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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
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When Brien took over from longtime McCann account man John Dooner, Interpublic bet that a media-agency exec with a digital orientation had a better view of the industry’s future. Given license to shake things up, he dug in with a barrage of top-heavy hires with titles like chief integration architect, global director of performance analytics, global IQ director, chief experience officer, director of project leadership and executive strategy partner/creative technology. If the unusual monikers raised eyebrows, the roles seemed to signal a cultural shift toward a digital think tank rather than an agency known for its street-fighter attitude and fondness for cigar-chomping, red-meat lunches at Patroon.

Even for a man who lives by the motto “Fortune Favors the Bold,” Brien’s most audacious move was recruiting Swedish creative director Linus Karlsson, the co-founder of Mother New York, who left a 146-person Manhattan boutique for prominent roles in two McCann offices with a combined staff of more than 700. As the new chairman, chief creative officer of McCann New York and London, the mellow pick-up truck driving Swede hired fellow Scandinavian transplants like Andreas Dahlqvist as the New York creative lead with little experience in Gotham’s cutthroat advertising scene.

Hiring outsider Karlsson was a bold roll of the dice at the culturally bound agency. While Brien believes he has a communications problem, he now appears to acknowledge he also has a casting problem. Fifteen months into Karlsson’s tenure, Brien moved him aside into a vague, newly devised role of chief creative officer, global brands, along with Dahlqvist who assumed similarly unclear duties as deputy CCO of global brands. Two longtime McCann employees, Sean Bryan and Tom Murphy, replaced them in New York as co-CCOs. While the return of more traditional influence reassured many agency marketers, some of the creatives hired by the Swedes are not too pleased.

Next, Brien juggled other key positions, including hiring U.S. Grey N.Y. rainmaker Alex Lubar as CMO of McCann North America, effectively replacing Barbara Yolles, who lasted a year as the region’s chief growth officer. (She, in turn, replaced Mitch Caplan who was the agency’s North America CMO for just seven months.) It remains to be seen what happens to London-based global chief growth officer Lotta Malm Hallqvist, an ex-Mother colleague of Karlsson’s with little previous hands-on experience in the U.S.

With more staff shifts likely, Brien argues that corporate vision is more important than the people needed to deliver it. “I’m a strong believer in your vision sets your strategy and that sets your plan. People populate the plan,” he says. “With more traditional agencies, it starts with the people, but we were very clear it starts with the vision.”

The big picture, as Brien paints it, promised to empower workers through decentralizing. Yet to some inside, the changes feel like a top-heavy management structure with roles ill-defined by an executive fond of business-book speak. “Nick thinks he can change an organization of that size overnight with platitudes and bringing in people at high levels with no operating experience,” says a former McCann exec. “Things absolutely needed to change, but there is a path you take to do that. The team he’s assembled has been chasing new business without addressing the needs of existing clients.”

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