Michael Greenlees Tries His Hand Again With TBWA
He’s founded one of the industry’s great creative hot shops only to watch his dreams of building an empire come to nothing. He’s served as a client, an agency executive and the leader of a publicly traded holding company who once managed to acquire a company twice the size of his own. He’s been publicly taken to the woodshed by the world’s largest advertiser and even seen his struggles, curiously, splashed over the gossip pages of The New York Post.
So what does Michael Greenlees do for an encore? As the president and CEO of TBWA Worldwide, the British executive is charged with building a cohesive agency network from the loose federation of agencies called TBWA.
“My goal is to redefine what is meant by a global network,” says Greenlees. “Under the old paradigm, there was a trade-off: You were either creative, entrepreneurial and fast on your feet, or you were one of those ‘global networks.’ I’m determined to prove you can be both.”
While that goal is not unique, the fact that TBWA Worldwide was created by a series of mergers–involving TBWA International, Chiat/Day, GGT and BDDP, and the full or partial ownership of dozens of smaller shops–makes it an even more daunting challenge. To prepare, Greenlees has several key changes on his agenda [See accompanying story].
The 52-year-old Greenlees has been keeping a low public profile since being named CEO last May. But now he’s ready to put his stamp on the network, which grew to about $1 billion in revenues in 1998. It is TBWA’s experience with change that Greenlees says is the network’s strength. “We are the only agency network that understands the management of change” and is “entrepreneurial enough and focused enough to help clients through a period of fundamental change,” he says.
So the questions both inside and outside the agency are: Is Greenlees a short term agent of change or a long-term visionary leader who will unite the disparate strengths of the new TBWA? Or will it remain a house divided along international lines?
To say the past and future collide at TBWA Worldwide’s new Midtown Manhattan headquarters is no figure of speech. To reach Greenlees’ office, you first have to navigate a hallway cluttered with posters waiting to be hung on the walls. Once inside, you see a teal Apple iMac computer on his desk–a symbol of the forward thinking and global client roster the agency is seeking. Just a few feet away, though, is Jay Chiat’s marble conference table–a reminder of the glitzy, high-flying dreams that nearly sank both Chiat’s agency and Greenlees’ former GGT Group.
After spending years at the holding company level, Greenlees seems delighted to be running an agency again. “I’ve got the best job I can possibly want right now,” he says. As the holder of an honors degree in philosophy from the University of Warwick, he peppers his conversation with quotes from the likes of Sun Tsu and Albert Einstein. But it’s the proverb “May you live in interesting times” that best sums up his career.
The son of working-class merchants, Greenlees cut his marketing teeth at clients like Scott Paper and Imperial Tobacco and didn’t even enter the agency business until he was 29. From the day he co-founded Gold Greenlees Trott Advertising over a fish store in Piccadilly in 1980, few executives have experienced higher highs. Or lower lows.
Within a year, his brash London hot shop was hailed as agency of the year in the U.K. In 1986, when he gained a public listing for his GGT Group on the London Stock Exchange, he was on top of the world. In the late 1980s, Greenlees expanded his group into the U.S., buying such agencies as GSD&M in Austin, Texas, and Martin/Williams in Minneapolis. But he made at least one deal too many. The first mistake was an expensive acquisition of troubled Swiss agency network GGK. A few years later, in 1997, his audacious move to buy French network BDDP soon backfired.
While London-based Greenlees was running GGT, trouble was brewing across the Atlantic at BDDP’s U.S. arm, Wells BDDP in New York. With increasing fury, the agency’s managers, led by chairman Frank Assumma, warred with one another, taking Mary Wells’ old shop down in flames. The beginning of the end came when Greenlees was summoned to Cincinnati and carpeted by Procter & Gamble for the Wells chaos (Greenlees’ troubles with Assumma even found their way onto The Post’s “Page Six.” Shortly after, the agency was fired, one of the few times the loyal packaged-goods giant has sacked one of its longtime agencies.
Other Wells clients followed. The resulting loss in revenues quickly drove down the company’s stock price and transformed GGT from predator to prey. Greenlees abandoned his dream of building the next great British advertising company and sold GGT to Omnicom.
This soldier of fortune plays it cool, describing the Wells experience as an “interesting journey.” Says Greenlees, “Somebody asked me a question about the last few months. I said, ‘Well, the landing was incredibly inelegant. But the destination was perfect.'”
Given his mixed track record, the jury is still out on Greenlees. “It’s been quite a while since anybody has seen him run an agency per se,” says one analyst.
Greenlees comes off as witty and urbane but “underneath the polished exterior” beats the scrappy heart of a “hustler,” says Carl Johnson, the incoming president/CEO of TBWA Worldwide’s New York office and a former GGT colleague.
If Greenlees was ill equipped for the chess-game maneuvers at the holding company level, he may be better suited for the mercurial agency business. In that regard, he may have more in common with Jay Chiat than some may think.
Like Chiat, Greenlees is viewed as something of a gambler and he’s one of the rare suits who puts a premium on creativity. Like Chiat, he co-founded one of the world’s great creative hot shops only to see his empire falter after a series of ill-fated foreign ventures. Like Chiat, he ended up selling his company to Omnicom at a fire-sale price to avoid other circling sharks.
The one whose opinion matters most says he is pleased with Greenlees performance so far. “Michael, Bob Kuperman and Jean-Marie-Dru are doing an excellent job. The mergers have come together faster than I anticipated,” says John Wren, chief executive of Omnicom and the architect of the holding company’s $235 million purchase of GGT in January 1998.
If some doubt his abilities and chances for success, Greenlees says he likes nothing better than to be underestimated. “I’m not a great skier but you’ll find me on the [expert] slopes,” he says. “I like pitting myself against outrageous odds.”
Some would say his new job fits the bill. On one hand, Greenlees is fortunate to inherit one of the world’s fastest-growing, most creative networks. TBWA’s major shops–TBWA/Chiat/Day in North America, TBWA GGT Simons Palmer in London, BDDP TBWA in France, TBWA Hunt Lascaris in South Africa and others–are creative leaders in their respective markets.
On the other hand, entrepreneurs like to do things their own way and can be resentful of central authority. If McCann-Erickson was the brawling Irish pub and Ogilvy & Mather the Gentlemen’s Club of the 1980s and 1990s, TBWA has the potential to become the United Nations of agencies: a volatile collection of different nationalities that often can’t agree.
The internationalist co-founder and retiring chairman of TBWA, Bill Tragos, leaves behind a strong multicultural agency. But his departure also severs the last link to TBWA International’s founders. “TBWA used to represent real names of real people. Now it’s a logo,” says one agency veteran (worldwide chief creative officer Lee Clow will be named the next chairman of TBWA this week).
Greenlees is quick to note that he sees his role more as “the coach” of a global soccer team “filled with great players” than a taskmaster. “I don’t want to make any of our agencies less,” he notes. “In order to make TBWA Worldwide more, I will have failed if I make Chiat/Day or BDDP less than what they are.” The soccer analogy also allows him to make another point. “This is about team play. Every one of our agencies knows there’s more to be gained by team play than individual play.”
For the last few years, the best player on the TBWA team has been TBWA/Chiat/Day, the four-office North American network and the biggest cog in the TBWA machine, with billings of over $2 billion from clients like Nissan, Apple, Sony, Levi’s and Taco Bell. Many believe Greenlees’ success will depend on his ability to oversee–or not interfere with–the American agency and its flagship office in Los Angeles. “Venice has been carrying a heavy load in this network for a long time,” acknowledges Greenlees. However, he says TBWA has been achieving an “equilibrium” in recent months as the agency’s British and French shops come on strong.
In fact, ever since the Grey Fox himself, Bruce Crawford, purchased the debt-ridden Chiat/Day in 1995 and merged it with TBWA, observers have noted a reverse takeover. Technically, it was executives from the larger TBWA network in the driver’s seat, but it quickly became clear that the “pirates” of Venice, Calif., didn’t have much use for the TBWA “swan” in New York. Except maybe to use it as the main course of a beach barbecue.
Since then, former Chiat/Day executives like Clow and TBWA’s president and chief executive of the Americas Bob Kuperman have risen to global positions, while former TBWA International leaders are on the sidelines.
While the strong performance of the West Coast office has enabled TBWA to steal the thunder from its sister Omnicom shops, some of the people most responsible for that comeback view it more as a victory for a reconstituted Chiat/Day. The agency’s staffers take a perverse pride in dropping the “TBWA” from their conversation and refer to their agency as “Chiat/Day” (a habit that particularly annoyed the occasionally bombastic Tragos).
Several issues are raised by Clow’s ascension to the chairman’s post. One, because of Clow’s ability to attract both talent and clients, the move should help the agency’s goal of becoming “the most highly regarded” worldwide network. It also may indicate that parent Omnicom believes the Chiat/Day culture is the best way to define the new TBWA Worldwide. Yet, any move to make Chiat/Day the dominant culture in the network could be meet with resistance.
Overseas, TBWA/Chiat/Day’s sister shops seem to regard their American cousin with a mixture of admiration and fear. They applaud the agencies creativity, but also consider it to be aloof and rebellious, not always willing to play nice with others. The famed “arrogance” of the Chiat/Day gang doesn’t always translate well across the pond. “The U.K. people think of L.A. as the prettiest girl in the class: You’re beautiful, you’re smart. So why can’t you be nice too?” says one New York executive.
Of course, it’s the West Coast agency’s aggressiveness–going back to Jay Chiat once cutting off a client’s tie–that have made it what it is. As a culture it may have found the perfect home: Chiat/Day’s confidence is matched by many of its sister shops, which rank as the Chiat/Day’s of their respective markets. Johnson, for example, says there’s “an argument” over who exactly is the best agency when you compare the Los Angeles, London, Paris and South Africa agencies. “I’m not in awe of the West Coast nor am I intimidated by it,” he says. “I am massively impressed by it. But he adds, it has its geographic limitations. “The perception of [Chiat/Day] is they are brilliant but American,” says Johnson. “We can all raise our game if we work more closely together.”
Greenlees dismisses any notions that his agencies refuse to work together. He is working on a plan to add incentives for managers who land global accounts and his emphasis on teamwork recently paid off when BDDP TBWA in France led an international pitch team to victory in the review for BIC’S $50 million global account.
Ultimately, the success of his strategies will depend on his two most powerful lieutenants, Kuperman and Jean-Marie Dru, CEO, international.
Kuperman is the hotspur–the aggressive former creative director turned CEO. In the space of a few weeks, he overhauled his top leadership in the Los Angeles and New York offices. The addition of Tom Carroll as president, CEO of Los Angeles, Johnson as president, CEO in New York and David Page as executive creative director in New York–as well as the rehiring of Carisa Bianchi to lead San Francisco last year–has given the agency its “next generation of management,” says Kuperman. “At least in North America, it can’t continue to be the Lee and Kupe show. Maybe for Lee it will be–we’ll have to drag him out of here with a forklift,” he adds.
Kuperman supports Greenlees’ idea of a more cohesive network with one caveat: The agencies should not become “so uniform and homogenized” that they lose their own distinct personalities. “A lot of the power of our network comes from the fact that our agencies are not cookie-cutters,” he notes. “On the other hand, we need to be more than just a loose federation of agencies that decided to work together.”
In his bailiwick, Kuperman wants to enter the beer, airline and packaged-goods categories. What about a conflict with sister DDB’s Anheuser-Busch business? Says Kuperman: “I don’t want to get around it. I’d just like to get some business from [A-B].”
As for rumors about him becoming the next worldwide CEO, Kuperman says “Right now, that’s not a job I would particularly covet.” So what does he want? “I want us to be seen as the best worldwide network in terms of branding. Everybody says that, but I think we have the best shot at it of anybody around, that’s for sure.”
Kuperman’s hires are already making an impact. Carroll has quickly become a popular leader in Los Angeles. A veteran of the former Chiat/Day, he’s one of the few who is willing to debate with Clow, or anyone else for that matter.
As CEO of the global network’s biggest office, Carroll’s first task is trying to settle down the network’s biggest global client, Nissan, which has been on shaky ground (Greenlees has also spent a lot of time so far on Nissan). Carroll says he’s also ready to play ball with his colleagues on the world stage.
In New York, Johnson faces a big challenge. After leaving GGT, he co-founded a British hot shop, Simons Palmer Clemmow Johnson in 1988, so he has built an agency before. The question is, can he build one in the U.S.? This particular New York shop has a track record of misfortune. The Oxford graduate is already talking the kind of bold talk that Chiat/Day likes in its leaders, as long as it’s aimed at competitors, that is. “I want the other agencies in New York to worry about pitching against us,” he says.
With his bosses hellbent on strengthening the New York office to make it a bridge between the U.S. and Europe, and a magnet for potential global clients, Johnson will be at the eye of the storm. One way to boost morale, he says, is to put some breathing room between TBWA/Chiat/Day’s West and East Coast units. “New York has to stop having one eye on the West Coast all the time,” he says. “We have to move from a fatherly relationship to a more brotherly one.”
After a period of growth (TBWA, which did not even rank in the top 20 worldwide networks in 1990, jumped into ninth place with the GGT deal), Greenlees is focusing on the network’s biggest weakness and its biggest opportunity, its small number of global clients.
TBWA “is very strong in local markets,” says Wren. “What they are missing is network business. That’s the real opportunity for them.”
If Greenlees is able to accomplish his goals, it may be because he’s implementing a global strategy that’s been percolating for a long time. As head of GGT in 1997, Greenlees mused: “No one has ever taken a group of creative agencies and launched them as an international business. Our challenge will be to do that while keeping the creative flair and entrepreneurial spirit that have made these companies special.”
At TBWA, he’s getting a second chance.
Change Comes to ‘Lighthouse’
Michael Greenlees is planning a series of changes for the $8 billion international agency network. The goal, he says, is to transform TBWA into a “lighthouse brand” that attracts global clients. Here’s a look at his action plan:
Making New York Headquarters
Overturning the nearly 30-year-long tradition of TBWA International (which prided itself on not having an official headquarters), Greenlees has declared New York the official headquarters of TBWA Worldwide. Greenlees and other corporate executives have moved into new offices on the 22nd floor of 488 Madison Ave. near Rockefeller Center. The New York shop is housed on the 6th and 7th floors of the same building. “We haven’t cut a ribbon or anything,” says Greenlees, “but every organization has to have a central gravity. That gravity is here in New York.”
Still, some traditions die hard and some executives at TBWA/Chiat/Day in Los Angeles continue to regard their agency as the epicenter of the network. “New York can be the business headquarters, but we are the creative headquarters,” says one. A New York executive counters, “How can the West Coast be headquarters? They’re all goddamn asleep when the rest of us are awake!”
Creating A Worldwide Board
In one of his first management moves, Greenlees created a worldwide executive committee and a worldwide board of directors. The executive committee consists of Greenlees, Clow, Kuperman, Dru and Jonathan Ramsden, CFO of TBWA Worldwide. On the 15-member board sits Johnson; Mike Amour, executive vice president/worldwide business development of TBWA Worldwide; Carisa Bianchi in San Francisco; and new hire Carroll. The relative absence of creatives on the board has led to some grumbling from the L.A. office.
Reorganizing Global Account Management
Aiming to flatten the agency’s structure, Greenlees is placing oversight of key global clients in the hands of his most senior executives rather than maintaining a separate level of worldwide account directors. The new lineup of global “coaches,” as Greenlees calls them, is: Kuperman and Dru (who splits Nissan with Carroll assisting). Kuperman will also oversee Absolut Vodka and Seagram’s from New York; Clow will handle Apple Computer from Los Angeles; and Dru will oversee Beiersdorf and others from Paris. Greenlees himself will oversee Sony PlayStation from New York and London and assist Clow on Apple.
Aligning Information Systems
With two mergers under its belt in just the last few years, it’s no surprise that TBWA Worldwide is riddled with conflicting computer and technology systems. Greenlees has formed an International Technology Steering Group under worldwide IT head Kathy Mahoney to align information systems and eventually develop a worldwide Web site for the agency.
Teaming With Clow
With current chairman Bill Tragos retiring, sources say Clow, the agency’s worldwide chief creative officer and chairman of TBWA/Chiat/Day, will assume the agency’s most senior post this week. “I would be a huge supporter of it,” says Greenlees. “Naming Lee chairman would be a clear signal of the type of network we are and want to be.” Clow could not be reached for comment but one West Coast colleague says he views the position as far more than a ceremonial post. “Lee will approach it like he approaches everything–like a perfectionist.” Tragos could not be reached for comment. He recently issued an internal memo “signing off” and thanking the staff for one “helluva ride.” Clow’s expanded role is viewed as recognition of his ability to attract new clients as well as top creative talent.
Tying Incentives To Global New Business
It’s one thing to say the agency is seeking more global accounts–it’s another to reward top executives who work together to land them. While he declines to provide details, Greenlees says he is working on a compensation plan to financially reward agency staffers who leverage regional accounts into global clients as well as winning new global accounts outright. “There’s a move in the industry toward performance-based compensation,” says Greenlees, “not only on the client side, but on our side as well.” The agency has 34 clients it handles in more than five countries but very few truly global clients. –M.M.
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