Gary Von Kennel, the new and surprisingly low-profile global chief executive of Rapp Collins Worldwide, is actually nothing like his reputation.
"Brusque", "tough" and "a bit of a bastard" are all statements used to describe him by a handful of senior Omnicom executives. But in person, and at least for the duration of this interview, Von Kennel is softly spoken, good-humoured and even modest. "I'm humbled by this job and I'm not normally a humble person," he says.
His reputation for ruthlessness is most likely to have been built during his previous role as the chief executive and chairman of Rapp Collins Worldwide's North American operations.
According to one former Rapp Collins employee: "He got rid of a lot of people, so I guess he is a tough cookie." Another Omnicom insider claims he "swept up the mess" left by the previous management. Others prefer to describe him as straight-talking.
Outside of Omnicom, however, little is known about him - a Google search returns few results for a man in charge of a network with some $470 million in revenue.
Von Kennel's background is in promotional marketing. He began as a client, at companies including Gillette and the Miller Brewing Company. He moved agency-side in 1981 when he set up Promotional Services Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of Tracy-Locke, which was acquired by Omnicom a year later. He then founded Multi Dimensional Marketing with his wife, Jane, and returned to Tracy-Locke in 1999, where he stayed for three years before joining Rapp Collins.
Von Kennel plays down his most recent role at Rapp Collins Worldwide, describing it as providing direction to the agency. He explains: "It had terrific people and good clients, but it had inertia. It needed to lose weight and get a new haircut. I brought energy and a new way of looking at the business.
"One of my approaches is to make it a little more user-friendly - take away the complexity, present it more as an agency than a mysterious practice driven by analytics."
That may have worked when he was running an agency, but now he is playing on a bigger stage in a role that previously did not exist. What does he see as being his challenges?
"This is not a turnaround job," Von Kennel says. "I'm sure there are weaknesses in the network but they're not glaring and they're not apparent.
There are no problems in North America, Latin America or the UK at all.
This isn't like that. Before this position was created, it was a worldwide network of Rapp entities. My role is to make this worldwide network a global brand - how do we connect the dots?"
One major task is to win a global account because, despite having 50 offices in 30 countries around the world, the network does not have one.
According to Chris Gordon, the chief executive of Rapp Collins in Europe, the network is strong regionally, built on clients such as Sony, Siemens and Air France in Europe. However, this strength could be its Achilles heel. As one source puts it: "It couldn't get on to Microsoft, the last big global DM pitch, owing to conflict with Sony."
Possibly because of this, rivals fail to recognise it as competition.
One rival network chief says: "I see its pieces in awards ceremonies, so I guess it is doing good work. But I haven't seen it on a recent pitch."
Another US agency chief agrees: "It has been quiet over the past two years. Five or six years ago, we used to see it on a lot of pitches, especially in New York and Chicago. We never run into it on a global pitch."
Von Kennel refutes these suggestions. "That's hilarious - we're on every pitchlist and we're winning them. We're on a roll."
But despite wins such as the US Brinker restaurants account, the network has undeniably suffered from a low profile in recent times. Certainly, in the UK, WWAV Rapp Collins had only a few wins it could talk about in 2004 and 2005, partly because many of its successes were publicity-shy healthcare clients. Rapp Collins' global healthcare division accounts for around 25 per cent of its business.
Over the past couple of years, rumours have been rife that Rapp Collins and DDB could merge as part of plans that John Wren, the Omnicom chief executive, has to create mini-integrated holding companies within the group. However, Von Kennel thinks that while a closer working relationship of some kind is definitely on the cards, a full merger is unlikely.
He asserts that simply by strengthening the Rapp Collins network and providing continuity across its offices, its partnership with DDB will benefit. He also aims to use strengths from one region to help another.
He says: "We want the US to tap into the creative of WWAV in the UK. Not only will this lift the US, but the global network should lift. In reverse, Chris (Gordon) would like to have access to the digital platforms the US is working on now."
With revenues nudging $500 million, the network is not in trouble. But with no global client and a patchy digital reputation, Von Kennel has got plenty of work ahead.
Name: Gary Von Kennel
Family: Wife Jane, two sons, one grandson
Lives: Dallas, Texas
Favourite ad: American Airlines
Interests outside work: Reading, working out
Alternative career: Writer
Last book read: Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong: What Makes the
French So French, by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow