Is Nick Brien Saving McCann or Screwing It Up?

As big accounts walk out the door, its top exec says he just has a PR problem

Raised in London by an Australian orthodontist father and German museum docent mother, 50-year-old Brien exudes a worldly air as he casually greets a visitor in a suit, sans tie. A naturalized American, he confesses that his U.S. passport is his most treasured travel possession in an ad career that began in the British capital as a media planner with Grey. Next, he moved to Leo Burnett London as media director, where he rose to become that agency’s CEO before hopping the Atlantic to Starcom MediaVest Group, Chicago, to lead corporate development. He went on to become CEO at Burnett’s marketing services arm, Arc Worldwide in Chicago. In 2005, he moved to New York as CEO of UM, which he overhauled before joining Mediabrands in 2008, reinventing the media management unit along with overseeing the resurgence of Initiative.

A big personality and intensely driven, Brien is a man who by his own admission hates standing still. But his strengths can also come across as his weaknesses—a confidence that can be perceived as arrogance, an impatience that appears impulsive. He sees himself as a leader taking a view from 30,000 feet, while appointing people to dive into more gritty details of business. (A small but telling detail: Brien, who received a $1.25 million bonus in 2011, was the only one of Interpublic’s five top execs who required a personal driver, according to last year’s proxy, something even holding company CEO Michael Roth didn’t need.)

Brien believes resilience is his best characteristic, a quality much in need at McCann these days. In addition to the global accounts lost on his watch, the agency’s U.S. client departures include Verizon Wireless (which was heading out the door before he arrived), Avis, Unilever’s Bertolli and P.F. Chang’s brands, Nestlé’s Nesquik and Coffee-Mate. Clients like Kohl’s and Staples are putting out feelers to other agencies for work, while McCann resigned Applebee’s in review. In non-incumbent pitches, the firm failed to win business such as Hennessy, Norwegian Cruise Line, Burger King and Stolichnaya. Meanwhile, the agency’s San Francisco creative crown jewel, Twofifteen McCann, is holding on to Hewlett-Packard PSG Americas for now, despite losing global project work for HP. Also gone on the West Coast: iShares, the exchange-traded funds marketed by BlackRock, which has been one of Interpublic’s largest investors.


Account losses are tough at any shop. But McCann’s history and world growth have been deeply intertwined with big-name multinational marketers like Unilever, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Nestlé and L’Oréal, not to mention recently fled ExxonMobil. The dollar amount of business lost during Brien’s tenure is difficult to calculate. But Nescafé’s loss provides a glimpse: The brand generated an estimated $25 million annually for McCann. While Nesquik and Coffee-Mate represented an estimated $4 million to $5 million in U.S. revenue, the symbolic loss of such prominent brands was more damaging to McCann. A holding company statement insisting thatNescafé’s exit would not impact financial results only underscored Nestlé’s significance.

But Brien is sanguine about change at McCann, calling the agency’s transformation a marathon, not a sprint. “I inherited a culture that was comfortable, that was very steeped in working a certain way,” he says, of combining the old and new hires and attitude. “Now it’s one McCann, and [it] is jelling very well.”

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