If he hadn’t almost caused a nuclear disaster, John O’Keeffe might not be in advertising.
In the early ’80s, O’Keeffe, WPP Group’s newly named London-based worldwide cd, was working at an electronics company when he sent an order of malfunctioning switches to a South African nuclear plant. Luckily, the mistake was discovered before any damage was done.
“I didn’t obliterate South Africa in a mushroom cloud, but I did come close,” says O’Keeffe, looking back at the mishap with trademark humor. Fortunately for him, while he was being fired his boss pulled an ad out of his pocket for a copywriting program he clipped from the newspaper and passed it to O’Keeffe, suggesting he might try another career path.
“It never dawned on me that there was an advertising industry,” says O’Keeffe, who grew up in the countryside of England’s Essex county. “I thought Ford did their own advertising. Copywriter sounded like a legal term. I was utterly bamboozled by it.”
The son of an Irish traveling salesman who immigrated to England, O’Keeffe was intrigued by the prospect of a career in marketing. “I thought, ‘I can do that. I’m good with words,’ which was based on the fact that I could do the crossword,” he explains.
After studying copywriting at Hounslow College, he landed a job at Saatchi & Saatchi, London, in 1984. It was there that he met art director Russell Ramsay — now CCO at JWT London — with whom he’d forge a longtime partnership.
The duo created award-winning ads for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and British Airways, and in 1990 Bartle Bogle Hegarty co-founder and legendary art director John Hegarty lured the team over with the prospect of working on Levi’s. The copywriter went on to create award-winning work for the jeans brand, as well as for clients such as Audi, K Shoes and One2One. The pair moved up the ranks of the agency together, eventually serving as Hegarty’s deputies until Ramsay left for JWT last year and O’Keeffe left for WPP.
The 45-year-old father of two says he thought he’d be a BBH lifer. He’d been courted with other job offers over the years, but “there was never a reason to leave,” he says. “People would say to me, by way of trying to steal me, ‘You’re butting your head against the ceiling.’ And I would say, ‘Yeah, but it’s the Sistine Chapel.'” Yet the reality, he admits, was that his future at BBH was limited; Hegarty was worldwide creative director and “there was nowhere left for me to go.”
Then Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP Group, came calling. “It was a watershed moment,” O’Keeffe says. “You think, ‘If I turn this down, then I am a lifer.’ That’s when you confront it. I thought it would be mad to turn down the biggest job in my sphere. I’d look back and regret it.”
Although he says it’s difficult leaving an agency where he’s spent 18 years of his life, O’Keeffe, who met his wife Jane there during the successful 1999 “Keep walking” pitch for Johnnie Walker, says he’s “chomping at the bit” to start his new job. (He’ll be working out of the King Street office in London.) “Suddenly it raises my game-emotionally and intellectually,” says O’Keeffe of the job, which will involve him in the broad range of businesses at the $12.3 billion holding company.
His creative management style — learned, he says, from Hegarty — will stay the same: allowing people to do what they do best as opposed to preaching about the right or wrong way of doing things. A creative leader’s job, says O’Keeffe, is about helping people fulfill their potential, and he encourages creatives, especially younger ones, to not take things too seriously. A catchphrase of his has become, “Be upbeat, not beat up.”
“A big part of a senior-management role is to try as much as possible to take the strain out of it,” he says. “If I try to [adhere] to that in my working life, it won’t do me or WPP any harm.”
Education: Studied copywriting at Hounslow College.
Career: Joined Saatchi & Saatchi, London, in 1984. Went to BBH in 1990 and, with art director, partner Russell Ramsay, created award-winning work on accounts such as Levi’s and Audi. Named cd in 1998 and executive creative director in 2000. Begins his new job as worldwide creative director for WPP in September.
The Work: O’Keeffe’s greatest hits include Levi’s “Pool Hall,” featuring The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” (1991) and a young man who literally beats the pants off his opponent; and a campaign for mobile company One2One (1998) that asked, “Who would you most like to have a one to one with?” and included a memorable commercial featuring soccer player Ian Wright talking about his hero, Martin Luther King Jr.
Family: O’Keeffe met his wife Jane, then an account director at BBH, in the late ’90s. They have two kids, James, 2, and Charlotte, 5.