Newsmaker - Woodford brings steadying hand to DDB London

Does the 'safe' choice of new chief mark DDB London's transition from London icon to network outpost?

DDB London shocked adland last week when it announced the surprise appointment of Stephen Woodford as its new chairman and chief executive.

Woodford, 47, was formerly the chief executive of the Engine Group. To many, he seems an unlikely candidate for the DDB role, which the agency has struggled to fill in the eight months since Paul Hammersley departed on The Red Brick Road.

Woodford was settled at WCRS. He had been there for 12 years and played a major part in the agency's management buyout from Havas in 2004. He now holds - or held - a large personal stake in Engine and has worked to build up a group of non-traditional agencies over the past few years.

At face value, he doesn't appear to be the type of thrusting chief executive with something to prove that DDB needs.

However, Woodford (or Woody as he's known by his friends) is the kind of person you instinctively feel could have worked at DDB at some point during his career.

Contractual ties meant he was not allowed to comment on his new position, but he is described by former colleagues as "charming", "likeable" and "having huge integrity", all qualities that will mesh with the DDB culture.

He is also a respected industry figure and his former IPA presidency speaks volumes about his standing in the ad community.

Michael Bray, DDB's European head and the man who has been overseeing the hunt for the new London chief, says that this made Woodford especially attractive: "He's well known and connected on the London ad scene and he knows and is known by clients."

In many respects, Woodford has exactly what DDB needs. He brings an instinctive understanding of DDB's culture and heritage but, importantly, he also has an understanding of the outside world, something the insular DDB culture has never wholly embraced.

Woodford's experience of setting up and running a mini-agency group is another of his draws. After the 2004 management buyout, Woodford was at the fore of the Engine group, developing a range of non-traditional advertising agencies. As the group chief executive over the past two years, he has overseen the creation of a direct marketing agency (Personal), a digital shop (Meme) and a sales promotion agency (Woo), as well as a media tie-up with Naked Communications (Element) and the acquisition of two PR agencies.

"We've started creating a group of companies in London but need someone to move this on and integrate the services round the main agency," Bray explains. The DDB group includes a direct marketing tie-up with WWAV Rapp Collins, a media link with Goodstuff and the digital agency Tribal DDB. Much closer ties with WAVV are said to be on the horizon.

While the reasons for DDB's choice are clear, it is more difficult to see Woodford's reasoning. DDB is undoubtedly a bigger canvas than Engine/WCRS, but Woodford part-owned the latter with partners with whom he had worked for up to 12 years.

One likely explanation is that the return of Peter Scott to the group as its executive chairman instigated a gradual erosion of Woodford's power, which, eventually, forced him out.

The big question also remains of how Woodford will be paid for his equity. In 2004 he invested £150,000 in the company, for a share that could now be worth as much as 20 times that figure. DDB will not have been able to pay him such a large incentive, no matter how many of Bray's boxes he ticked.

Given the challenges DDB faces, there is also a school of thought that Woodford could fall down in some areas.

Over the past few years, DDB has gone off the boil. The London agency has suffered the same fate as many of the network shops, losing a series of domestic clients. Since the start of this year, £25 million of business has walked out of the door in the form of PG Tips, Weetabix and The Guardian. Most of the £75 million pan-European Dell account has also just defected.

The agency is also in need of modernisation. Its illustrious creative and planning heritage is not to be sniffed at, but DDB needs to become the slick, new agency of the future if it is to be more than merely the network's London office. This is a process that Hammersley started. However, the jungle grows back quickly and Woodford is likely to have to start from scratch in some areas.

"The DDB job is one of the hardest around," a chief executive at a rival agency says. "You need toughness, even nastiness, diplomacy, vision for the future and real determination." He points out that a conservative, inward-looking culture consumes many DDB staff and says that to move the agency on Woodford is going to have to "dig them out of their fox-holes and flamethrow them".

This is where Woodford could stumble. It would be difficult to describe him as tough and he's certainly not the type to wield a flamethrower and bring his own team in.

Bray hopes that Woodford will work with the team already in place at DDB. "We've got a great team and Stephen will work with them, as opposed to blowing them up," he says. "He has the experience to hold them together and move them on. It will be Stephen's decision but I wouldn't expect him to replace anyone."

Woodford is also criticised as being more of a manager than a leader. And, while he is an admirable and accomplished practitioner, one source is sceptical that he has the "vision and nous needed to get things going at DDB".

Bray agrees Hammersley and Woodford are different types of hirings. "Paul was a shock to the system," he admits. Woodford, on the other hand, is a safe, steadying pair of hands. This is not necessarily a criticism. As the antithesis of the chief executives who arrive in a blaze of glory, talking a fantastic game, and then stand by as their clients slowly slip out of the door, Woodford's lack of ego means he's good casting.

Martin Jones, the director of advertising at the AAR, thinks DDB doesn't need that much change and says: "It needs to modernise, not revolutionise." He believes Woodford's challenge will simply be to put people back on track again - to "observe, improve and give the agency back its confidence".

If this really is the case, then Woodford's gentle, fatherly manner could work for the agency. Then, his task needn't be about marching through walls and seeing who will follow him, but he would need to coach back a team that has lacked a captain for seven months.

In the eyes of Woodford's employers, he's exactly what the network needs. He has the ability to return London to health. As Bray says: "It is always difficult to turn a big, traditional agency into an international services model, but he will do it," he says, adding: "It has to change."

If Bray is right, expect DDB to perform as a strong network outpost, not the domestic heavyweight it once was.

Eight months that shook the London office

December 05: Paul Hammersley leaves to launch The Red Brick Road

January 06: John Webster dies; pitch called for Arla account; David Hackworthy, the chief strategic officer, leaves to join Hammersley

February: £10m Weetabix account goes to WCRS

March: £5m Guardian goes into review. DDB London does not repitch

April: Ken Kaess, the DDB Worldwide president and chief executive, dies. He is replaced by Chuck Brymer

May: Loses £10m PG Tips account

June: Loses £75m Dell pan-European account; wins £15m Garmin global account

July: Stephen Woodford named chairman and chief executive.