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

Therein lies the rub. McCann chief executives have always prided themselves on their long-standing client relationships. But Brien has little recent general-agency management experience beyond his early years at Burnett. To some observers, the media agencies place more emphasis on size, clout and power rather than the finesse needed to cultivate marketer relationships and agency talent. (Along these lines, Brien’s close aide and confidant from his Mediabrands days, Worldgroup’s CFO Tara Comonte, quickly ruffled feathers with her abrasive style and intrusion into operating policy beyond financial boundaries, sources concur.)

The agency’s affable new North America president Hank Summy has also not run a general agency, coming from back-end digital technology shop SapientNitro. After McCann lost Avis in February, he may have shown his inexperience when he publicly described the loss as “not very sizable,” a seeming snub to the brand. (His boss probably didn’t take offense. In a similar vein after losing ExxonMobil, Brien played down the impact, saying that McCann handled Mobil, the “smallest’ part of the account, while the “big money” ads were handled by Havas agency Euro RSCG.) In March, Interpublic intervened in providing client management support. The holding company insisted that Gustavo Martinez, president of Worldgroup Europe, and Luca Lindner, who holds the same role in Latin America, each be given additional client responsibility as president, global brands.

McCann’s Swedish connections paid off last year with two assignments from Ikea to overhaul its website and catalog. And Brien points to organic growth as evidence that existing clients are signing on to his transformation. “We are not going to chase new business like wild pack animals in the Sahara desert,” he says, ticking off gains from General Mills, Sony and two global assignments from Coca-Cola. The agency added a social assignment from Nestlé Waters and held onto the estimated $15 million to $20 million U.S. Army account. It also picked up incremental Chevy business in global markets, but those gains resulted from a procurement-driven General Motors review to reduce expenses.

At UM, it took Brien some two years to show results, so some say it’s too soon to pass judgment. “Nick is making very ambitious changes at one of the oldest, hidebound agencies,” says Russel Wohlwerth with External View Consulting Group. “It takes time to change, given the enormity of the task.”

One existing client rumored to have a wandering eye for other agencies lavishes praise. “Under Nick, McCann has become more dynamic, more aggressive, more collaborative,” says MasterCard chief marketing officer Alfredo Gangotena, citing the credit card company’s new Priceless Cities pitch. Focused on Facebook and Twitter, the campaign builds off previous sweepstakes and promotions. As for MasterCard looking elsewhere, Gangotena calls such speculation “rubbish.”

Meanwhile, rumors continue to circulate about troubles with Paris-based L’Oréal, which began before Brien joined Worldgroup. Regardless, McCann’s ill-fated Beauty Village new agency venture under his watch didn’t help. The idea was to combine the French company’s namesake brand with its Maybelline business, blending two accounts previously split between McCann and Interpublic’s Gotham unit, respectively. Though a year in the making, a top L’Oréal client had not approved the strategy, which had to be scrapped two months after its debut last year in an embarrassing about-face.

While Wall Street analysts appear supportive of Brien’s efforts, the loss of any L’Oréal business could change that. As of mid-July, the stock was trading around 10.50, 17 percent off from its 52-week high. But as became apparent last year when the stock dropped 13 percent after Interpublic reported a slightly lower-than-expected increase in profits, investors can bail in a New York minute in a business where significant revenue can disappear in 90 days after an account loss.

The man most concerned with that, of course, is Interpublic chief Roth, who holds around 978,374 company shares with an indicated worth of more than $10 million. In earnings calls, he has gone out of his way to affirm his solid support of Brien and his team despite the negative “noise” about progress in McCann’s turnaround. As Roth tells Adweek: “Nick gets the new world. He brings the kind of energy, expertise and vision that will bring McCann into that new world. Transformation of the size of Worldgroup takes time, and we’re not expecting it overnight. We’ve had some bumps in the road, but the talent and direction are right.”

The talent keeps changing. The direction? Only time will tell.­