’I’d rather not stay at the agency, if you don’t mind,’ says
Stephen Whyte, as we arrange to meet.
Well, we know that he would rather not; he announced last week that he
was leaving his job as deputy managing director of GGT to become the new
managing director of Leo Burnett (Campaign, 7 November). Of course, he
was just talking about where we would meet. But the manner in which he
swooped into reception and swept me out of the door was that of a man
who was a bit embarrassed at having dropped a bit of a bombshell -
especially as his picture was on the front page of that morning’s
Campaign, on proud display on the coffee table in reception.
It’s not, admittedly, a bombshell which will rock the industry. In
Whyte’s words: ’It will all get lost in the merger (between GGT and
BST-BDDP)’; but his move is a significant wrench for GGT’s
superstructure, and especially Grant Duncan, his soon-to-be-former boss.
The two make an awesome partnership - awesome, largely because they
managed to run a hot agency and be two of the most charming, polite and
nice men in the industry.
’Stephen is a very emotional chap - which may surprise some people - and
I’ll miss him hugely,’ Duncan says. And Whyte himself, only minutes into
our chat, gurgles: ’I love Grant to bits.’
Whyte was right, too, when he said that his departure would get lost in
the merger. It might even have been quite handy, for when two players
such as GGT and BST-BDDP combine forces, an attempt to cram all the top
brass into jobs commensurate with their industry standing can be akin to
trying get a single fitted sheet on to a double mattress.
And let’s not forget that Whyte is not just leaving what, on paper,
looks like a lovely job, but going to what, on paper, looks like a
fantastic job. Burnetts has been holding out for a managing director for
six months since Nick Brien moved up to become chief executive. And the
agency, according to all and sundry, is one of great potential which
hasn’t quite been drawn out yet. Martin Jones, managing director at the
Advertising Agency Register, says: ’What Burnetts needs is a campaign
that people outside the industry talk about: a John Smith’s, a Tango.
Whyte should be able to bring in that kind of client.’
Bruce Haines, chief executive of Leagas Delaney, agrees with Jones:
’Nobody has ever had much doubt that Whyte would end up in a very senior
position; even as a graduate trainee (at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO), he
was very mature.’
At AMV in the heady days of the 80s, he was jammy enough to work on the
British Caledonian, Seagram and Comet accounts. His then colleague,
Robert Campbell, creative partner of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe, says:
’There was a generation of young account men at AMV - thrusting young
turks - all of whom have gone on to do very well.’
Whyte stayed at AMV for four years - his longest tenure yet. His first
move of many was with a colleague, Mike Turnbull, to Aviator, a
below-the-line operation that withered through lack of funding.
So when Haines enticed him to Leagas Delaney, he was off like a
’Leagas Delaney - and particularly Tim Delaney himself - was the
ultimate obliterator of sloppy thinking,’ he winces, recalling how he’d
go straight home after failing to sell a campaign to a client rather
than facing the wrath of Delaney.
It became obvious that this was not the right climate and when the call
came from Richard Hytner at the-then Still Price Lintas, Whyte left to
become client services director. The chemistry seemed right but, a
victim of bad timing, Whyte had to resign moments before he was removed
during the infamous shake-up at the end of 1995.
At this point, Grant Duncan stepped in to offer him the new-business
director job at GGT. It turned out to be a canny move - Whyte became
deputy managing director of the agency just under a year ago.
’The last ten months have been great,’ he says. ’I’ve been doing this
pick ’n’ mix job at a very unpretentious agency which throws fantastic
parties.’ But during this time, Whyte had been developing his
relationship with Brien and around four months ago, serious discussions
began about the managing director’s job at Burnetts.
And then the psychometric tests were administered. ’I wanted to say to
Nick: ’You’ve been on too many courses, mate.’ Thank God I could smoke
during the ordeal.’ But now he would recommend this experience to
’After that, I just knew that the job was right for me.’ Stephen Maher,
a contemporary ’young turk’ at AMV, agrees: ’This job is probably the
best yet for him. Burnetts has an intelligent and laid-back environment,
which is the kind of guy he is.’
But it is not yet the perfect agency. Whyte admits that it has a
reputation for being ’run by suits’, and its new-business rate has been
less than stellar, with plenty of clients coming in for a chat, but few
actually handing over their accounts. Duncan adds: ’Burnetts is a bit
like a first date at the moment ... the agency needs its first real snog
to get things rocking.’
’It’s not simple, trying to work out why pitches don’t convert,’ Whyte
muses. ’I think it’s down to confidence, and how the agency looks and
feels about itself. The smell of success has to be there. Nick, who has
the ability to exude confidence about the agency, is very
Insiders at the agency seem pleased that Whyte is stepping in - notably
because the extra pair of hands will free up Nick Brien to get strategic
once again. ’They will make a great team,’ one says, ’not just because
they are so different. Being different is not enough; there has to be a
Everyone is happy to wax lyrical about the contrast between Brien and
Whyte - including Whyte himself. ’Too often in the business, like hires
like, because it’s comfortable and secure,’ he says. ’Nick has enormous
passion and energy, but has less direct experience of account
I’m sure he won’t mind me saying that although he has great ideas, he’s
not the strongest person for making them happen. On the other hand, one
of my strengths is turning ideas into reality.’
But his methods, according to some, aren’t always strictly orthodox.
’He may be very ’nice’,’ says one former colleague, ’but he is also
incredibly political and plays the game as well as he polishes his
shoes. He’s a very self-important performer, and will not relax - ever.’
Duncan elucidates more kindly: ’He has a mischievous ’naughty boy’ side.
If he’s got a target to achieve, he can do it in quite a disruptive way
to get there in a fashion which is not boring.’
Lots of people have things to say about Whyte: a born account man,
maybe, mature, maybe, but not boring. Hytner’s description is perhaps
the most original: ’He’s a very ’classic’ sort of person. If you went to
his house, he’d probably serve you Earl Grey tea and double-chocolatey
He wears Church’s shoes and collects antique clocks. Who else collects
antique clocks these days?’