VMLY&R boss Jon Cook: It's hard being an agency and even harder to merge one

Global CEO spoke to Campaign on opening of new centre of excellence.

Cook: 'difficult personnel decisions did not always work out well'
Cook: 'difficult personnel decisions did not always work out well'

VML's merger with Y&R a year ago was "hard", according to VMLY&R global chief executive Jon Cook – and while it "has not been disaster", he noted that "there is still work to be done".

Cook was reflecting on the year since VML and Y&R joined together. Talking to Campaign Asia-Pacific, he admitted: "There is still work to be done internally and difficult personnel decisions did not always work out well, but the agency has not been plagued by cascading headlines around mass confusion, dissatisfied clients or lost business."

Looking back, Cook said it is "hard enough to be an agency these days… it's even harder to merge an agency", adding: "If we hadn’t been really clear, specific and confident about leadership, it would only have been harder."

In terms of selecting the right leadership, which saw an emphasis on VML staff and resulted in senior exits from Y&R, Cook was relatively open.

He referred to a leadership team created "around people that really had the energy for going forward and had trust and connections with one another".

Clearly, though, problems were encountered. This includes the ignominious departure of Jon Sharpe, the VML Europe chief who was put in charge before being suspended and then resigning 10 weeks later.

"London was a market where we realised that sometimes the leader doesn’t come from Y&R or VML," Cook said. Justin Pahl, group chairman at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, joned VMLY&R London as chief executive earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Cook was insistent that the merger's focus on leadership, clients and business development – over a secondary focus on internal systems such as HR and merger processes – was the right call.

"But I can tell you, if you have to choose, I’d rather be doing that second," Cook explained. "I think a lot of people do it the opposite [way]."

During reporting of WPP's 2018 preliminary results in March, chief executive Mark Read singled out VMLY&R for its "strong start" in earning $25m in the first 90 days. Cook said that figure has since doubled to $50m.

He expressed obvious pride over VMLY&R's award wins at the Cannes Lions last month, in particular the Social & Influencer Grand Prix for Wendy's "Keeping Fortnite fresh", an in-video game campaign against the use of frozen beef in burgers, and a Titanium Lion for "The last ever issue", which saw the acquisition and closure of a Polish porn magazine to promote women's empowerment.

Cook said it was critical for an agency known for its technological and customer-focused prowess to show the world how creative VMLY&R could be.

Read the full interview with Campaign Asia-Pacific