If you're seeking clues as to how Esther Lee, Euro RSCG's new North American chief executive, and president of global brands, intends to transform the agency network into "the world's biggest creative hotshop" - the remit from her worldwide boss, David Jones - it's helpful to take a look at her achievements in her former gig at Coca-Cola.
Since joining in 2002 as the chief creative officer, she's streamlined creative operations, cherry-picked the best creative shops in favour of global alliances, and overseen umpteen integrated global campaigns across several continents, platforms and hundreds of agencies. She also set up the influential in-house account planning unit, the Global Creative Excellence team. One result has been inspired - the "Coke side of life" global campaign, credited with reinvigorating the iconic brand's sagging image.
By any agency's reckonings, the US-born Lee (the daughter of Korean immigrants, her father was an organic chemist and her mother a musician) is a good catch. After graduating from Cornell University in 1981 with a degree in economics, she joined JP Morgan. "I found the subject matter boring," she says. "It was so conservative. At work, I couldn't bear wearing flesh-coloured pantyhose. Another woman at the bank actually complained about me wearing black stockings."
She moved to Benton & Bowles in 1984, working on Procter & Gamble. She liked marketing and advertising, realising how creative strategy could drive business.
Lee switched to J. Walter Thompson four years later. "It was the heyday of JWT. It had Miller and Burger King. I believed if you were an account person, the place to be was packaged goods. I worked on everything ingestible," Lee laughs.
In 1993, she followed her JWT colleague Steve Dworin to Deutsch, and became the head of client services. "Planning was coming into being; I had a passion for it," she explains. She joined the Deutsch creative director Greg DiNoto and, four years later, they opened their own agency, DiNoto Lee.
"She is unrivalled from a strategic and business viewpoint," DiNoto, whose eponymous agency handles the Coke brands Chaqwa and Far Coast, says. "Her ability is to see the bones of a problem and conceptually address it." At the height of a five-year run, they accumulated $114 million in billings. Then came the dotcom bust and 9/11. "It was a tough time," she says. "Looking back, maybe it was feeling you were so close to your life being snuffed out that made me want to work on a bigger stage."
Steve Heyer, then the president of Coca-Cola, and a previous client of theirs, dangled the job as the chief creative officer at the Atlanta-based drinks company. She was intrigued. "I thought, 'Oh my God, can I do that job?'" She could. At Coke, Lee became a national star, and acquired a reputation for toughness, prompting a front page story in Advertising Age, headlined: "This woman scares big agencies."
Lee departed because "it was all in place. Wieden & Kennedy helped us redefine Coke in a way that re-engaged the consumer. The 'Coke side of life' was an amazing creative ideas platform. W&K built frameworks that we used globally to create everything from point-of-sale to out-of-home. It was time to climb the next hill."
Enter Jones, Euro RSCG's ebullient 40-year-old chief executive, who offered her the North American role, which she initially declined. A year-and-a-half later, she accepted, plus the role of president of global brands. "David is so persistent," she says. "He has a long-range vision and never gets discouraged. Leaving Coke was tough. But I had to do it. I had to cut the cord."
At Euro RSCG, which handles accounts such as ExxonMobil, Alcatel-Lucent, Jaguar and Charles Schwab, her job is to propel growth. To explain her appeal, Jones trots out his philosophy of global domination. "The 50s was the era of the global command control agency," he says. "Then, in the past few years, clients in desperate pursuit of growth, but who don't care about size and just want a brilliant idea, have gone to smaller shops."
Jones thinks both these models are flawed. He argues the big global agencies offer a great network, but not a great idea. While the smaller hotshops serve up a great idea, but not the ability to think and act globally. He forecasts the rise of a third tier: agencies such as Euro.
"We're having an amazing run, and our obsession is about being a big, global, hot creative agency," he says, with Messianic fervour. "We view ourselves at the bottom, with the momentum to get to the top." He also believes the agency's creative achievements have been underestimated.
His argument isn't without merit. The Havas-owned Euro RSCG Worldwide was Campaign's Agency Network of 2006 and Advertising Age's Global Agency of the Year. The agency scores reasonably high in The Gunn Report, and it has been spending freely to attract top creative talent. It's also been on a new-business roll, and last year, pocketed an estimated $600-plus million of Reckitt Benckiser business. The only blemish on this scenario was the recent loss of Volvo, the agency's signature account.
Lee assesses her job in three ways: "Euro New York, an agency with enough scale, entrepreneurial spirit, clients and creative ideas to allow us to be a beacon; Euro North America, where the momentum is terrific, and we have exciting things in the hopper; and globally, with opportunities to create more business and drive client solutions."
Will she succeed? According to DiNoto: "Esther is the best C-level executive in this business. It's a coup Euro getting her. She brings a vision for the next kind of global agency. She's has a reputation for getting results, which is a magnet for great accounts."