Ron Leagas is every inch a showman, whether taking centre stage at
his local amateur dramatic society or in the agency boardroom.
Flamboyant, charming with a powerful personality and temperament to
match, he takes a classic account man’s pleasure in the approbation of a
captive audience. But he also suffers from the common luvvie
susceptibility to emotional bruising.
His Pollyanna-like eternal optimism makes it difficult to tell where
theatre ends and real life begins for him. Indeed, as the curtain fell
on Leagas Shafron Davis last week, questions were being raised about how
much its chairman allowed his perceived role as actor-manager to blind
him to harsh commercial realities.
Leagas has been known to risk much rather than suffer loss of face or
respect within the advertising village. It was the need to retain his
credibility that some believe made him defer redundancies at Leagas
Shafron until the agency’s survival depended on them.
A magazine article which once described him as advertising’s ’nearly
man’ caused a deep wound. No doubt salt has been rubbed into it by the
ironic timing of his agency going into administrative receivership on
the day that the first shop to bear his name - Leagas Delaney - bought
itself out of the Abbott Mead Vickers group for pounds 4 million.
Even as Leagas Shafron fought for its life, Leagas was throwing himself
into industry activities with unprecedented vigour which included a
belated appearance at the last council meeting of the Institute of
Practitioners in Advertising. ’He arrived ten minutes late, almost as
though he wanted to emphasise his presence,’ remarks someone who was
there. ’It was as though he believed that if he could maintain the front
everything else would be OK.’
An agency chief who knows Leagas also sees a correlation between his
amateur and professional performances. ’Ron seems to be playing a role
he has written for himself,’ he observes. ’It’s not an ego trip - it’s
just that he thinks this is how people act.’
In many ways Leagas is the product of his advertising upbringing which
began as one of Saatchi & Saatchi’s original ’golden boys’. He joined
the agency during its earliest incarnation in London’s Golden Square in
1971 as marketing manager from the pharmaceutical company,
Within seven years Leagas was managing director at the age of only
The freewheeling days of the Saatchis high summer have left a lasting
impression on him and he has always tried to replicate the brothers’
’can do’ approach wherever he has worked. His preoccupation is with the
’big picture’, preferring others, like his managing director and loyal
lieutenant, Mike Davis, to implement the details.
He still misses the industry’s salad days - ’I think he remains
fundamentally a Saatchis person,’ Steve Grime, the former Leagas Shafron
creative director says. As a result, many now ask if he is a man out of
his time who still harbours grandiose dreams he will never fulfil. As
one former Leagas Shafron staffer puts it: ’Ron has a habit of playing
the big baronial chairman which really wasn’t appropriate to an agency
of our size.’
It’s a far cry from the barnstorming days at Golden Square where, under
Tim Bell’s patronage, Leagas played the front-of-house role for a
disparate group of talents ranging from the Aussie charm of Bill
Muirhead to the streetwise Roy Warman.
But his privileged position caused undercurrents of envy and earned him
the nickname of ’cunning Leagas’. ’He wasn’t terribly popular,’ an
ex-Saatchis manager recalls. ’Some in the agency, particularly those
with talent and ambition, felt he had exploited his friendship with Bell
and was fortunate to be where he was.’
Nevertheless, his decision to forsake the chance to rise further up the
Saatchis hierarchy in favour of a start-up with Tim Delaney impressed
fellow managers as a bold and credible thing to attempt.
Within six years, however, the partnership had cracked open, revealing a
flood of acrimony and a backstage saga which some see as reminiscent of
more recent events.
Associates say the source of the problem was Delaney’s high expectations
resulting from going into partnership with the Saatchis managing
Certainly the new agency enjoyed some initial success. But, when it
moved into a new home in Shaftesbury Avenue without first disposing of
its old offices in Endell Street, its financial vulnerability was
The clincher came in the mid-80s as Leagas Delaney contemplated a move
on to the then infant Unlisted Securities Market. To his dismay, the
newly appointed finance director found that, instead of making cash, the
agency was haemorrhaging it, a situation that was eventually to drive it
into AMV’s rescuing arms. ’Tim didn’t receive this news in too forgiving
a spirit,’ remembers an agency manager at the time. Leagas’s exit was
swift and he and Delaney are said to have barely spoken since.
A year’s gardening leave later, Leagas had bounced back, setting up
Leagas Shafron Davis with the creative, Mike Shafron, with whom he had
worked at Saatchis, and the former TBWA client services director, Davis.
The agency laid down its marker with some newsworthy creative work and,
in 1993, negotiated its entry into Europe by setting up what amounted to
a reverse takeover of Ayer’s London agency.
What sent Leagas Shafron under? Partly a costly extrication from the
Ayer network - since renamed Wilkens - after the latter’s takeover by
FCB which also forced Leagas Shafron to find new offices. At the same
time, SEAT, the Spanish carmaker and Wilkens’ biggest client, cut its UK
adspend to almost nil while Tomy, the Japanese toymaker, arrived with
the promise of a pan-European brand-building campaign only to change its
mind. Some ex-staffers, though, believe the agency had simply run out of
steam. ’I think the agency had lost its vision,’ one says. ’Not only
wouldn’t it change, it was paralysed.’
Royal and SunAlliance delivered the coup de grace. Leagas has admitted
to friends that his abortive attempt to win the protracted pitch for the
pounds 15 million combined account of its Sun Alliance client and Royal
Insurance ’caused me to take my eye off the business ball’. What’s more,
he clung to the mistaken belief that the strength of the agency’s
relationship with the client would ensure substantial other work even if
the corporate account went elsewhere.
Moving into new offices lulled Leagas Shafron staff into a sense of
false security although the fact that few were working to full capacity
was unnerving. Their fears proved real enough on Thursday 26 February
when pay cheques failed to arrive and Leagas, said to loathe
confrontation, called staff together to tell them almost half would have
’It was just like somebody had died,’ one of those present
’Each of us sat staring straight ahead. We couldn’t bear to look at each
other. After the news one guy said we should all take responsibility for
what had happened. He wasn’t very popular.’
Not that Leagas is having to shoulder the entire blame. Even some
jobless ex-staffers believe the crisis was as much to do with him
allowing his compassion to get the better of his commonsense as anything
else. ’He feels alone and scared at being held responsible for what’s
happened,’ one confides.
What Leagas will do next is anyone’s guess. Many expect him to turn to
consultancy rather than remaining in the advertising mainstream. ’If Ron
was born again he would be a planner,’ Murray Chick, a former Leagas
Shafron director, claims. ’He has a good feel for creative work and
loves using his imagination.’
Ross Capon, Leagas Shafron’s former client services director,
’Take Ron out of the chairman’s role and give him a strategic job and
he’d be very good,’ he says. The question is whether Leagas will ever
learn to play to his strengths rather than to the gallery.