Q&A With Y&R CEO David Sable

David Sable, Young & Rubicam’s fourth global CEO in eight years, is no stranger to the WPP Group shop, having worked there early in his career. That was 17 years, ago, however, and since then Sable has distinguished himself primarily as a direct marketer, given his 11 years at sister shop Wunderman. (He also has held account management roles at WPP public relations shops Burson-Martsteller and Sudler & Hennessey.) At Y&R, Sable inherits an agency from predecessor Hamish McLennan that in recent years has been bitten by client defections (7Up, MetLife) and strikeouts in big reviews (UPS). In an interview with senior editor Andrew McMains, the 57-year-old leader discussed his management challenges, why he’s not a “kumbaya guy” and why he thinks merging Y&R and Wunderman would be a mistake.

Adweek: What are your priorities going in?
Sable: There is a perceptual issue that has to catch up with reality. [Global chief creative officer] Tony [Granger] and Hamish have done a really admirable job of creating a creative renaissance here and driving a creative renaissance. The problem is that the market hasn’t caught up with it yet. . . . [Also,] new business is critical. In our business, you’re only as good as the last new business you won.

What else will you focus on?
How the network works and comes together. The greatness of Y&R back when I was last here was that when you looked at Y&R versus the competitors . . . we were nine times out of 10 the best, most powerful, largest local agency (in local markets). And if we weren’t No. 1, we were No. 2. The power of that is that when you talk to global clients, there’s nothing better than to have strong local roots in a network.

Anything else?
Training is really important, but it’s not about training in a vacuum. It’s about training people so that when you get off a plane and walk into any office anywhere, people talk the same language, they understand the same things. They’ve got their local twists, their local spins—they should. But that feeds up to the total culture, the totality of the culture. That’s what makes great global companies.

Do you expect Y&R and Wunderman to work more closely together?
I look at how can we help the Y&R guys understand that there are solutions to client problems inherent in Wunderman that they probably haven’t thought of just because they’ve never been trained by it. They haven’t seen it. Particularly around data, there are some amazing opportunities.

For example?
The whole notion of how you use data to inform insight is huge. Behind that is really transactional data, which is what Wunderman is about. Real stuff that people are doing. . . . [Also,] one big piece of the Wunderman proposition are the global platforms that we’ve built for clients and our ability to help distribution of advertising and other assets. . . . The next time we go and pitch a global piece of business, that’s front and center to the new proposition. 

There has been talk in the past about combining Wunderman and Y&R. Would you take a look at that?
Never. I’d be against that. I was against that when I was at Wunderman. I’m against that on this side. I think it would be a big mistake.

Because you’re homogenizing an offer. I think [Y&R and Wunderman] do two different things. Clients want to work in the best in class. If we combined them, we would water down the value proposition of both. So, I would never do that. [Wunderman CEO] Daniel [Morel] and I have been nuts about this for 11 years. There’s no way. We’ve been looking at the success at Wunderman versus the companies that have done that, where they’ve combined those things and created one company. It’s very clear to us—just talking to clients, looking at the business that we’ve won, looking at the business that we’ve taken away from other people—why it’s critical to have best in class on all sides of a pie.

Wouldn’t that contemporize Y&R in some ways?
No, I think Y&R needs to contemporize on its own, and they will.

What does it mean when an agency like Y&R loses longtime clients?
It’s a sign that someplace along the line somebody took their eye off the ball. It’s not like we don’t have the people here, the basics and the added value to be able to do what needs to get done. Sometimes it’s just you get caught up in delivering day in and day out for a client. I don’t have to tell what that pace is like. You know that there’s way more profit pressure on agencies today put on them by the clients than there was years ago. So, the teams are thinner. There’s less time to sit around and think. You get caught up in, “Oh my God, I’ve got to deliver, I’ve got to deliver.”

What does it take to win big pitches?
You just can’t stop. You just can’t. To win is an all-out, complete assumption of a problem. You have to live it, breathe it, be a part of it and you just don’t stop until the last second. That’s what clients want. That’s what they pay us for. That part of the business has not changed since the first mad men.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career?
Harold Burson. Harold is an amazing influence on me, but also Burson-Marsteller at that time, in its glory. It was a place where my intellectual curiosity, my ability to look at a problem and solve it from every which angle you can ever imagine was really sharpened and honed.

Who else?
At Burson, they put a huge premium on smart people, talking to smart people. So I asked Harold, “Who are the smartest people in [the] Y&R [group]? Who should I meet?” And he’s like, “You’ve got to meet Lester Wunderman because what he does is different.” So, I went to meet Lester. And since that day, Lester has been my friend and mentor as well.

Which CEOs do you admire?
Obviously, [WPP’s] Martin [Sorrell].

What do you admire about him?
He gives you all the rope you need. If you’ve got a plan and you’re ready to back it up, he’ll let you do it. Always. And I find that to be good. Then again, he’ll give you the rope, so you could hang yourself just as easily. But you’ve got the rope and what would you do better. To me, that is very empowering.

Who else?
Reuben Mark, who had been chairman of Colgate . . . Outside of driving the growth of the company, he never played for the quarter. He always played for the long-term gain. . . . Mike Bloomberg. Bloomberg is an amazing company. He built a culture that is fabulous, down to [providing staff with] food and the fish [tanks] all over the place.

What advice did Martin give you in taking this job?
Don’t fail (laughs).

Or else . . .
No, Martin has been hugely supportive since the day he bought Y&R. He just said, “Do what you do and if you need help, yell,” which I do.

What’s your management style?
It’s all about teamwork and inclusiveness. The more you communicate, the more you include people. The more open you are, the more transparent, the better the work, the better the client relationships. So, that’s No. 1. Now, having said that, I’m not a kumbaya guy. Let’s be clear. This is not teamwork like, let’s hold hands, nobody makes decisions. I am very much going to be the CEO. So, decisions have to be made. I think it’s important. I also believe that . . . if your philosophy is that you’re the CEO and you have a sign on your desk that says, “The buck stops here,” everybody passes the buck. So, my belief is that everybody who works here has to have on their desk that same sign, “The buck stops here.” It’s about accountability.

In describing you as a leader, someone told me that you’re well received by clients but have mixed reviews within Wunderman. This person said the pros are that you’re bright, committed and client-focused, and the cons are that you have a reputation for impatience and arrogance.
Arrogance is interesting because it’s the first time that I have ever heard that. Impatient? Absolutely (laughs). Impatience I have. There’s no question.

Do you have a motto?
There are a couple. One is, “Only dead fish swim with the current.” If you go with the current—as I said before—you become complacent. You take your eye off the ball. It’s just too easy. You’re floating down that raft in the water park. It’s kind of nice, it feels good, but at the end of the day it’s a slow ride to no place. The second one is, “Do it big or stay in bed.” Every day, you’ve got to wake up with a fire in your belly and want to do something big.

Wow, dead fish and a rope—those are interesting images.
(Laughs) Try to catch the dead fish with a rope. See what happens.