Direct From Chicago, It’s Howard Draft

CHICAGO When Howard Draft started out in the advertising business, he applied for jobs at Chicago’s two biggest agencies, Leo Burnett and J. Walter Thompson. They turned him down. Dejected, he fell back on his second choice: direct marketing. “When you come out of school, you don’t want to be hired by a direct marketing agency,” recalled Draft nearly 30 years later. “You wanted to be hired by a general agency.”

In the wake of last week’s confirmation of the merger between his “below-the-line” agency (a term that Draft hates) and the traditional Foote Cone & Belding, Draft, a man not afraid to speak his mind, is precisely where he has wanted to be all along, leading not just a conventional ad agency, but a hybrid he believes is the future of marketing.

“I’ve been waiting for this,” he said. “There’s been a lot of times I felt if we could get a general agency to be part of us that we could change the game.”

Despite the daunting task in front of him, Draft last week described himself as being “at peace.” And though he must merge two entities into one—along the way smoothing out client conflicts and meshing two cultures—as the newly installed CEO of a company with $1.1 billion in combined worldwide revenues, he has the chance to implement a vision he’s had for many years.

Draft, 52 years old, attended Ripon College in Ripon, Wis., graduating with a degree in art and philosophy. The small liberal arts college, he said, was the ideal place to learn that ideas are best exchanged in intimate, informal settings.

I’m a firm believer that if you sit around and talk, that’s how knowledge is transferred,” he said. To foster conversation, he even shuns the use of a desk, preferring to work at a table with chairs. “A good company is a learning environment,” Draft said.

Creativity also plays a large role in Draft’s approach to life, whether it’s in the kitchen (he’s known as an excellent cook) or at work, and he has spent a lot of time thinking about and building the ideal company.

“I think he’s a visionary,” said IPG CEO Michael Roth. “He’s direct, as I am, and he’s no-nonsense. … He builds teams, he collaborates.”

Draft wouldn’t divulge figures, but sources estimate that his agency generates about $350 million in annual revenue and has worldwide margins of about 15 percent. As such, it’s one of the few jewels in the Interpublic Group crown. Beyond the bottom line, Draft proudly boasts that his agency spends “a fortune” on training on all levels: “We’ll spend more next year than I did the previous year.” He talks about treating his employees with respect, and says being open and honest about mistakes, whether his or an employee’s, is important. He’s most proud of the fact that clients come into the agency and praise its collegial environment.

“He’s smart without being pretentious and I think that’s reflected in the culture of his agency,” said Marta Cyhan, vice president of worldwide promotions for Kellogg Co. “I enjoy his no-nonsense approach to business problems and the fact that he doesn’t take himself too seriously.”

“He has that combination of vision and a not-to-be-denied attitude,” said John Dooner, CEO of sibling company McCann Worldgroup, who’s known Draft for about 15 years. “He really believes in his product offering as being differentiating, and he delivers that. That’s a cornerstone of his success. He’s entrepreneurial. And you could have said all of these things about him 20 years ago.”

Apparently, he also works with what he has. Despite his initial disappointment at taking a job in direct marketing, Draft, who’s type A, found that the discipline, with its immediate results and responsibilities, suited his impatient, easily bored personality. “I loved feeling like I was an entrepreneur running my own clients’ businesses,” he said.

That spirit took hold in more ways than one. At 23—a year into his tenure in the marketing world—he and 12 of his colleagues left to form a startup called Kobs & Brady (later Kobs & Draft, then simply Draft). The move, Draft says, was made not because he and his colleagues thought they could do things differently or better. Rather, the need for direct marketers was growing and they were in the right place at the right time.

“It was a matter of the industry’s fast growth,” said the Chicago-area native, who was named chairman and CEO of the agency in 1988. “Opening a new agency was growing the distribution [of available DM options] that was out there.”

Such luck—a term he freely uses—is central to Draft’s sense of his success. “I think I’m good. But I think there are hundreds of people who are smarter than me, and better than me,” he said. “And I’ve been in the right place at the right time, and I’ve been able to take advantage of it.”

One such moment came in 1996, when Charles and Maurice Saatchi were ousted from Draft’s then-parent Cordiant Communication. As soon as he heard the news, Draft, who had grown tired of Cordiant’s myriad problems, headed straight to London to negotiate a buyback of his company, which he wound up getting for about $27 million. “I didn’t have a clue how to pay for it. But I figured it out,” he said.

Draft claimed that if he had stuck around, he would have had the chance to become worldwide CEO of Saatchi as Ed Wax’s successor. He turned down the opportunity because he didn’t feel he knew enough about the agency to run it, and because he felt a sense of loyalty to his co-workers at Draft, who, like him, had had enough of Cordiant.

“I guess I was like Abraham Lincoln,” Draft said. “I was going back and freeing the slaves so we could build our own country.” (His mother, an adwoman who worked on the account side at FCB/Leber Katz Partners in Chicago—his father was a watch company executive—thought he was crazy.)

Wax noted last week that he understood Draft’s choice, and feels that his view of the changing marketing landscape held appeal even 10 years ago. “He didn’t understand why he couldn’t have [general] market accounts and do the advertising for them,” Wax said. “He had a pretty good understanding of all the disciplines. This guy had a bigger view of life.”

And no one thought he was crazy when, less than a year later, in 1996, Draft sold the agency to Interpublic Group for a little more than $100 million, the highest price the company had ever paid up to that point for a single shop. Though Draft admitted to making money on the deal, he was quick to note that he shared the bounty with 22 of his partners at the agency.

“His loyalty is amazing,” said Laurence Boschetto, whom Draft named worldwide president and COO of Draft (and his eventual successor) earlier this year. “Once you’ve built your trust with him and you’ve proven your worth, he’s blindingly loyal.”

It’s a trait that Draft prides himself on. He often comments about how important the people around him are to his success. “My feeling is, if you’ve got good people—they don’t have to be great people—but if you’ve got good people, whose hearts and souls are in the right place, you can build a great company,” said Draft. “People will work hard and long if it’s an environment they enjoy.”

One executive who got to know Draft through the merger negotiations praised his style: “He’s ridiculously good at making people feel a part of the process … listening to his people, all of his constituents.” He added that as news broke about the merger, Draft made a point of calling some senior FCB executives to assure them of their importance.

Draft is not without his detractors. Some sources wonder if there hasn’t been a ruthlessness to his ascent. “He’s trampled on a lot of people in his career,” said one executive. “He took all the credit and stole all the thunder.” Draft admits that climbing to the top can leave some bruised egos. “I have very little patience for people who don’t have the client’s best interests first,” said Draft, who thinks of himself as more diplomatic than political. “If that’s ruthless, then I’m ruthless.”

“It’s not about personal loyalty to him. It’s about loyalty to the business,” said Draft Chicago managing director Tony Weisman, who has been with the agency for four years. “Do the right thing for the client or the business and you’ll be fine.”

He can also come across as a bit gruff and is comfortable telling tasteless jokes, though some say that demeanor is more a way to test his audience than a true measure of the man, who has made charitable work a cornerstone of the agency and is quick to grant time off for employees to spend time with their families.

“He’s always been respectful of me and the other women that he’s worked with,” said Yvonne Furth, president of Draft Chicago, who’s worked with Draft for 25 years. “He always understands if there’s personal life balance issues to deal with.”

He is also, say many, extremely sharp. “There’s more to Howard than meets the eye,” said Jerry Judge, former worldwide CEO of Lowe. “He seems kind of relaxed and sometimes disengaged. Actually, he’s unbelievably smart.”

Draft responds to such praise with self deprecation, joking that smarts could be more a negative than a positive. What is important to him, he said, is to be fair. For example, when buying the agency back from Cordiant, he included a provision that allowed the former owner to profit if he ever re-sold the shop. “Fair is a good word for me,” Draft said. “Greed is a bad word.”

And now that he’s achieved success equal to (if not a bit beyond) his imagination, the charismatic exec says the reason he gets up in the morning is, in part, because he’s comfortable with the people around him. “I’m still working in an environment with people that I love and respect,” he said. “When your name’s on the door and you’ve grown up with your management, it’s almost like family.”

—with Andrew McMains and Kathleen Sampey