Opinion: Perspective - Why DDB desperately needs an agent for change

First, DDB London was rumoured to have a seasoned media man in its sights for chief executive. A smartly surprising choice, we thought. Then it was going to be a particularly fiesty-talking woman.

Yes, we said, we can see why that would appeal. After seven months without a chief executive, the DDB chiefs were clearly exploring some interesting out-of-the box options. But Stephen Woodford? The conservative option personified.

Before you get me wrong, the conservative option can often be the right option. Woodford has a rock- solid creative agency background; he has served his time as the IPA president (always a seal of approval on the CV and proof positive that you can do two full-time jobs in tandem -a particularly pertinent skill these days); and he has spent the past couple of years working at group level, steering a mini-holding company in the form of Engine.

What's more, Engine's blueprint - combining above-the-line creativity, direct marketing, media thinking, PR and so on in sibling harmony - is a seductive positioning and one that dovetails neatly with the strategy being pursued by DDB's parent, Omnicom. Omnicom is encouraging each of its agency brands to operate as mini-holding companies in their own right. So Woodford's experience here will be useful as DDB works out how to pull together its different group assets into an integrated whole.

Add to that the fact that Woodford is undoubtedly a nice guy (this is the man who quietly wept during a performance of Mary Poppins on a Campaign/WCRS night out), a decent operator and - though frustrating from a journalist's point of view - a reasonable politician. He is the classic safe pair of hands and I suspect that few DDB-ers will be unsettled at the news of his appointment.

No doubt DDB would argue that it has tried the charismatic, dynamic choice (Paul Hammersley) and got seriously let down when he buggered off after an unseemly short tenure. Woodford certainly isn't the type to be dazzled by the prospect of an ego-trip offer (he doesn't seem big on ego, full stop). And don't forget that in leaving Engine, Woodford is anyway turning his back on a company in which he has a personal investment. So he's the safe bet for an agency whose heritage is built on longevity of service and gentlemanly management.

But. Perhaps DDB chiefs should have gone for someone who does make people feel a little unsettled, a little edgy, who would challenge the too-cosy, somewhat inward-looking DDB culture, who could stand up and rally-cry the agency into a new era. For all his very obvious strengths, Woodford is not quite the galvanising standard-bearer that DDB needs. DDB is an agency whose creative reputation - though still one of the best in town - is not what it was. And, critically, the agency appears to be flailing round without a clear strategy for the digital future; it needs new fire in its belly and a hunger for real change. Maybe Woodford will prove me wrong - I hope he does - but I'm not sure he's the man for that.

All of which makes our feature this week (Adland's Management Merry-go-round, page 22) beautifully timely. Fifteen out of the top 18 creative agencies have changed their chief executives in the past two years. That's a phenomenal and worrying statistic. Despite my comments above about the need for new chiefs to bring a galvanising spirit, such a high level of churn is surely evidence that inter- nationalisation, cost-pressures, client conservatism and the rapid pace of change are all taking the shine off the chief executive role and off the chief executives themselves.

Such turmoil is deeply unsettling for staff and the only people to benefit are the headhunters, although the statistics would suggest that they're not doing their jobs properly either.

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