A Turnaround At MPG: All In A Month’s Work?

Charlie Rutman, who joins Havas’ Media Planning Group as North American CEO on April 1, says he likes to cram about 25 hours’ worth of hectic activity into each and every day. And that’s what he’ll have to do if he comes close to fulfilling his short-term action plan for the hard-pressed media shop.

In his first 30 days in the job, Rutman says he plans to visit all MPG offices, shake every employee’s hand, “and say hello on a first-name basis and ask for their support and promise them mine.” That’s 14 offices in the U.S. and Canada, and 349 first names.

Also on tap for those first 30 days: visits to all major clients, including McDonald’s, Fidelity Investments, GlaxoSmithKline, Reckitt Benckiser and Outback Steakhouse. In addition to meeting and greeting, Rutman wants answers to questions like what the clients think MPG is doing well and where it can improve.

He also plans to visit with key executives at Havas’ creative agencies, including Arnold and Euro RSCG.

One other thing: He plans to review the work MPG is currently doing for its clients.

Last but certainly not least, Rutman, who replaces Jim Rose, who left in November, wants to win “two important pieces of business.” All in the first 30 days.

Rutman is the first to admit that accomplishing all that in the first month on the job is a stretch. OK, not likely to happen. But he insists that “the plan as I have laid it out to you is really the plan. The only thing that is exaggerated is the first 30 days. But maybe not. I’m an energetic guy, and whether it’s 30 days or 60 days, that is what I want to do.”

An energetic leader is the kind of shot in the arm MPG needs to regain momentum after a tough start to 2005 that brought news of the departure of its two biggest clients, Volkswagen and Intel.

In late January, Volkswagen decided to shift its $500 million North American media account to MediaCom, which plans and buys media for the German car company worldwide. Earlier that month, after a 14-year relationship, MPG gave up its defense of Intel in its $300 million review. Unless it can make up the bulk of those losses with new business this year, the agency will dip below the $3 billion billings mark for the first time in at least four years. From 2002 through 2004, TNS Media Intelligence estimates put MPG billings at a little more than $3.2 billion.

As expected, MPG last week cut its staff by 60 people, 15 percent of the North American workforce, in the wake of the client losses, sparing Rutman of that unpleasant chore when he arrives next month.

The good news is that despite those big losses, MPG is still being invited to pitch for new business. According to Rutman, that’s half the battle. Among the reviews in which MPG is currently contending are those for the $100 million Schwab account and the $20 Sun Microsystems account. Sources said a decision on Schwab could be weeks away; the timetable on Sun is less clear.

And while the agency certainly hasn’t hit any home runs lately, it has hit some singles and doubles. Last month it won a $90 million media assignment from AutoZone, and late last year it was awarded a Goodyear account ($50 million) and business from Vonage ($75 million). It also just won the account of a Northeast regional insurance company called Amica.

Right now, though, MPG has perception working against it on two fronts—the loss of big-money clients coupled with turmoil at parent Havas. French financier Vincent Bolloré has been the cause of much of the turmoil, buying up 22 percent of Havas in recent months, demanding board seats and generally being a thorn in the side of management. Bolloré has strongly denied any intention to take-over the company—which has led many industry executives to conclude that that is precisely his intention.

Carat North America CEO David Verklin, Rutman’s soon-to-be ex-boss, predicted publicly at the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ Media Conference two weeks ago what many industry execs have said privately: that Havas probably would not exist “in its current configuration in the next 12 months.”

But Rutman, who as president of Carat USA helped put Aegis on the map in the U.S. as a $5 billion media-agency powerhouse, says he isn’t fazed by the corporate issues of the company he is about to join. Whether the company is sold or not, “we’ll make a go of it. If everything was rosy, I probably wouldn’t have have gotten the phone call” to run MPG, he says. “I like to think that it’s a little more in the neutral zone than the negative zone, but whatever zone it’s in is the zone I’m inheriting.”

Rutman, a 29-year agency veteran, also believes that just a couple of key wins will turn the momentum. “Look at Carat,” he says. “All the press could write about was how we were a bridesmaid and never a bride. And then we won P&G and that went away.”

Rutman says he has never been one to let other people’s perceptions guide his decisions. “When I was running the Coke business at DMB&B and left for Carat, people said I was crazy,” he recalls. “The fact is, I love a challenge, and this is the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Fernando Rodes, CEO of MPG Worldwide, explained his decision to hire Rutman this way: “This is a new phase for the company. It’s a growth phase, and that’s what Charlie has to do. Everything is in place. Now the company needs momentum. What it hasn’t had is the leadership and ambition to grow as the top players do.” Rutman, Rodes says, is just the man for the job.