Room at the Top at 3 Big New York Shops

BBDO, FCB and Publicis all on the hunt for talent. But is it there?

Want a big job on Madison Avenue? There are some available at the top of the New York-based global agencies. Four are looking to fill senior slots, three of them positions running New York offices. But the agencies are finding that filling such posts is not as easy as it once was.

The problem may be that the talent pool simply is not deep enough, according to some agency leaders and industry recruiters.

Omnicom Group’s BBDO is the most recent shop to need a leader. It is looking to replace Bill Katz, who left his post as CEO of the New York office last month. BBDO is now in the same boat as Interpublic Group’s Foote Cone & Belding and Publicis Groupe’s Publicis, both of which have been conducting long searches to find someone to run their New York offices. Publicis has been looking for a year, FCB for nine months.

The quest for top talent comes against the backdrop of the worst recession in the ad business in 60 years. In fact, so many ad jobs have evaporated in the last few years that executive recruiters specializing in the ad business at Heidrick & Struggles have been forced to concentrate more on other industries, said a representative at the firm.

“The biggest challenge the agency business is facing is an incredible dearth of business talent,” said Donny Deutsch, chairman and CEO of Deutsch. “It’s just not there. When you look at management talent under 50, ain’t too many people home.”

Deutsch, 46, said he thinks it will take 10-15 years for the industry to regenerate, because “in the last 20 years, bright people from top business schools went into investment banking and consulting. Advertising was low man on the totem pole in terms of compensation.”

Andrew Robertson, 43, CEO of BBDO North America, said there’s nothing unique about the ad industry’s talent pool. “I don’t know if it’s true [that there’s a lack of talent],” he said. “But if it is, it’s not exclusively the preserve of our business.”

Whether or not they subscribe to the shallow-talent-pool theory, agency leaders and recruiters agree that the industry could market itself better to prospects. Some believe that top talent is harder to attract these days because the business is less glamorous, while compensation remains lower than other industries such as consulting.

Gay Haines, CEO of search firm Kendall Tarrant, who agreed that other industries have done a better job at hiring top graduates because they can offer better compensation, said the ad industry should take more chances on executives from outside the industry who have marketing backgrounds—say, from the client side.

She also said shops should be more courageous in their searches. “In the U.S., your first port of call is someone in human resources, a gatekeeper who is more knowledgeable about compensations and benefits,” she said. Agencies should use “the best salesman for an agency from the account and creative sides to lure qualified, talented executives.”

Publicis is interviewing candidates for New York CEO, a slot vacant since February 2003, when Barry Krause left to join WPP Group’s J. Walter Thompson, Chicago. Susan Gianinno, Publicis North America CEO, whom the agency said is conducting the search, could not be reached for comment. The new hire would partner with New York-based global creative director David Droga, who is also heavily involved in recruiting for the job. Droga, sources said, wants someone more attuned to his sensibilities than Gianinno, who has been overseeing New York since Krause left.

FCB has been trying to hire a CEO for its New York office since last May, when Jeff Tarakajian shifted to concentrate on new business and the day-to-day running of accounts such as Diet Coke, MetLife, Hewlett-Packard and Trane. The agency came close to hiring Grey North America CEO Steve Blamer in August, but that deal fell apart after news of the negotiations leaked. FCB execs did not return calls for comment, but it is believed the shop is finally close to getting its new New York chief.

Blamer, 47, stayed at Grey, ascending to North America CEO in November. He is now trying to fill out his own executive ranks. Sources said Blamer has been looking for a New York president. He denied there is an open position at that level but said he continues to interview for a senior-level planner and a new-business executive.

He attributes the length of his own search not to a lack of talent in the business but to his own efforts to be careful. “The talent’s there,” he said. “You just have to find it and make sure it’s a match. I’ve met with a lot of qualified people. I’m just damn picky.”

However, Blamer said he does think agencies could do a better job of taking the time to identify talent early on and then groom people for senior positions.

Rick Myers, president of Talent Zoo in Atlanta, claimed that filling senior jobs at agencies shouldn’t take longer than six months, especially if the job specs are realistic. But no matter how a top-level search is conducted, how long it lasts or which candidates contend for the position, one thing remains the same, Myers noted: “You have to fight to get good people and fight like hell to keep them.”