB's New York office in the early 90s, his career history is all about the hottest of the US hotshops. And he has had his name above the doors of some of the best: Goodby Berlin Silverstein (1983-92), Berlin Cameron Doyle (1993-95) and Fallon McElligott Berlin (1995-97). He founded Berlin Cameron in 1997 and sold it to WPP in 2001.

So Berlin has moved around a lot, but generally is credited with leaving the agencies in much better health than they were in when he arrived.

Although his attitude towards advertising is philosophical and analytical, he is also an astute businessman, as WPP's group chief executive, Sir Martin Sorrell, testifies: "He has got a strong blend of creative and business flair."

Berlin Cameron New York bills in the region of $800 million with a staff of only 80. This low-staffing policy not only generates the kind of margins that tempt Sorrell to acquire you, it is also an integral part of the agency culture that has attracted a client list ranging from General Motors to Coca-Cola. Berlin explains: "We don't want layers in the agency. Everything is to do with work. It's not about people supervising people doing work. We have four people in finance, one person on the front desk and one PA. Everyone else is working on the work."

Not only are the support staff extremely small in number but, in addition, the advertising executives are expected to be multitaskers, or what Berlin terms "integrated individuals".

"The idea that account people should sell ads is bullshit. Creatives and clients should work together. It is one of the reasons Mother is so great," he says. He explains how David Abbott, John Webster and Bill Bernbach were (or are) all brilliant strategists as well as creatives. His partner, Drew Cameron, a Scot, is a planner-turned-creative.

And there's no doubt that, despite being a copywriter, Berlin is also one of the finest account men to have worked in advertising.

He revels in the profitability of the agency, getting very animated over the subject of fee negotiations: "You have clients who run procurement-based negotiations who say 'your overheads are low, therefore your fees should be low'. If I do a job for 25 per cent less than another agency, and am doing it better, get your nose out of my ass."

He adds: "Clients like me because I work on their business. I'm not someone who comes in once a year and nods. And they pay for it too. That's a big number."

Berlin's is an unorthodox approach to the business and one that is in keeping with his energy, curiosity and ambition. It isn't just his attitude to business that is unorthodox, though: he is a big, burly man who wouldn't look out of place touring with Hell's Angels. You can be sure that there are some tattoos lurking beneath his black, full-length leather coat.

John Hegarty, who has known Berlin for 20 years, says: "I think of him as the greatest creative entrepreneur. He constantly thinks out of the box and pushes the boundaries of his experience."

However, Berlin is concerned about the future of advertising. Taking a broad look at the industry, he fears the juxtaposition of an increasing distrust for agencies among clients with what he terms "an extraordinary amount of self-loathing in the ad industry". The two lead to bad advertising with an over-reliance on awareness as its raison d'etre, instead of adding value to the brand.

Relations with clients need to improve, though Berlin admits there's no simple way of making this happen. Agencies, for their part, need to look out for one another. Berlin says: "We fight among ourselves, cut each other's prices. We don't have a collective self. We have a competitive self. It's a great mistake." And he means it: throughout this interview he takes care to credit a long list of rival agencies with brilliance.

If you ask anyone who has worked with him or knows him well what the secret to his success is, they'll tell you it's his ability with clients.

James Best, who has known Berlin since Boase Massimi Pollitt acquired Goodby Berlin Silverstein in the late 80s, says: "He can charm the birds from the trees." Berlin has a huge brain - the former Red Cell worldwide chief executive, Lee Daley, calls him "intellectually intimidating". Hegarty adds: "He is very persuasive. He's incredibly intelligent, so doesn't have to shout. What he does say he says quietly and confidently with style and wit, knowing that he doesn't have to blow his own trumpet."

This brainpower enables him to identify his clients' business needs.

He makes it sound obvious. "Advertising has mispositioned itself," he declares. "We are the growth consultants. McKinsey and its efficiency is the structural consultant. There are people such as Cambridge Consulting talking about supply and demand. Ad agencies can increase organic growth.

This is so important because businesses, particularly global businesses, more than ever need top-line growth. World business, the people the NGOs picket and hate, has become an increasingly monodimensionalised, self-scoring mechanism about the bottom line. In a true growth economy, top-line growth comes first, bottom-line growth follows. Top-line growth is what agencies drive and drive better than anything else."

Berlin cites Mother, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, BBDO and Chiat\Day as being "engines for growth". "These are places that make the beer taste better. They make the experience of the product richer, deeper and more valuable. Advertising can change a mature, static market into a dynamic one."

This kind of positioning requires access to very senior clients, a lynchpin of Berlin Cameron's strategy. Berlin seeks clients "where the chief executive is also a brand manager" and cites the Apple founder Steve Job's relationship with TBWA\Chiat\Day's Lee Clow as the kind of relationship that continues to yield great advertising.

Berlin divides agencies into two types: distributors and manufacturers.

His hotshop background clearly puts him in the manufacturers' camp, but his promotion to the role of chairman and chief executive of Red Cell in January means he has inherited a distributor. And an ugly old distributor at that. WPP's acquisition of Cordiant resulted in many former Bates operations being folded into the already unwieldly Red Cell network last year.

This may have given Red Cell critical mass, but in many markets Bates was under-performing and divided into fiefdoms. Berlin will have to streamline the network, undoubtedly closing many operations in the process, and imbue it with an overarching identity. Much of this task will fall to the WPP stalwart Laurence Mellman, who was named as Red Cell's operations director in January.

Berlin can supply the vision for the network, but Mellman will make it happen.

The vision part won't be simple, however. Red Cell currently operates in no man's land. With 58 agencies worldwide, it's neither a network with an outpost in every market, nor a creatively led micro-network such as Bartle Bogle Hegarty. Berlin says: "The opportunity is to fit into the enormous area of client need that lies somewhere between the traditional network and the small, creatively controlled, organic networks. We're inorganic and in the middle. The middle thus far has not been dignified with greatness, but it could be a distinct thing. That's an intriguing opportunity for Red Cell."

The most likely scenario is a medium-sized network of 30 to 40 agencies, a handful of which, including Berlin Cameron in New York and HHCL & Partners in London, will operate as creative centres of excellence. A creative positioning for Red Cell is part of Berlin's brief, defined by Sorrell as "to build Red Cell, with Berlin Cameron as its core, into one of our most creative networks, if not our most".

Hegarty recognises the challenge: "The big question is can he bind this disparate group together? If anyone can do it, Andy can. He's got a big personality and a loyal following."

Berlin is not planning to impose his agency's culture on the network, however. "Individual cultures are assets not to be mashed into one cookie cutter. It's more important to have a single standard set quite high. It's not done brutally, but with some seduction."

In fact, he doesn't think business cultures can necessarily be contrived.

"Berlin Cameron was the result of its capabilities and its clients' needs much more than any specific strategy. When we look forward in life we think the most important things we will do are the decisions that we make, but when we look backward it's never decisions, it's always choices," he philosophises.

The client that has really put Berlin Cameron on the map is Coca-Cola.

It is an unexpected source of irritation for Berlin. He says: "The things we did in the early days of the agency, particularly the repositioning of Cadillac, the work for the NBA, were hard and terribly interesting - not famous. To win Coke was to get this sudden credibility without having earned it."

Berlin launched Berlin Cameron with several pieces of Coke business that he carried across from Fallon, but it wasn't until 2003 that he secured the flagship brand. He has a tight relationship with Steve Heyer, the company's president. But the situation has become fragile. Much depends on whether or not Heyer will succeed Douglas Daft, the retiring chairman and chief executive. Another successor might not favour the use of hotshops such as Berlin Cameron or Mother over its global network, Interpublic.

It's a key uncertainty because Red Cell lacks the kind of international clients that would make it a cohesive network and give it a shared purpose.

Its important clients in Europe - Alfa Romeo, BSkyB, Unilever and Georgia Pacific - are not the same as its important US clients, Nestle and Coca-Cola.

Both lists contain potential global clients and extending their relationships will be key to Berlin's success. Sorrell states: "The key issue is to build existing relationships first and then leverage new opportunities to build the company primarily by organic growth, but where possible to find exceptional talent in small acquisitions to make it stronger."

Berlin has one of the most lively minds on the planet. His attention span is short, but as long as something fascinates him, he can transform it into something brilliant. The challenge at Red Cell is huge, so it has the potential to engage Berlin's interest. But when asked if he has settled down, his response is telling: "(That will) never happen ... I've never had a plan. Jazz is more interesting than classical."


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