Q&A: Ogilvy’s Maheu

NEW YORK As Ogilvy North America’s first chief digital officer, Jean-Philippe Maheu is tasked with spreading digital to all corners of the agency.

The 43-year-old was a management consultant at AT Kearny before spending six years at Razorfish during the dot-com era, including two years as CEO during the post-boom downturn. Since then, he has served as a professor at Columbia University’s business school and CEO of adware company Direct Revenue.

In an interview with Adweek senior reporter Brian Morrissey, Maheu explains his new role, why Ogilvy doesn’t need in-house technology and how the dot-com implosion taught him the value of staying client focused.

Q: What is the role of the chief digital officer?
A: The focus is really to accelerate Ogilvy’s lead in digital marketing. If you look at Ogilvy on a worldwide basis, we’re probably the large marketing services firm with the strongest digital assets. We have OgilvyInteractive, Neo@Ogilvy and digital units within Ogilvy PR and OgilvyAction. The role is to take those assets and to work with the leaders of those units to continue to accelerate the growth and the leadership at Ogilvy. Also [fostering] innovation, pushing the envelope, understanding what’s happening today, leading our clients or working with our clients to educate them and to test new digital technologies or digital platforms and to help our clients win in digital marketing. It’s not like Ogilvy has no digital know-how. If anything, Ogilvy has, in my mind, a superb set of assets.

What was the need if Ogilvy was ahead of the game in digital?
I think they’re doing a great job. They’re growing like crazy. There’s also a large side to Ogilvy that is doing non-digital work, and I’m going to work with them as well so they understand how to leverage digital technology. I think that they’re ahead of the competitors in integration. Part of that “360 strategy” in bringing all the disciplines under one roof has created a need to have someone driving digital innovation and to change management across all those units. The need exists because of the desire by the management team to accelerate our leadership and our competitive advantage versus filling a hole or a gap that needed to be filled. We want to be the best. Not just among the largest. Whether it’s Avenue A/Razorfish, whether it’s Digitas, whether it’s BBDO, we want to be the best.

Will you work directly with clients on digital strategy?
I’m going to work with a select number of clients, with their account teams to ensure that we provide the best digital thinking and to ensure that we have the right execution [to meet client needs]. I had a meeting this morning with a client. I do a lot of listening because I think that’s what I need to do.

What about your role within the agency?
I’m a big believer that in the digital world, marketing services firms have to have strong technology know-how, whether all of it or some of it is inside [the agency]. Whether it’s mobile technology, whether it’s e-commerce, community, we need to have some technology know-how. We have technology know-how in-house, we have a technology team in-house already, [but] do we need to ramp up? Do we need to partner? With whom do we need to partner? [Another key] area is innovation. It’s keeping a pulse of what’s happening in the marketplace and being able to ensure that we stay in touch with those innovative approaches and translating them for our clients’ benefit. We already have an innovation group within the New York office, but we need to continue to invest.

Is M&A part of the job?
M&A is not. I’m going to be part of the team that looks at M&A, but it’s not formally my role. WPP drives M&A for the group, and Ogilvy has its own M&A unit. If it’s a company in the digital space, they will involve me if they think it’s necessary.

Do you think it’s important to have technology in the agency?
I don’t feel the need to have technology in-house. I feel the need to have technology know-how, which means we need to have people that understand technology, people that can do technology strategy for our clients. I’m not saying we need to have an army of programmers. We need to have enough technology know-how to partner with firms that can do the coding, and we can manage and work with partners effectively.

This is a different approach from the pure-play digital agencies.
It’s a different implementation approach. It doesn’t mean that the end product is different. It doesn’t mean that the end product is less good. But I’m a big believer that you need to execute on the ideas that you provide to your clients.

There’s been a lot of talk about Nike’s dissatisfaction with Wieden because it lacks digital expertise. It seems like the big idea alone isn’t enough anymore.
I think you’re right. I don’t want to comment on other agencies, but what counts more is they want the big ideas and they want the channels, and to engage the audience in these big ideas and ultimately with the product. Again, I’m a big believer that you need to be able to offer superior execution to ensure the engagement strategy that you’re defining with your client is going to create whatever value that client wants.

Do you think agencies are for the most part poorly structured to deal with this?
No, [but] I think Ogilvy is [well positioned], under the leadership of Shelly [Lazarus, CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide]. It has driven the 360 approach and then reinvested very early in digital. [Ogilvy North America co-CEO] Carla Hendra has been the leading player there, but I would say that we continue to address and update our model.

What did you take away from your time at Razorfish, seeing the highs and the lows of the first Web boom?
I’m a big believer that you need to create value for your clients, and you need to create sustained value. I’m a big believer in being very, very client focused, not only when the market’s tough, but also when the market’s very bubbly. I learned a lot of lessons in the late ’90s. Coming up with great ideas that can’t be implemented now doesn’t really help our clients. We have to be smart about innovation. We have to be smart about when is the right time to introduce ideas to clients or to lead clients to adopt new ways. The other lesson I learned is that ultimately if you have the best people, you do great. Speaking to the Ogilvy people while I was interviewing, I was very impressed by the quality of people. Ultimately, I think the quality of people matters immensely.