Trouble at the Top for CFP

NEW YORK Last week’s upset in top management at Cliff Freeman and Partners is the latest blow to a place where its founder’s overarching influence — once the agency’s greatest asset — threatens its future viability.

Agency CEO Clayton Ruebensaal III quit suddenly on April 21, after just four months, said to be frustrated by a micromanaging Freeman. He joined CFP Dec. 1, after the shop’s former chief, Jeff McClelland, was forced out.

Ruebensaal, who was previously an evp at BBDO, declined to specify why he left, saying only, “I resigned. Cliff and I left on good terms and I remain a fan of his. It was a very considered decision on my part [to leave], based on a lot of things.”

The agency’s downward spiral has accelerrated in the last nine months, with the loss of its largest client, Quiznos ($83 million) in February, after being dropped by Bonefish Grill and Snapple in previous months.

The agency is now down to about 20 employees, with approximately $10-15 million in billings from Baskin-Robbins, Valley National Bank and two recent wins under Ruebensaal: Saudi Arabian Airlines and the 2010 Michelin Restaurant Guide in the U.S.

“Cliff Freeman is someone who, at a very young age, became a star in the business. He’s played out front virtually his whole career, but now … he’s got to pitch like everyone else,” said a source. “When you’re used to being a king, that’s a hard adjustment.”

In February, Freeman also split ranks with MDC Partners, which had held a 20 percent stake in the agency for the past four years.

In addition to CFP’s declining fortunes in recent times, MDC, which declined to comment for this story, was said to have lost patience with Freeman’s inability to groom management to succeed him (he’s believed to be in his 60s).
 
Freeman — who still comes to CFB’s offices every day and often on weekends — declined interview requests, but put out a release last week saying the search for Ruebensaal’s replacement is under way.
 
CFP isn’t the first entrepreneurial agency to struggle to institutionalize beyond a controlling founder. But for a struggling independent in the worst industry conditions in modern advertising, the challenge is even greater.