NEWSMAKER/STEPHEN WOODFORD: Understated leader who revived WCRS’s fortunes - Self-deprecating Stephen Woodford is a ’people-first’ chief, as Karen Yates finds

A trip to WCRS these days can be like visiting a boys’ dormitory after lights out. On the creative corridor, a few of the lads are kicking a football around. In the bar there’s a spot-the-beard competition going on and upstairs on the executive floor, they’re slagging off Stephen Woodford for getting pissed at the Christmas party.

A trip to WCRS these days can be like visiting a boys’ dormitory

after lights out. On the creative corridor, a few of the lads are

kicking a football around. In the bar there’s a spot-the-beard

competition going on and upstairs on the executive floor, they’re

slagging off Stephen Woodford for getting pissed at the Christmas


Yet jolly japes are not what WCRS has been known for over the years.

Vicious in-fighting, more like. Stylish ads and working your balls off

in equal measure. However, something has been changing in the agency’s

once-Dickensian halls.

The man insiders say is responsible for this looks a little like an

overgrown schoolboy himself. The elfin-faced Woodford - almost everyone

calls him ’Woody’ - has a thatch of strawberry blond hair and the grin

of someone in short trousers who has a catapult tucked out of sight in

his back pocket.

He’s likeable. Lovable even. But you wouldn’t want to turn your back on

him in a game of conkers.

Woodford has been managing director of WCRS for nearly two years. When

he first took on the job, back in 1995, the agency had lost four of its

key accounts, two of its key people, and had just picked up the

inglorious score of two out of ten in the Campaign end of year


The past two years have seen a revival in its fortunes, however. And the

last 12 months have brought six new clients in through the doors of

WCRS, as well as comfortable amounts of new business from existing


This culminated last week in the news (Campaign, 11 January) that WCRS

had prised its last remaining rival off the Trebor Bassett roster and

had picked up the advertising account of the computer giant, Silicon


Even his mother wouldn’t say Woody had done this alone. His style, in

fact, is not to swing from chandeliers in brave feats of derring-do. No,

Woody is best at keeping his cool while others panic, and spotting the

strategic way forward when things look a mess.

He’s not the kind of guy to dash into a telephone box as Clark Kent and

reappear as Superman. He’ll disappear into the box, do some thinking,

and reappear with a shy smile ... as Clark Kent. But after some

self-deprecating jokes and a couple of strategic insights on Kryptonite,

you’ll wonder why you wanted blue tights and a silly cape in the first


Amanda Walsh, who hired him back in 1994 and who is now the managing

director of Walsh Trott Chick Smith, says she was won over by his

intelligence and ability to foster long-term relations. ’People might

say he’s too placid and quiet, not a natural leader. But he’s a

different type of leader.

Much more people-orientated. He believes that the assets of an agency

are its people,’ she says.

It was this that made Woodford a valuable foil to the eclectic Robin

Wight, the WCRS chairman and the only one of its four colourful founders

now left at the agency. Woody concentrated on keeping the ship running,

while Wight fished for new business.

’The great thing about Stephen is that he’s one of those people who make

others feel that they can do their jobs well,’ Wight says, explaining

the decision. ’Although the agency had done well in many ways, it was

also considered a bit of a bear park. I thought Stephen would bring some

calmness to the situation and give people a feeling they were cared


Woody himself admits to having a bottomless capacity for being relaxed

to the point of catatonia. He calls it being ’horizontally laid


It is usually accompanied by any number of stories against himself. For

example, there was the time when he came back from a business trip to

find that a picture from Campaign that made him look like a commercial

for blackheads had been photocopied and plastered over every inch of his

office; or the dog he bought but had to take back because he could not

stop it barking.

Woodford began his career on the client side, at Nestle. There he was

the most junior person present in a big pitch held to decide which

agency would launch a new instant coffee. ’That really made me think

that to work in advertising was what I wanted to do,’ he recalls.

So 1982 found him at Lintas, where he was thrown in at the deep end, and

he admits to making some ’horrendous cock-ups’. Or, as he puts it: ’If I

wasn’t the crappiest account manager, then I was certainly one of


Luckily, his technique improved and he moved, three years later, to a

small creative agency, Waldron Allen Henry Thompson, followed by a

switch, four years later, to the famous WCRS.

’It felt very big, slick and creative,’ he remembers. ’There was a hell

of a lot of internal politics - it wasn’t a happy shop.’ But it was the

kind of atmosphere in which Woodford thrived. The fast pace meant there

was never a dull moment and, if you could survive the infighting, the

turnover was so high that survivors ended up on a rapid promotion


The next step in Woody’s career may have been a mistake but, if it was,

he doesn’t admit it. In 1991 he moved to become deputy managing director

of Leo Burnett. Woody says the experience of working at an agency that

has a sense of its own future was ’useful’. However, his friends say he

did not enjoy the more staid culture of the network.

In any event, three years later he was back in the maelstrom of WCRS,

this time as client services director. However, more major upheavals

were in progress at the agency. The executive creative director, Alan

Tilby, quit the agency, and the chief executive, Andrew Robertson, left

for Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. Surprisingly, Wight didn’t replace him

with his deputy, Amanda Walsh, or with the vice-chairman, Phil

Georgadis, but with the freshly arrived Woodford.

Woody says he spent the whole of his first month ’putting out fires’ as

he and Wight shot between various clients, trying to stop them jumping


Two years later, he presides over an agency which places much more

emphasis on existing clients than it did in the past, has a much larger

planning department than it did, and has creatives and suits who

actually talk to each other and even go for beers together.

So, a welder of teams, then, is Woody. An affable fellow who likes

footie and beer but who is enough of a New Man to wash up after


If you ask Woody what he brings to the party in terms of attributes, he

tells you - of course - a story. It was at an

induction-cum-brainstorming session around the time he joined Burnetts.

He and his colleagues were holed up at a hotel, and it was one of those

discussions where each member of the group was faced with a list of

their perceived characteristics.

’I looked down the list. It said things like ’friendly’, ’loyal’,

’eager’,’ he says, ’I felt like a bloody dog.’ The epithet stuck. He

woke next morning to a big marrowbone on his breakfast plate and, after

that, every time anyone saw him on the street there were whistles and

shouts of ’here boy’.

He doesn’t mind, though. He’s always making fun of himself, anyway.

That, and his honest approach, makes him a popular boss. A very

’unbosslike boss’ according to Larry Barker, one of the agency’s joint

creative directors.

’Because he has an open policy, everyone knows what their jobs are and

what their career paths are,’ he says.

As such, there are few people in the industry with a bad word to say

about Woodford, although women tend to feel excluded from the boyish

camaraderie now swamping the corridors of WCRS.

About the only negatives doing the rounds about the agency head boy are

the hurtful things Barker has to say about what happens to anything

technical - or collapsible - when Woodford walks into the room: ’I

wouldn’t want to go camping with Woody,’ Barker says. Thinking for a

moment he goes on: ’But then I don’t suppose he would want to go camping

with me, either.’