A VETERAN’S RETURN TO Y&R: Young & Rubicam’s new chairman, Ed Vick, picked up his management skills in combat in Vietnam. His coolness under fire has earned him a tough reputation as a hired gun, John Tylee writes

Don’t talk to Ed Vick about a crisis when what you really have is a big problem. The chairman of Young & Rubicam Advertising has lived through Apocalypse Now for real and reckons he knows the difference.

Don’t talk to Ed Vick about a crisis when what you really have is a

big problem. The chairman of Young & Rubicam Advertising has lived

through Apocalypse Now for real and reckons he knows the difference.

For thousands of Americans such as Vick - Martin Sorrell’s choice to

lead the agency network in its new incarnation as a WPP subsidiary -

combat experience in Vietnam was a glass through which everything else

took on new light.

’It changed my life,’ he says of the conflict from which he emerged with

two Bronze Stars, a presidential citation and a lingering resentment of

the way the US turned those returning from the scene of its greatest

military defeat into outcasts.

Vick was a naval officer commanding river patrol boats on more than 100

missions along the Mekong Delta. Almost all the men manning the

glass-fibre craft were volunteers. Their task: to prevent the Vietcong

using the delta to infiltrate Saigon. So dangerous was it that half were

either killed or wounded.

Picture this. It’s the middle of the night. A rocket has just holed your

boat below the water line and there are 100 fully armed North Vietnamese

just 20 yards away. Now that, Vick says, is what you call a crisis.

After such a story, it’s hard to argue with his assertion that ’there

are no crises in business’ even though there is heavy irony in the fact

that he has built his reputation on what can only be called crisis


He was already firefighting at the deeply troubled and ultimately doomed

Levine Huntley agency when Peter Georgescu, then Y&R’s group chairman,

persuaded him to jump aboard in 1992. Since then, his successful

two-year turnaround job on the failing Landor Associates, Y&R’s San

Francisco-based identity consultancy and design company, and of the

network’s troubled New York flagship office, has marked him out as a

highly effective troubleshooter.

Not merely a troubleshooter, according to some within Y&R, but a gun for

hire with no especially strong loyalties, much personal wealth and a

desire to spend more time with the three young children from his third

marriage that will make his tenure short.

Vick seemed to add credence to part of this theory last year when, at

56, he appeared to be heading for retirement, only to change his mind.

And he acknowledges how, in chopping workforces in order to cut expenses

and stabilise incomes, he might be branded a hired gun - although he

professes never to have seen himself in that way.

This will be welcome news to Sorrell, who needs no flakiness at the top

of his acquisition. Indeed, at their first meeting to discuss Vick’s

relinquishing of the chairmanship at Y&R Inc to head the agency network,

the WPP group chief executive was anxious to know how long his man would


Back in the heart of the action from what he regarded as a non-involving

and largely symbolic role, Vick is happy to give a firm undertaking -

’This will be my last job’ - but on the understanding that there’s no

meddling from his new masters. ’We need the help and support of WPP but

we don’t need it to run the company. Martin heartily agrees with


Around the network outposts, Vick’s return is being greeted with


This isn’t just because his easygoing, informal and straight-talking

style is in contrast to Georgescu’s somewhat forbidding presence, but

also because of the time he has spent in creativity-led small shops.

It’s certainly rare to find such championing of creativity at such a

senior level of Madison Avenue management where money men


’US agency account people don’t have a clue about creativity,’ a senior

agency executive claims. ’Vick sees himself as the harbinger of it.’

Whether Vick has truly seen the creative light is a moot point. ’I think

it’s a bit of a smokescreen,’ a former associate suggests. ’It’s not

that Ed doesn’t have creative judgment, but he’s been bright enough to

see that nobody else at Y&R was going in to bat for it and he is a

shrewd politician.’

Nevertheless, it’s clear Vick is riding back on the crest of a wave.

One Y&R senior executive hails the decision to put him in command as one

of the best things to come out of the WPP deal. ’Ed is a good guy -

unlike some of the deadbeats we’ve had in the past.’

Brett Gosper, the Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper chief executive, who has known

Vick for several years, says that while he can seem unimpressive on

first meeting, this is only because his sincerity takes time to become


’He’s basically a good old-fashioned adman,’ says Toby Hoare, the former

Y&R chief executive in London who is now group chief executive of Bates

UK. ’And there are far too few of those at a high level in network

agency management. He may be very personable but he won’t shirk from the

tough calls.’

Vick is under no illusions that, despite the applause from Y&R offices

worldwide that has greeted his appointment, some difficult and painful

decisions will need to be made. No, the worldwide creative product isn’t

consistent enough - ’It’s better than we get credit for but not as good

as it should be.’ Yes, there will be downsizing and jobs will have to


For the moment, though, he is just thankful that the upheavals and

distractions of the past 18 months, including the IPO and the question

of Y&R’s future ownership, are at an end. The deal with WPP has a

compelling logic, he says, not only because the protagonists have common

clients - notably Ford - but also because of the doors that its new

parent can open.

Without the backing of a substantial player such as WPP, Y&R would have

risked losing its impact in a fast-consolidating communications world,

Vick says. ’We were slipping and I was concerned. We’d had account

losses but we weren’t winning business at the same rate. Our work wasn’t

as good as it had been.’

Y&R was clearly in need of a helping hand, which explains why it didn’t

have to be dragged kicking and screaming into WPP the way that J. Walter

Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather were a decade ago. As a result, Vick

claims, this deal will provoke none of the festering resentment that

persisted for years among senior managers at Sorrell’s other two


He suggests, too, that while everybody was charmed by Maurice Levy, the

Publicis president, who emerged fleetingly as a white knight when

negotiations with Sorrell stalled, senior managers had reservations

about a possible culture clash and an alignment with the less powerful

French brand.

Now, it’s the turn of this son of a well-to-do Philadelphia

paediatrician - his great great grandfather invented Vick’s vapour rub -

to apply some balm to a network that has found it hard to keep its eye

on the ball these past few months. ’We have to pull people back from the

distractions and stay focused on the clients and the creative work.’

That, he believes, is at its best only in pockets, notably in North

America, Europe and, particularly in the UK, where he describes the

drawing of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe into the Y&R fold as ’nothing

short of phenomenal’.

Vick’s patient negotiation and pragmatism appear to have got over the

stumbling block of Rainey Kelly’s reluctance to resign Vauxhall because

of a clash with Y&R’s Ford account, as well as the sensitive issue of

putting the acquired shop’s name first in the merged agency. ’There was

a big flap about it but what’s the big deal?’ he asks. ’We had to make

them believe we wanted them to take over.’

In the longer term, Vick’s aim is to enhance the Y&R group’s integrated

communications offering - pioneered by the former-Y&R chief Ed Ney 20

years ago as the Whole Egg - when there is no longer a group structure

under which they can be gathered. ’We still don’t do it perfectly but at

least we’ve already made the mistakes most companies are just beginning

to make as they try for integration.’

However, MT Rainey, now joint chief executive in London, believes Vick’s

task is more fundamental. ’He must polish the core skills of the

network,’ she says. ’That’s to say, great brand ideas and high-quality


Undoubtedly, his appointment indicates a return of tested tactics to

Y&R, which has opted for what one former senior manager calls

commonsense and the revival of a formula that previously served it well,

namely putting Vick back in control of the New York office.

Traditionally, this has been the network’s engine room and responsible

for a third of the company’s entire profits. When Vick first took charge

of it in 1994, it was in terrible trouble.

Staffing levels had dropped from 1,100 to 700 in just three years as

business walked. The previous year, Warner Lambert, Johnson & Johnson

and AT&T, all long-term clients, had left. The agency was sinking fast

and in danger of dragging the rest of the company down with it.

Surrounding himself with a new and tightly knit management team, Vick

edged the ailing Leviathan back from the brink. Four years on, New York

maintains steady organic growth but has sustained some worrying losses -

including the US Army, the US Post Office and Blockbuster video accounts

- while Citibank and United Airlines are said to need some serious care

and attention. ’There are some international accounts that are by no

means tucked up,’ a former Y&R manager admits.

Vick’s task is rendered all the harder by the fact that he may not be

able to rely on Ted Bell to help pull him through. Theirs was an

alliance forged at a time when - as Vick puts it - ’we were in the shit

together’, the top suit and the creative director thrown together to

pull New York out of its nosedive. Bell, close to burn-out, went on

sabbatical last month and may not return to reclaim his role as

worldwide creative director.

If Bell decides he’s had enough, Vick must decide whether or not he can

risk transferring Jim Ferguson to a larger stage. ’I wish we had ten

more like him,’ Vick says of his New York creative chief, a

working-class boy from West Texas unafraid to speak his mind whatever

the company. ’I’ve been looking at this ad for ten minutes,’ he recently

told one of his teams. ’Now would somebody mind explaining to me what

the f***ing idea is!’

Vick understands Ferguson’s crude passion. He discovered it himself

when, at journalism school in Chicago during the 60s, he took a few

courses in advertising and became hopelessly hooked. ’I thought that

creating an idea and putting it on a page so that people not only found

it fun to read but were persuaded to do something was the most fabulous

thing. I still do.’


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