In the end, Nick Brien landed a job for which he interviewed even before joining McCann Worldgroup’s Universal McCann as president, CEO, in August 2005. When he came on board back then, it was understood that taking on the overhaul of the Interpublic unit’s troubled media operations would put him in the running to succeed John Dooner as CEO of Worldgroup and its McCann Erickson global network.
Over his first three years in the job, Brien transformed UM and attracted highly regarded talent, such as new CEO Matt Seiler. Seiler completed that turnaround, earning UM recognition as Adweek’s 2009 U.S. Media Agency of the Year.
Brien’s success led to the creation of his current role as CEO of Mediabrands, Interpublic’s media holding company, in July 2008. It also fast-tracked the 48-year-old U.K. native, who joined the Interpublic operations from Publicis Groupe’s Arc Worldwide, to the top of a global network known for its clubby insider management dominated at the top by Americans. (See also: “4 to Manage Mediabrands.”)
The announcement of Brien’s anointment, which takes effect April 1, capped a consideration process that began in 2007. Sources said that some of the contenders believed as recently as December that Dooner, who turns 62 in August, was planning to spend another five years at McCann and the succession derby was still an open horse race.
In response, Dooner said he could do little to dissuade such internal speculation given McCann parent IPG’s status as a publicly held company and his reluctance to destabilize top managers widely regarded to be under consideration. They included: Eric Keshin, McCann’s COO with nearly 30 years at the agency; Brett Gosper, CEO, McCann’s European, Middle East and African operations; and Mark Dowley, McCann director, creative content and entertainment.
Other contenders over time within Worldgroup included Chris Weil, CEO of Momentum; and Reuben Hendell, CEO of MRM Worldwide; as well as an exec within the larger universe of IPG, Harris Diamond, CEO of the Constituency Management Group, sources said. (Diamond, who is also CEO of Weber Shandwick, denied he was ever under consideration.) An IPG rep declined to comment on contenders.
The extent to which McCann considered cutting ties with the agency’s past was evident in a big name on IPG’s succession wish list: BBDO Worldwide CEO Andrew Robertson, who has never worked at the agency. Widely regarded as a successor to John Wren, CEO at the agency’s parent, Omnicom, Robertson was unavailable for comment late last week. It’s not clear how much contact, if any, IPG had with him.
Dooner, who joined McCann in 1984 as a worldwide account director, had hoped for a successor with a longer tenure at the agency than Brien had, sources said.
“While ultimately both John and IPG agreed Nick was the guy, there was a difference in opinion about timing,” said a source. “John [wanted] another year so an insider would emerge and there would be more choice. It’s not that he didn’t want Brien as much as he wanted someone who was more of an insider. These old-line, strong-culture agencies have a hard time accepting people who didn’t grow up in their world.”
Worldgroup’s outgoing CEO is very much in the mold of the network’s previous chiefs. Despite McCann’s historically global reach, its top managers have been U.S.-centric and groomed from within the agency’s traditional New York account management ranks. Brien, a more cerebral exec with less than five years at IPG or Worldgroup, has experience in agency, media and marketing services, and has none of the long-standing loyalties within the firm that could stand in the way of changes needing to be made.
Not surprisingly, Brien’s appointment is stirring considerable nervousness within Worldgroup as insiders realize he’ll need to remove those who pose obstacles to creating more genuine collaboration with Worldgroup, a place known for its independent fiefdoms and management pushback. “The big issue at Worldgroup is structural and how do you make these disciplines work better together. But from that structural change may come people change,” said a source, “How will people accept that way of working together and apply it to new models?”
Another observer noted: “There are a number of people in key positions at McCann who are strong. But there’s also a hard-core, old-time group … who absolutely adhere to doing things the way they were done in the ’90s. The whole Worldgroup model of having separate disciplines under one roof is stuck [there]. Even the way they respond to problems is to often bring back people who have retired. It’s like a comfort zone where they are bonded together and resist change. John Dooner has protected them, even if he doesn’t necessarily think like that.”
Brien declined interview requests, saying he didn’t want to talk publicly until he has the chance to meet with key McCann execs. But Dooner, who becomes chairman, said the transition would start immediately.
Dooner said Brien’s background, along with running UM’s global operations, prepares Brien for the job. “He has a total sense of what contribution these disciplines can bring to Worldgroup,” said Dooner, “and coming out of media with that understanding of digital, he’ll bring new energy to Worldgroup. He’s a true globalist.” –with Steve McClellan and Andrew McMains