Is the Second Time the Charm?

Two weeks ago, Peter Schweitzer got the call again. It had been six years since he turned down the job of worldwide CEO of J. Walter Thompson, resulting in the appointment of Chris Jones. But as Jones’ fourth year at the helm came to a close, it became clear that health problems would keep him from continuing.

For the past year, Jones, 45, has been slowed by thrombosis, a propensity for blood to clot too easily. With a less hectic schedule and less sedentary time spent on airplanes, he hopes to keep the condition in check.

Enter Schweitzer, again. In 1993, after being tapped to succeed Burt Manning, Schweitzer ultimately kept his global account duties on Ford in Detroit, preferring not to uproot his family from the tony suburb of Grosse Pointe, Mich.

This time, with assurances from WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell that he could keep roots in Detroit, Schweitzer, the worldwide president and chairman for North America, took the worldwide CEO job. He plans to spend 30 percent of his time in the New York office he set up five years ago and the rest in Detroit—an unusual setup for a New York-based global network, leading some to believe it may be temporary (which Schweitzer denies).

Still, Schweitzer, 61, thinks it can work. “I’ve been back and forth on company business; now I’ll be back and forth on company/client business,” he said. “It’s more a time-management issue than anything else.”

Within a month, Schweitzer is expected to name his successor on Ford. But naturally, he will keep a close eye on JWT’s largest client, which accounts for 15-20 percent of its $1 billion-plus in annual revenue.

When Ford president and CEO Jacques Nasser learned of Schweit zer’s promotion, he said, in an e-mail, “Congratulations. I assume you will not lose focus on Ford at this critical time in the company,” Schweitzer recalled. “My answer of course was a resounding ‘No.’ Frankly, [my work on Ford is] what got me here.”

Schweitzer has no plans to radi cally change JWT’s management structure. “But we’ve got some significant world-class openings we’re going to fill in the next 60-90 days,” he said. Among them: the managing director’s post in London and the top creative job in New York.

(Worldwide chairman Charlotte Beers is not expected to play a role in the new administration, since her contract expires next month.)

Schweitzer aims to maintain the agency’s momentum on new business and further expand its below-the-line offerings—an endeavor Jones embraced. In addition, the new CEO feels the agency’s creativity has been under-leveraged.

“Thompson’s tendencies have been to be pretty quiet about our accomplishments, and we want to change that,” he said. “We are going to become more vocal on thumping our own chest. It’s not part of our historical character. And it has to be. In this business, where perception is reality, we’ve got to build that perception.”

As for his management style, colleagues describe a “subtle and interesting sense of humor” that has helped ease tension at many a meeting. Schweitzer himself describes his approach as hands-off and “very simple,” adding, “It’s identify people’s responsibility and therefore their accountability, delegate to them and let them do their job.” For example, he is not going to make the decision on who is named to head the London office. “That’s up to the guy who runs Europe,” he said.

In his four years as CEO, Jones attempted to refashion JWT as an integrated communications com pany—sort of an old dog that can do new tricks. At the same time, he added talent, installing Bob Jeffrey as president of the New York flagship office in 1998 and Mary Baglivo as chief marketing officer in ’99. Last year, Baglivo, former CEO of Euro RSCG Tatham in Chicago, was promoted to chief operating officer.

There were bumps in the road, particularly in 1997, when the shop was beset by internal friction and client defections. The former resulted in a gender discrimination lawsuit from former worldwide creative director Helayne Spivak—a case JWT eventually won—and the latter in a Dell lawsuit that was settled out of court.

Still, Jones brought a measure of calm and stability through a mixture of charm and smarts. And as he stayed in touch with the needs of global clients such as Unilever and UDV, those businesses continued to grow. “Chris has made a lasting contribution to JWT,” said Sorrell. “We will miss him greatly, and we wish him every good fortune.”