It makes perfect sense for a man from military stock to draw analogies with war movies. And Nigel Marsh likens his first two months in charge at Y&R Brands Australia and New Zealand to the opening scene from the World War II epic Saving Private Ryan.
"Yes, it's been challenging - but that's what I wanted. On a personal level, I came into this with my eyes wide open. Everyone was perfectly honest about the situation and, well, bring it on," he says.
The bullets zipping past the UK-born Marsh have centred on the Sydney office of the group's flagship agency, George Patterson Y&R. A round of redundancies followed by the loss of creative duties for its leading client, Telstra, made for a tough start.
And, over the year before Marsh took charge, the once formidable agency brand and home to many iconic Australian advertisers also saw flagship clients such as Tourism New South Wales and the Melbourne-based Foster's both desert.
But the former Leo Burnett Australia chief executive seems to be through the worst of it - and he is characteristically upbeat.
"I don't think GPY&R needs to redefine what it stands for. But it would be churlish to deny it needs to do it all over again - and with an evolving client list," he says.
And while the task ahead is sizable, Marsh says he's determined not to get bogged down by GPY&R Sydney's individual issues, pointing instead to the potential of the entire Y&R Brands group when asked what encourages him most about the new job.
"If you look at the agencies' natural positioning, the lack of overlap and the complementary nature of it all - it's just fantastic," he says. "For me, I'm quite a goal-driven bloke, so I want to know what hill are we running up? And if we're to get to the top of it, is it worth it when we get there? In this case, the answer is 'absolutely'. We would rival any group in the world: genuinely."
Infusing his famed leadership qualities across the different offices under Marsh's charge presents a unique challenge for Y&R Brands' group chief executive.
As one of the highest-profile figures in Australian advertising, there is a temptation to conclude the Y&R Brands agencies will become an embodiment of Marsh's own management style - but it's a perception he's keen to quash.
"I don't want people in the agencies to feel like they work for Nigel Marsh," he says.
"My passionate belief is that a core driver for human beings is having a sense of belonging. I'd want, for example, the people who work in The Campaign Palace Melbourne to belong to The Palace Melbourne and be loyal to Tom Cooper, who runs it. It's his job to motivate them and give them their sense of identity, vision and excitement. Not mine. My job is managing Tom. I have no desire to step in and try to do it. It's undermining."
On agency culture, he adds: "It's about the leader of each individual office creating a genuine sense of shared endeavour towards a common goal. And that common goal being something slightly nobler and more motivating than 'a big margin'."
Creating the required conditions across his entire group won't happen overnight, but Marsh's values and colourful past may help him reach the objective.
And the more he discusses principles and getting the best from people, Marsh the adman starts to sound every bit Marsh the author. His book Fat, 40 & Fired, the funny and poignant story of how he rebuilt his life when his agency, D'Arcy Australia, was axed by its Publicis Groupe parent, was a bestseller Down Under. He followed it two years later with Observations of a Very Short Man.
"I think companies can be prisons of the human soul. Sometimes abattoirs of the human soul. You know, companies in this group will not be that," Marsh says.
And reflecting on the London agency scene he has long since departed, Marsh points to Michael Baulk, the former AMV Group chairman, as the most inspirational person he's worked with.
"I think it was incredible what he did at AMV," Marsh says. "It was obviously a team effort and all that. But he managed, at the same time, to be in charge when the creative work was brilliant, and the numbers were great; that's alchemy. When you're the most creative, and the most profitable, the people are the happiest."
Turning to his own literary career, Marsh maintains there are transferable lessons to take from the writing world into advertising.
"It was an absolute privilege and gift to see the creative process from the other side," he says.
"Being 'the creative' in that process and seeing the two types of people - the people who get in the way, who make it more difficult, then the people who help you to do what you're trying to do. I want this to be a place - whichever of the companies you talk about - where, for the people, every single thing is done to encourage them to excel and flourish and succeed. And think back to when you were in their shoes and what did help and didn't, and what got in the way."
After leaving Leo Burnett much improved and with a Cannes Lions Titanium for "Earth hour" in the cabinet - a campaign of which he was an architect - nobody's betting against Marsh reviving Y&R Brands Down Under. Although, with nine agencies and more than 900 people under his command, there might be a bit more flak aimed his way yet.
- Kevin Johns is the managing editor of B&T magazine in Sydney.
21 YEARS IN ADVERTISING
1987-1989: Advertising manager, Health Education Authority
1989-1997: Account director, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
1997-2001: Marketing and client services director, D'Arcy Masius Benton
2001-2003: National chief executive, D'Arcy Australia
2003-2008: National chief executive and chairman, Leo Burnett Australia
2005: Fat, 40 & Fired published
2007: Observations of a Very Short Man published
2008: Regional group chief executive, Y&R Brands